Updated: Dec 21, 2020
All healthy dogs will play no matter what their age, but for pups and youngsters play is critical for learning and all youngsters must have opportunities to play.
Opportunities to play with other dogs are important, but for most pups these opportunities have already happened during their time in the litter. The litter is the place where dogs learn their social skills.
MYTH BUSTING – We used to believe that pups needed to play off lead with as many dogs as possible, and in particular, other pups. We believed this was ‘socialisation’ and off lead ‘puppy parties’ were very popular.
This is no longer true. We have learned that these types of events are more likely to lead to problems than resolve them. Bullying by bigger pups, increased fear responses from the sensitive pups, an increase in barking and lunging at other dogs into adulthood, have all been a result of inappropriate interactions with other dogs.
Of course you want to see your puppy playing with other dogs, but rather than assuming every dog in the park will make a great playmate, take a moment to set your dog for success.
Does your pup want to play with the other dog, or just watch them? Assessment is critical for building confidence in a young dog, for more information https://www.clareteachingdogs.com/post/do-you-need-to-socialise-a-young-dog
Look for approach behaviours from both dogs, it is important that your pup does not feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed by an older dog can be the source of behaviours, typically labelled 'reactive', in the future.
Are both dogs walking towards each other with four feet on the floor? If either dog is on two back legs then they should not meet just now. Practice parking and give the dogs some more space https://youtu.be/twcaNBCKe_M
Are both dogs quiet? Frantic barking could signal high arousal, as before, pop your dog into park and give them more space.
If your dog or the other dog has a tail, is the tail level with the body, this is often called a 'friendly' tail. Remember that some dogs have naturally high or low tails and are more difficult to read.
Is the owner responsive to your requests? Will they keep their dog on lead, stand back when asked, keep their treats in their pockets? If not, maybe time to politely excuse yourself and move on.
Once you have found a suitable, socially skilled playmate for your dog then play can happen in tiny bursts (2 – 5 mins maximum). Stop and restart the play regularly.
A word about Play Bows
The 'play bow' can be misinterpreted, it is not always a signal inviting play or chase from the other dog. Rather, the play bow is another assessment tool, it creates some time and space for the dogs to size each other up. The space and body position allows a dog to approach or run away.
What gets in the way of play?
Young animals will play whenever the opportunity arises, and the following conditions are in
place. If these conditions are not in place, then dogs are unlikely to play:
Physically comfortable - absence of pain
Fed and nourished - absence of hunger, gut discomfort including full bladder/bowel
Relaxed - absence of fear and anxiety
Some questions to ask
Did my dog come from a large or small litter? This can affect the play style and opportunities for play. If your pup was a solo, then learning how to play with other dogs can be limited.
Was the litter predominantly male or female?
Was my pup the runt or one of the smaller pups?
Did the litter have lots of space and objects to play with?
Was the litter raised in an impoverished environment?
Asking these types of questions can give you some clues about the type of play your pup might have experienced, what learning has already taken place and what skills might be missing.
For the young dog at home, the need is to focus on safe play with you, the wider family and providing opportunities for appropriate solo play. If you need help with this please get in touch.