Did you know that good doggy social skills aren’t necessarily learnt from rough and tumble play? I get calls from clients all the time telling me their dog is really well socialised because they attend day care or regularly play with other dogs they meet.
Good dog social skills are learnt through supervised interaction, training and by choosing your dog’s play mate really carefully. Older dogs aged 3 years and up, are far more likely to teach your dog good social skills. For dogs younger, indeed especially for adolescent dogs, you will need to supervise, intervene, redirect, train and reward regularly. This ensures that good social skills are learnt and play doesn’t get out of hand. Unsupervised rough play with random dogs can lead to dog aggression and should be avoided. This is especially true between the age of 5 months and maturity when adolescents are more likely to be competitve, pushy and take physical risks around other dogs.
Below you’ll see suggestions for helping your dog to learn good dog social skills during their most formative stages of development. Read carefully what’s going on in each video. The decisions you make as an owner can make huge differences when it comes to your dog learning how to keep himself safe and happy around other dogs.
Nacho the Goldie (aged 7 months) and Whiskey the Vizsla (ages 8 months) are both entire males seen enjoying each other’s company in this video. They had never met before this walk. On initial intro we kept both dogs on leash and started the walk without lengthy interaction, just a quick 2 sec sniff before setting off. This was calm and relaxed. For some dogs, this may be too close too soon, so get to know your dog’s limitations.
With any overly excitable behaviour when first meeting other dogs, avoid sniffing or physical contact until your dog has calmed down. This may take several minutes. Keep walking during this time. During this walk, we attempted off leash interaction too soon, before arousal levels has reduced enough so the play immediately became rough and overly physical. Both dogs were leashed again and the walk continued.
Further into the walk, when next off leash, we added a toy to help focus their interaction on something other than each other exclusively. If your dog is toy obsessed and unused to sharing play time with dogs, be careful that adding this resource doesn’t cause tension or risky competitive behaviour. Note that we are also moving through the environment and the path is narrow so scents are immediately available on either side. This encourages sniffing together and pottering in each other’s company. When passing other dogs, both dogs were leashed so that they don’t get into the habit of approaching random dogs. During adolescence, your dog is more likely to choose risky behaviours and as a result, more likely to get into trouble with dogs they don’t know.
In the video above, you’ll note that the play begins beautifully with both dogs mirroring each other’s behaviour. Once the play turns rough, I interrupt by walking slowly towards them and splitting them apart. I do this by putting a tasty food treat on each nose. Nacho’s is tossed to the side while Whiskey’s is delivered in the sit position he offers me. This avoids introducing competition over food. Using food like this to interrupt play helps reduce frustration. It avoids wasting a recall signal when it’s unlikely to work. It gives the dogs the opportunity to focus on something else-the toy retrieve that follows-thus bringing down the arousal levels and avoiding an escalation in physical play which could lead to either dog being unhappy, stressed, pushy or indeed aggressive.
Following the play interaction, it’s time for some impulse control training, to help both dogs learn it’s not always their turn and also to minimise competitive behaviour which could result in resource guarding of the toy if both dogs got it it simultaneously. When doing these ‘take your turn’ retrieves, only Whiskey had prior training. When I toss the toy for Nacho, Whiskey gets several food treats for holding his sit to make it a win/win situations for him. When I toss the toy for Whiskey, Nacho gets a food toss in the opposite direction so that he doesn’t compete with Whiskey for the toy helping to reduce tension. We then begin to move through the environment again so that neither dog becomes overly focused on each other.
Learning to know whether a dog is happy or overwhelmed when interacting with other dogs is a skill that takes a lot of observation and experience. It’s something many, many dog owners struggle with and indeed often get wrong. One only has to look at videos posted online of dog play in day care or at the local park to see overwhelmed, unhappy dogs who are just about coping or at breaking point. Adolescence is a time when many behavioural challenges around other dogs begins. It’s vital that owners are aware that what they may think of as fun play, may well be the foundations for dog to dog reactivity.
To help, I’ve outlined how you can intervene, train and teach good interaction skills for your dog during this crucial and often challenging stage of learning. Make good choices and you’ll have a sound, happy and confident dog for many years ahead.