Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dog or Puppy Play Date Etiquette

Having a play date with one or more other dogs is a great idea, especially for puppies (though almost all dogs of all ages love them). Here are some tips to make it successful.  The important thing is that these interactions are positive for both dogs, not scary.  Pay close attention to the body language of both dogs.  What may look like rough play to you may be great fun for them, but if either dog seems to be trying to stop or avoid the game, be ready to intervene gently to impose a 5-min break.

1. Pay attention to your dog at all times. Keep your eyes on your pup the entire time. This is harder than it sounds, because you’ll be chatting with the other people there. In this situation it is OK to suddenly interrupt the person talking to you and say, “Excuse me one sec” and attend to your dog. Remember, the purpose of this gathering is to have a positive dog-to-dog experience. That requires your vigilance and intervention in a number of situations:

a. If your dog is eliminating. If the play date is going to be at someone’s house, ask them in advance if there is an area where they prefer the dogs to eliminate. If so, take your dog over there first thing, and let her sniff around and get the message “this is where dogs go”. Later, as she’s playing vigorously, realize that this will stimulate her to have to go. Try to anticipate this, and lure her over to the potty area a few times with a treat and encourage her to go. If she doesn’t go in the right spot and squats on the patio or some other place, step in immediately with your baggie and ask if you can grab a hose to clean it off. It is bad manners to allow your dog to poop and not notice it. Your host may not notice it until after you leave, but it won’t leave a good impression. Pay attention to your dog.

b. If your dog is pestering another dog. This includes barking at it incessantly, but watch the other dog’s body language—just because it’s annoying you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s annoying the other dog. If your dog is chomping on another dog trying to get it to run, and that other dog is trying to ignore her, give your dog a chance to get the message and stop (this is the value of these play dates, the dogs learn socialization skills and they have to learn the dog rules from other dogs). If she doesn’t “get it” relatively soon, intervene for the sake of the other dog.  Go in with a treat, and take your dog's collar and lure your dog over to you,. Treating frequently, make her sit for a moment and see what the other dog does—does he seem relieved or does he come back into engage your dog in play? If he comes back in, let them off to play again if it's OK with the other owner. If the other dog seems relieved your dog has stopped, work with your dog for a minute on eye contact with you, treating frequently and generously. In other words, impose a break. Then let her off again to go play if it's OK with the other owner. Watch the body language of both dogs. If your dog re-engages the same way as before and doesn’t get the “I don’t want to play this way” hint, intervene again. Remove her to a nearby area and try change up the game-- Introduce a toy and let her chase it, and see if they can engage in tug of war or keep away. If none of that works quickly, intervene again. Consider ending the session for now. The other dog may be done playing.  Sometimes a 5 minute break is all that's needed, other times it's time to wrap it up for the day.  The big point is that if your pup is playing in a way that the other puppy doesn't like, intervene quickly and don't be at all offended if the other owner intervenes quickly.  These play sessions MUST be a positive experience for both dogs.

Sometimes puppies that needed to be broken up during the first session do better the next time.  They're babies and they are learning how to play nicely with each other.  So having to intervene doesn't mean the two are not a good match, it just means you're having to coach a lot at this stage.  If you don't see progress in their interactions after a few sessions, consider seeking a different playmate.  Also, if one pup is not engaging or having fun consider whether it might be entering a "fear stage" which is a normal development stage.  Make sure that pup has a place it can escape to and watch, and come out when it decides to.  During the fear stage it might not want to play.  For more information about fear stages in dogs, click here.

c. If your dog is being pestered by another dog, and the other owner is not proactively – and effectively—stepping in, you may need to, but be gracious about it. I find a lot of owners will try to correct their dog by verbally scolding them (as if that does anything). It’s just doesn’t work. The pups are too distracted and worked up to respond well.  If you are sure your dog is not having fun and wants to be rescued (watch her body language), intervene quickly. Go pick her up and remove her from the situation if she doesn't have a place she can easily escape (under a chair or table, where the other pup isn't pursuing her, for example).  As above, a 5-minute break may be needed.  If that doesn’t work, consider wrapping up the session. 

d. If your dog is jumping on furniture or into flower beds, correct immediately, and be physically close enough that you can do this without having to scream across the whole yard. Call your dog to you and reward generously, and say “uh uh” if it heads back into that area. Reward often and generously.

e. Your dog may grab something in its mouth it should not have and run off with it (one case that comes to mind is a pup who grabbed some peat and dirt plugs used for starting seedlings). In all cases, deal with it first, and quickly, and then do any apologizing to the host. They’ll really appreciate how on top of your dog you are. No one expects these dogs to be perfectly behaved, so as long as you’re catching it and correcting it quickly, you’ll stay in good graces. If your dog breaks anything, turn to the host and say sincerely that you insist on paying for that. There is no need to end the play date over something like that.

f. Continue to work on vocal signals with your dog such as “uh uh” (which means – if you teach her this meaning—“Stop what you’re doing”) and click and treat for reinforcement (for coming over to check in with you, for example). Don’t expect “uh uh” to have any effect on your dog if you have not worked in advance with it as a signal.

2. Come prepared with baggies and lots of treats, and a toy or two. These are all required props for the situations above.

3. Ask your host before giving her dog any treats—when you give a treat it will reinforce whatever behavior was happening right then, and depending on what your host is working on with her dog, she may or may not want to lose control over that.

4. Don’t forget to reward “laying calmly in the presence of another dog”. This is easier to do once the dogs are exhausted from playing! But if they do plop down on the floor for a break, go ahead and reward that. Being calm in the presence of other dogs is a very valuable behavior and we want to build that “muscle”.

5. Ask in advance how much time the host has for the playdate, or suggest an end-time yourself. In other words, don’t wear out your welcome. Once the pups are playing, it may be awkward for the host to suggest that you wrap it up if the pups are having a rollicking good time. Keep an eye on the clock and exit gracefully.

6. When it’s time to wrap it up, don’t call your dog to you. Take a treat to your dog, take her by the collar and reward her, and then pull out the leash you’re hiding in your coat pocket. Clip it on and give her another really good treat. Try to compensate for the disappointment that you are pulling her out of the party. Don’t call her to you, because if you do it will poison your recall command (we don’t want to call our dogs to us when we’re about to end all the fun – it makes them not want to obey us when we call them. After all, they’re not stupid!). Other times, by the way, you should go up to your dog, take her by the collar, reward her, and then free her to keep playing. Don’t let the “I’m going for your collar” movement be a signal that the party is over.

7. Take into account your dog’s size and energy level. We have one young dog in our group who is just too exhuberant for most other dogs’ taste, and although he’s the same age as some others in the group, he won’t let up and becomes annoying. We let him play with my dogs (who can handle him) but we don’t include him when we have other dogs over to play with our three. He would overwhelm and frighten a dog with a softer personality. So pick the dogs carefully who will play together.

This may all sound a little over the top, but a dog play date is much more about dog training and development than it is about people socializing. Go have coffee with your friends when you want to focus on them. When the dogs are playing, you need to be right in there—much more so than when children are playing. Much more so. Relax and have fun, but be super attentive.


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