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This topic came up in our My Dog Can Online Training community group and I knew right away it would make a great article. I also knew right away that it would likely to be a controversial one with strong beliefs on both sides of the argument, but I still pose the question: Should you let your dog play with other dogs? As with most posts I write, there is no black and white answer and my goal is to present the arguments, not to decide for you. So, let's go!
The Problem is Not Really the Play
The problem with dog-to-dog play isn't the actual play itself, but rather the indiscriminate way we want our dogs to play with every dog - every time one appears.... That is the real problem. The role of dogs in our families has shifted. We've become a society that seems to put so much emphasis on dogs playing with other dogs that we've completely changed the way dogs interact. We've built parks specifically to facilitate dog play. There is a booming industry in Doggie Daycares and Cage-free Boarding facilities. I can't walk down the street with my dogs anymore without having to address other people wanting their dogs to play with mine. Half the time, the human is so convinced that my dogs will be their dog's next play thing, that the approaching dog is off-leash and has no semblance of a recall. More and more, I'm met with dirty looks or snotty comments when I try to politely decline the interaction. I've written about these types of interactions before in an article called, "Why You MUST Obey Leash Laws."
If we applied these same standards to humans, we would be expected to enthusiastically greet every person who ever crossed our paths. We would be in a constant state of high-arousal from being in a social gathering all day long. Imagine being thrown into a party where you don't know anyone, but you're expected to run and enjoy the scene - sometimes every day. Would you be happy if you had to hug or even shake hands with every stranger you come across? What happens if or when you DON'T want to say hi, play or interact? Are you afforded the luxury of saying, 'no thank you, not today?'
The Problem is NOT the Play!
Again, I reiterate: the problem is not with play, but the indiscriminate way we go about allowing dog-to-dog interactions. My dogs have a couple of canine friends and they have the occasional romp together. I would say on average it's a couple of times a month. I have other friends with dogs and I will not allow my dogs free play with them. Why? For me to allow my dogs to play with other dogs, they have to, at a minimum, meet my 5 rules of play. If they don't, it's simply NOT worth the risk to me to allow interaction.
Hard Work on Leash Manners Go Out the Window
From a training perspective, allowing your dog to greet or play with every dog they see will likely hurt their manners. Think about the messages your dog is getting as you round the corner and they spot the dog. Do you work hard to keep them from dragging you to the other dog or do you just hold on tight and let it happen? Do they lunge and bark as they drag you over to say hello? Think about the change in body language that occurs when your dog leans into the leash and pulls you to visit. How might the other dog interpret this body language? Will they see your dog as a threat and react defensively? What does this do to your leash manners? Reinforcement of any behaviour will strengthen it. That means pulling you to the other dog will only result in more intense pulling when dogs appear in the future.
It Could be Damaging to Your Relationship
Where your dog gets their reinforcement is where they will seek future reinforcement. If your dog gets most of their physical and emotional needs from playing with other dogs, you will find your relationship strained. We see dogs in classes all of the time who can barely function, let alone learn, because they are so focused on the other dogs in class. We can immediately tell the dogs that have been conditioned to get over-stimulated at the sight of another dog. They are so focused on the other dogs, they are often completely unaware of the handler on the other end of the leash. If you can't get your dog to redirect focus back to you and their whole world is about nothing but the other dog, you're success in training will be limited and your relationship with your dog could be one of frustration rather than joy.
My 5 Rules of Dog Play
1 - I Must Know The Dog
My dogs are part of my family. Like all of you, I adore them beyond any description I could put down. I also put a lot of time and effort into my dogs - with hundreds of hours of training, daily care, health care, mental stimulation, etc. I work hard to provide my dogs with everything they need to be well-rounded, upstanding canine citizens. I'm NEVER going to willingly take a chance that a random encounter with a dog I don't know undoes any or all of that work. It's simply not worth the risk to me.
2 - They Must be Friendly
This seems obvious, right? Who would allow their dogs to play with dogs who aren't friendly? Most people will agree with this rule, but how do you know if you don't know the dog? Random dogs on the street may appear friendly until they don't. Countless times, I've heard well-meaning people give bad advice about socializing aggressive dogs at the local leash-free park. It's a commonly suggested tactic - if he's aggressive, allow him to work it out by throwing him into play with other dogs. First, this is definitely NOT the way to solve aggression issues. Second, I'm sure none of us want our dogs to be the brunt of such an experiment. This takes me back to my first rule - I must know the dogs. I must feel confident that those dogs are going to be safe companions for mine. No questions.
3 - They Must Match my Dog's Play Style
Some dogs like to wrestle, some run like the wind and others like to body slam. Mismatched play styles at running speeds can cause injury quickly. Imagine a dog running as fast as possible and body slamming another dog. Imagine a dog who loves to wrestle trying to pin a dog who prefers to run and be chased. Mismatched play styles can cause injury, frustration or fights quickly in the right conditions.
This should also include shapes and sizes of dogs. A small dog can ignite prey drive in a larger dog and that can spell disaster. Even without that danger, a misplaced paw from a Great Dane can accidentally kill a toy breed. Caution should always be taken when dealing with the extremes in dog sizes. As cute as it may be to watch a Mastiff playing with a Yorkie, the inherent risks are much higher.
4 - They Must be in Good Health
As much as is humanly possible, I want to ensure that my dog's playmates are healthy and have been appropriately cared for and vetted on a regular basis to minimize the danger of communicable disease, illness or parasites. I know with complete confidence how well cared for the dogs I allow my dogs to play with are. Random dogs on the street do not provide me with any confidence when it comes to health and wellness. How would I know if that dog posed some sort of health risk to mine? Chances are they won't, but I'm not willing to risk it.
5 - They Must be Under Good Voice Control
This, I consider an absolute must. Outside of a Puppy Class during the critical socialization period, I don't allow any play with dogs who can't be stopped or called out of play immediately by voice alone. Situations can change quickly when dogs are playing. If one dog is starting to get overstimulated or frutstrated, it's very important to be able to quickly recognize that and stop the play immediately with your voice. Then you can make the dogs take a break to calm the stimulation down. That could be the difference between a great play session and one that ends in a fight.
Remembering that play and exposure are very different things, once your dog is over the critical socialization period, there is no true need for them to play with other dogs, but there are benefits. Good exercise and fun are among those benefits, but you must consider all things when deciding about dog play. With a few rules and some caution, you can reap the benefits of play without the dangers.
As always, Happy Training!