Can You Handle the Truth?

Three Dangers of Off-Leash Play

Between Large and Small Dogs

By Robin Bennett

It seems like every month, I hear about an injury that occurred with a dog in an off-leash play environment. Sometimes these injuries are minor, but more frequently I am hearing about severe injuries and even fatalities that occur during off-leash play. Just recently, someone sent me an article about a Yorkshire terrier that was killed by a large dog in a dog park.

One of the main safety factors for any off-leash play environment should be the size of the dogs interacting. Dogs of vastly different sizes should be separated during play. To clarify, I would normally say at a minimum that little dogs 25 pounds and under should play with other dogs of a similar size or smaller.

Often when I propose the idea of separating dogs, owners will often disagree and support their argument by telling me one of two things: “My big dog loves to lay on the ground and play with little dogs” or “My little dog loves to roughhouse with the big dogs.”

Perhaps those statements are true, but when I dig a little deeper, what I normally learn is that the owner’s experience (and of course we all based our statements on our experiences) is simply that their dog has played with one or two dogs of a different size and both dogs had fun. Great! A dog that has played with one or two other dogs of a different size does not necessarily mean he will play well with those dogs all the time, particularly when you add a group environment, which will likely involve multiple dogs playing off leash.

I’m not saying that dogs of different sizes can’t have fun together. However, when it comes to off-leash play, you raise the bar of safety by separating large and small dogs regardless of whether or not the dog has played well with big/small dogs in the past.

Here are three dangers of having dogs of vastly different sizes play together in an off-leash environment:

1. Small dogs can get injured quickly by a group of large dogs playing.
Not every large dog is agile and athletic enough to leap over a seven-pound Yorkie while on his way to fetch a ball. Not every tiny dog is aware enough to move out of the way of two large dogs rolling on the ground wresting. Dogs of different sizes are likely to get in each other’s space more easily when they run to the gate to see a dog entering or leaving the dog park. While it’s nice to believe that every large dog will handicap his behavior to accommodate the small dog, it just doesn’t always happen. The small dog is at risk of injury, and the larger the dogs he is with, the greater the potential for injury.

2. Small dogs can look like prey.
It’s a sad reality but one we have to face as pet care professionals. Dogs that like to chase things may mistakenly chase a smaller dog just because, from a distance, the small dog looks like something that should be chased. This is particularly true in a play area where dogs get riled up and run around quite a bit. Some dogs will chase one another during routine play, others will chase a ball, and other dogs just like the fun of running. But when a small dog begins these fast-moving activities, it’s possible to trigger a large dog into a predatory chase. If this happens, it’s possible for a bite to occur if the large dog catches up with the smaller dog. The small dog is at risk of injury.

3. In the event that there is a bite or fight incident, a large dog can do significant damage to a small dog.
It’s not that dogs of the same size can’t hurt one another, but I rarely get calls that a 70-pound dog killed another 70-pound dog in a dog park. What I do get are calls that a 70-pound dog killed a 10-pound dog. This is not to say large dogs are inherently more aggressive. It simply means that they have an advantage in a fight or bite incident with a small dog. The small dog is at risk of injury.

Some tend to disagree with the separation of dogs by size based on the fact that there are “gray areas.” There are some dogs that are small but tenacious. They are too active to be with other small dogs, so they need to go with the big dogs. There are some big dogs that are calm and don’t do well with all the high energy of large dogs. To those folks I say, “I agree with you.”

There are gray areas. There are decisions that have to be made when a dog doesn’t fit into a particular group (whether due to size of the play area, size of the dog, type of play style, etc), but I would not throw the baby out with the bath water simply because there are gray areas. The fact that gray areas exist does not nullify the truth that small dogs are more easily injured playing in the big dog area.

If we can keep dogs separated at dog parks and off-leash play areas, I’m hoping we will get fewer stories about a 75-pound dog killing a 15-pound dog during off-leash play.

Robin Bennett is an author and consultant for pet care facilities on the subjects of dog daycare, training, and off-leash dog play. The tools she teaches facility staff and dog owners stem from Robin’s 18 years of involvement in the pet care industry. Her book All About Dog Daycare is the number one reference on owning a daycare, and Off-Leash Dog Play is the key reference on supervising dogs in playgroups. Together with Susan Briggs, Robin has created an interactive staff training program called Knowing Dogs: a two-part training resource designed for pet care center management to train any staff member working in a pet care facility on safe dog interactions and group play. You can learn more about Robin at

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