Getting Bigger and Smaller Dogs to Play Nicely

If you’re a dog owner, learning how to get dogs to play nicely together is a major concern – especially if you have two dogs of different sizes. The apprehension surrounding the safety and compatibility of dogs of varying sizes playing together is understandable. After all, the physical disparity can lead to unintended harm or intimidation, even in the most well-meaning of interactions. However, with the right approach, it is entirely possible to cultivate a peaceful and friendly environment where dogs of all sizes can enjoy each other’s company. 

Understanding Canine Play

The foundation of any successful dog relationship, regardless of size, lies in understanding canine behaviour. Dogs communicate through a complex language of body language, vocalisations, and play styles, which can vary significantly between breeds and individuals. For instance, a large dog’s playful bow might be intimidating to a smaller dog if not properly introduced or understood. Recognizing these cues is crucial for pet owners to facilitate positive interactions and prevent misunderstandings or conflicts.

Big dogs often have a more boisterous play style, which can include chasing, play-fighting, or wrestling. While this is generally in good fun, it’s essential to monitor these interactions closely to ensure the smaller dog is not overwhelmed or scared. Conversely, small dogs like Shoodles may exhibit quicker, more agile movements and can sometimes be more vocal, which could inadvertently provoke a larger dog’s prey drive or competitive instincts.

Socialization Techniques

Effective socialisation is key to helping big and small dogs get along. Controlled introductions in a neutral environment can help prevent territorial or protective behaviours from arising. Start with short, supervised meetings, gradually increasing the duration as the dogs become more comfortable with each other. During these sessions, creating positive associations with treats, praise, and gentle petting can reinforce calm and friendly behaviour.

It’s also beneficial to introduce the dogs while they are on leashes initially, as this allows for better control over the situation. Once a mutual comfort level is established, supervised off-leash play in a secure, enclosed area can be attempted. Always be ready to intervene if play becomes too rough or if one dog appears stressed or fearful.

Training for Harmony

Training both the big and small dog in basic obedience and manners is crucial for harmonious coexistence. Commands such as “leave it,” “sit,” “stay,” and “come” are invaluable tools for managing interactions and ensuring both dogs respect each other’s space. Training sessions should be positive and reward-based, encouraging cooperation and gentle play.

Incorporating exercises that foster mutual respect and patience, such as waiting for treats or taking turns in games, can also be beneficial. These activities not only reinforce training but also help build a bond between the dogs based on mutual trust and understanding.

Safety Measures and Supervision

Ensuring safe play between big and small dogs involves constant supervision and the ability to read the dogs’ body language accurately. Owners should be vigilant for signs of discomfort, such as pinned ears, tucked tails, or excessive panting, which could indicate stress or fear. Knowing when and how to intervene is crucial to prevent escalation to aggression.

Choosing appropriate play environments is also important. Spaces that allow for both dogs to move freely, without feeling cornered or overwhelmed, are ideal. Additionally, play equipment and toys should be suitable for all sizes, preventing any competitive behaviour over resources.

Intervening in Rough Play

Despite the best efforts to foster positive interactions between big and small dogs, play can sometimes escalate into roughness or aggression. Knowing how to safely and effectively intervene is crucial for preventing potential injuries and maintaining a positive environment for both dogs. Here are steps and considerations for intervening in situations where dog play gets too rough:

Recognize the Signs

First, it’s essential to recognize the early signs of play turning too rough or aggressive. These signs include but are not limited to:

  • Growling that sounds more serious or intense than playful vocalisations.
  • Snapping or biting that seems more aggressive than playful nipping.
  • One dog pinning the other without any break in engagement.
  • Body language that indicates stress or fear, such as a tucked tail, flattened ears, or attempts to escape the interaction.

Stay Calm and Assertive

Your energy and reaction can significantly influence the outcome of the intervention. Approach the situation calmly and assertively, without shouting or showing anxiety, as this can escalate the dogs’ arousal levels. Use a firm voice to issue commands like “Stop,” “Sit,” or “Stay,” if the dogs are trained to respond to these cues.

Physical Intervention

If verbal commands are ineffective, physical intervention may be necessary. However, this must be done with caution to avoid injury to yourself or the dogs:

  • Distraction: Sometimes, simply throwing a blanket over the dogs or using a loud noise (like clapping hands or banging on a pot) can interrupt the behaviour long enough for the dogs to disengage.
  • Separation: If safe to do so, try to separate the dogs by guiding them away from each other using their leashes. Avoid grabbing collars or getting between them to prevent redirected aggression towards you.
  • Use of Barriers: In some cases, placing a physical barrier between the dogs, such as a piece of furniture or a door, can safely break up the interaction.

After the Intervention

Once the dogs are separated, give them time to calm down in a quiet, secure space away from each other. This cooling-off period is essential for lowering their arousal levels and preventing immediate recurrence of rough play. After they have calmed down, reassess their behaviour and mood before considering another supervised interaction, possibly on another day.


With proper understanding, training, and supervision, big dogs and small dogs can indeed play nicely together. It requires patience, consistency, and a keen eye for canine communication cues, but the rewards are immeasurable. Fostering a positive relationship between dogs of different sizes not only enhances their lives but also brings immense joy and peace of mind to their owners.