During their early weeks and months, puppies have the best chance of forming new relationships with other dogs, other species, and adapting to stimuli in their environment. This time frame is called the socialization period, commonly considered to be the first three months of life, approximately 3 weeks to 14 weeks of age. Use a checklist to help you keep track of specific socialization events as well as your pup's progress.
Dogs that have appropriate outlets for their energy are usually happier, healthier, better socialized, and better mannered dogs. Dog walking and play groups are becoming a popular way for owners to exercise their pets.
Things you should know. If your dog frequently chooses to avoid other dogs, then play settings (off-leash dog parks, fenced yards, play dates, boarding facilities, etc) may not be a wise first encounter for your dog. Instead seek out a dog walking, dog socialization, dog behaviorist, dog club or dog trainer who can work with your dog in a way that does not overwhelm them.
Dogs that enjoy dog play usually actively seek out the attention of other dogs. Remember, it’s not about the dog, it’s about the environment. If your dog doesn’t enjoy off-leash dog play, that doesn’t make him a bad dog. It merely means he’s a dog that might prefer to participate in some other activity.
1. Is it right for your dog? The average age of the dog that enjoys a good romp with a group of other dogs is six months to three years of age. Puppies definitely benefit, but if they are not put in the right group (4 to 7 months), they can easily be traumatized.
2. Many people take their dog to play sessions for socialization. This is a great idea, but remember it's not just about exposure to any and all things in the world. Socialization means positive interactions are created to help a dog grow, play, and learn. A bad experience, especially for a puppy under 7 months of age, may have lifelong implications.
3. Controlling your dog. Dog play should not be a free for all. Dogs do best if they have been taught some basic skills. You should be able to get your dog’s attention and call him to you even if he’s romping and playing with another dog. This will give you a good measure of control when he begins to get too rowdy.
4. Dog play. The good and bad. Not all dogs play nicely. Some dogs play well, but only with certain playmates. Just as with children, you should choose your dog’s playmates wisely. Educate yourself, learn the difference between play styles and make the best match for you dog. Consider size and play styles. Also, small dogs may create a predatory behavior in some under socialized larger dogs, which can become deadly very quickly.
5. Play styles vary. Some dogs love to chase one another; others love to wrestle and play bite; others like to play gently using their paws like kittens; still others like to body-slam one another. Put your dog with dogs that have similar play styles. If your dog is gentle, she will not enjoy playing with a dog who body-slams her. Both play styles are appropriate, they just aren’t appropriate together.
6. Too much arousal may lead to aggression. Dogs need rest periods and breaks even when they are playing. Teach your dog to come to you periodically. Don’t allow the dogs to become overly rowdy in their play. It looks like fun, but can turn into aggression very quickly. If the dogs don’t slow themselves down occasionally during play, you need to do it for them by calling them to you and giving them a short 30-second break. Don’t allow play to go uninterrupted for more than 2-3 minutes at a time.
7. Introducing dogs to each other. Introduce your dog one on one and go at the dog’s pace. Allow the sniffing to occur since it is a necessarily part of the greeting ritual. Don’t force a dog to greet another dog if either dog is showing avoidance. When you show up at a playgroup, have the other dogs move away from the gate before you enter. If owners aren’t there to move their dogs away, just wait until the dogs get bored and go away on their own. Then bring your dog in when things are more settled. Watch for signs of stiffness or nervousness.
8. Supervision is the key, but you have to know what you are looking for. Happy dogs have loose, curved bodies. They play with exaggerated, repetitive, lateral movements. Their bodies remain fluid and loose during play. They play taking turns (one dog pins another, then they switch roles). They also take periodic breaks. Nervous or tense dogs are still and rigid; they play with precise movements that are quick and tight. Some dogs don’t take turns (one dog always seems to pin the other and keep him pinned too long). Look for common signs of stress to see if any dog is becoming overwhelmed.
9. Recognizing stress signals Here are some common stress signals in dogs. If you dog starts to show combinations of these at one time, he’s probably becoming overwhelmed. Frequent Lip or Nose Licking is an easy-to-recognize signal that occurs when a dog flicks his tongue in and out of his mouth, up onto the nose. Yawning is not usually a sign of contentment as much as it is a sign of nervousness. Half-moon eye is when you see the whites of the dog’s eye around the outer edge of the eye. If they're showing half-moon give them at break away from the other dogs. If your dog is repeatedly clawing and/or jumping on you in a panic-stricken sort of way, he’s asking for help. Don’t make him “just deal with things.” You need to assess the environment to see why the dog is so concerned. On the other hand, if your dog use the clawing and pawing as a means for getting attention, you may want to ignore the behavior and simply walk around the space.
10. Be your dog’s advocate. Don’t be afraid to remove your dog from a group if the play seems inappropriate. Ask questions and ensure those supervising the dogs have experience. Not all play is good for all dogs and it’s up to you to make sure your dog is having a good time and learning good behaviors.