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I have a 1 year old 20lb. male cocker spaniel. Very good around people, kids, and calm/polite sniffing with other dogs along with friendly chasing. He's a submissive pup and immediately turns on his back when anyone pets him. He frequents the dog park will occasionally run around with the other dogs or just run from tennis ball to tennis ball on the ground.

A month ago we were at the dog park with a few other dogs he was getting along with fine. A women brought in her recently rescued lab mix (around 60lbs) and when he came near us, my dog started chasing, barking, and nipping at the other dog's neck on the side. The other dog owner seemed to be uncomfortable with the behavior so she came over and grabbed her dog. Her dog proceeded to come back over to my dog, the whole thing started again, and she grabbed her dog and left. I chalked it up to a one time thing since it's never happened before. Today, the same situation happened again with a golden retriever puppy probably two to three times my dogs size.

My only concern is that when this is happening, the barking seems to sound a little more aggressive than normal and he appears to almost be grabbing on to the other dogs neck when he's nipping/biting.

In both instances my dog has been the one to initiate this. Also, not sure if it matters, but both times the dogs were wearing harnesses and he's nipping right around the area that the harness strap is at.

I'm not sure what to make of it. I hoping both times were just playful even though they can look bad to the other owner, but in both cases the other owners jumped in so quickly that there wasn't necessarily an opportunity for the other dog to assert their dominance (since they were both much much bigger) and get my dog to submit.

Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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I would suggest you look into the research debunking dominance theory. Dogs do not generally relate to each other through relationships of "dominance"; very rarely do dogs form linear heirarchies in groups, and hierarchical structure generally has little to do with dog-dog relationships. Dogs generally are not status seeking animals, and every time they meet a new dog they are not trying to assert their dominance over the other one. Recent research has shown that wolves do not appear to be super status seeking animals, either, and in healthy (wild) wolf packs most hierarchical displays center around "submissive" displays- ie, most of the hierarchy is enforced by voluntary submission, sometimes in response to threat displays but more often offered spontaneously. Dominance theory as we know it was born out of some poorly done studies in the 1940's that observed a lot of in-fighting in captive wolf packs. The wolves were constantly fighting for control of resources, and the experimenters falsely assumed this to be similar to the way naturally comprised wild packs behave. It is now known that captive packs comprised of unrelated animals are not comparable to wild ones. Also, it is important to realize that dogs are not wolves, and they have a different social structure than wolves, including a different pack organization.
Some good links that talk more at length about this:
ClickerSolutions Training Articles -- The History and Misconceptions of Dominance Theory

If you enjoy taking your dog to dog parks, I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the basics of dog behavior/body language and also brush up on being able to tell when play is mutual, when it is too rough, and when someone needs to intervene. Some dogs do great at dog parks, but many do not, and the environment of a dog park can be a dangerous one.

I'd recommend these sources for general dog body language and dog behavior stuff:
The Pet Professional Guild - Dog Body language
(this one has some links at the bottom to other pages- not my favorite site ever but pretty beginner-friendly): Learn about dog body language

Note that most behaviors can just be generalized arousal behaviors, such as tail wagging and piloerection response (raised hackles). Many dogs will wag their tails when they're highly aroused- whether that be in friendly greeting/excitement or when they're trying to kill another dog. Some dogs will only raise their hackles as a threat display, but some might do it whenever they're aroused at all, whether in an aggressive way or a playful one. For example, I watched a 10 week old yellow lab pup the other day and had her playing with both my 10 month old Boston and my parent's 7 year old Lab mix. My parent's dog raised her hackles when the puppy started lunging and biting her, and when the pup didn't listen she gave one short snap towards her that didn't make contact but was effective in telling her to bugger off. She only raises her hackles when she's uncomfortable and trying to warn another dog away. The yellow lab pup, on the other hand, had her hackles up the entire time she and my Boston were wrestling. She wasn't afraid or aggressive or trying to threaten, and the play was very healthy and happy- not at all worrisome play behavior. She just raises her hackles when she's excited/aroused in any way.

Suggestions for looking into how to tell when play is safe:

In play, you always want to look for a back-and-forth. If the play involves chasing, are the dogs alternating who is chasing? Is the dog being pursued doing a lot of stopping and tense freezing behavior, maybe with raised paws and trying not to look at the dog doing the pursuing? That is probably not a dog that is having fun. Are they stopping for a second, doing a play bow, and then continuing to chase? That dog is likely having fun.

In terms of your questions...

My first impulse is to guess that he's probably being a little bit too rough and you should interrupt that rough play before the other dog feels the need to force him to stop. If he were doing this with dogs you knew in more controlled settings, perhaps I would feel differently, but IMO you can never be too careful with strange dogs at a dog park, and it's always better to over-manage a dog than to under-manage and end up with a fight (or god forbid a brawl with more than two dogs- multi-dog fights can start very easily in dog park type settings).

Personally I suggest that before you take a dog to a dog park you also develop a reliable enough recall that you can call him off other dogs, out of play, and away from possible fights. You do this by slowly building distraction and distance for recall, and it does take some time. That said, it can easily save a dog's life and is very useful in a dog park setting when there are going to be out of control if not outright aggressive dogs that people bring to a park and then do not manage.

What I do when I notice my over-excited pup being too rough with others and not listening to their calming signals/body language asking her to back off is I call her over, go just outside the park or to a corner, and then ask for some calm obedience exercises like down/stays, sit/stays and some heeling and wait until she's calmed down a little bit before she gets to go back in. Also, as an owner with a more physical/pushy dog, I think it's always nice to check in with the owner of the other dog and make sure they feel comfortable with the level of intensity. Don't wait for them to make a snarky comment or to remove their dog. If you you feel your dog is being too rough with someone elses dog, then odds are the owner of that dog feels that even more strongly. Also note that you should be very careful with having treats out at a dog park, because you never know if a dog is seriously food aggressive. I try to be very discrete about having treats if I decide to bring them out in a dog park, and only give my pup a treat when no other dogs are near us. I rarely give treats to other peoples dogs, and really only do so with the regulars that I know are OK with food being out, and after the owner has given their OK.

There is also a good chance that your pup means this in good fun, but doesn't have the social skills to realize this isn't an OK way to play. IMO this is behavior that could easily lead to him being attacked when he does it to the wrong dog, and if it is just the way he plays, I would re-consider taking him to the dog park, because IMO it's not a super safe way for a dog to be interacting with unknown dogs who may or may not have a very short fuse or some aggression issues.
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