Playdates are a great way to socialize and exercise your dog but navigating playdates between dogs can be challenging. This post is to help you create a calm and positive experience for dogs and dog owners alike. My hope is you become a more dog aware dog owner so you can see the things that I would look at as a dog trainer when watching two or more dogs play.
This post covers:
What makes a good playdate?
The most important thing to look for is matched play. The energy level, intensity, and play style should be similar. If one dog is mouthing while they wrestle, look to see if the other dog is too. If one dog is running around, the other dog should be running around too - taking turns chasing and being chased.
A balance in play enables the dogs to be themselves and learn from other dogs. Remember, a playdate is a great learning experience for dogs. They can sniff new smells, learn new play styles, meet new people and more. All that learning is possible if the dogs can be themselves, choose to play or not play, and be responsive to dog owners.
When there is an imbalance in play, separate the dogs, let them regroup and then see if they go back to play at a matched level. An imbalance translates to the dogs having different intentions. One dog wants to do one thing and the other dog wants to do something else. This scenario may lead to conflict, for this playdate or even at future playdates.
For example, let's say there is an over eager dog that looks like the kid at the playground saying "Let's play! I wanna play! Hey! Come on! Let's play!" while the other dog is nervous and getting used to their environment. The nervous dog may be sticking close to their owner or running away from the other dog. By separating, you are helping the over eager dog read the signs of the nervous dog, and you are helping the less interested dog gain confidence and enter play at their own pace.
Good manners to create an enjoyable playdate
A well socialized dog can play with different types and ages of dogs and in different styles, all while maintaining a calm and playful environment. A big part of that is preventing conflicts at times when the other dog has their mind on doing something. Since dogs are simple creatures, those things they have their mind on are typically basic needs. To help your dog keep the peace throughout a playdate, follow these good manners:
1. Let the other dog rest
If one dog is taking a break from play, the other dog should respect their need to do so and keep their space. This is beneficial for all types of dogs. For example, nervous dogs have a hard time resting during play, i.e. not being alert to what the other dog is doing. When you allow the nervous dog to rest, they gain confidence in their play and can return to play on their time instead of when the other dog comes near them.
2. Let the other dog drink water
This is a basic need for a dogs' health so you want them to be able to drink water when they need it. If you have a dog guarding the water (a valuable resource!) or pestering a dog when they are trying to drink water, then the dogs aren't getting what they need. Simple as that. Watch to see how the dogs react when they go to the water bowl. They should be calm, not focused on the other dog, taking turns even!
3. Let the other dog go to the bathroom
Imagine if you had to go to the bathroom and every time you walked to the bathroom door, your friend started telling you a new story! Eventually, you'd be like "Leave me alone! I gotta go!". Privacy and space is important for a dog when going to the bathroom to ensure they feel safe and can get their business done. Same goes for marking, that dog has a basic instinct to satisfy and they need space to do it.
4. If the dog is a people person, let them say hi to the people first
This one is a little tricky. A lot of conflicts between dogs happen in the beginning, at their introduction, and a common reason is when the dogs have different intentions. Quite simply, one dog is ready to play and the other dog is not, therefore that excited dog is in the way, and that leads to conflict.
5. No humping
The above four manners are really quite preventative to ensure positive experiences, but this one is a hard no-no. I am sure we can agree that humping is not allowed. The main reasons I do not allow it is because it is not matched play, it is not teaching socialization, and it is not fulfilling your purpose of a dog playdate.
6. Make sure dogs can get off their back
This one is a little specific to a particular play style but it happens a lot during a playdate. Dogs can get on their backs for different reasons. They might be wrestling, one might be a passive dog, they might be tired, or more. If you see one dog on their back, count to five and if the dog is still on their back, get the other dog off and see what the dog on his back does. They might run away, they might go back to play. If they run away, that dog probably needs a break. If they keep going back to play, that is a good thing. If you find these two dogs keep going back to this same play style, you still might want to separate them to lower their energy level. You don't want to reinforce too much dominance or teeth!
What can you do as a dog owner?
Step 1: Create distance
Step 2: Lower your dog's energy level
Step 3: Let your dog return to play at a matched, calmer energy level
Dogs need space from anything they are fixated on, in this case it is the other dog. Lure or guide your dog away from the other dog. For example, if the other dog is resting and your dog goes over to him, lure your dog away from the other dog and redirect his attention.
You can lower their energy level by redirecting them to you, another activity like sniffing or training (how great to get your dog to do basic commands in the face of a giant distraction like another dog!), or to rest themselves. Remember, we want them at the same energy level.
Look for the dogs to return to play similar to how they started the play date. They should both be excited to play but they are returning to play at a lower level than where they stopped the previous play session. This will allow them to build their excitement again.
Dogs build off of success so quality is always more important to quantity. By following these guidelines, you can create a positive, playful environment for your dog.