A SOCIAL DOG IS A DOG PARK DOG AND SOCIALIZATION HAPPENS EARLY
Most people don’t realize just how small the socialization window is for puppies. The optimal time to have puppies playing with other puppies, off leash, is between age 8-16 weeks, then on through adolescence and adulthood. That’s the optimal time to bring a puppy to puppy class as well. While we used to wait for pups to have all their shots, we now understand that there is a behavioral risk to waiting, so many trainers now use the guidelines established by the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior in their Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.
Key Point: If you think your dog “needs more socialization” because he is having issues with other dogs, chances are that he needs something else, such as classical conditioning or desensitization work, and he may not be ready for the dog park.
HOW PUPPIES LEARN BITE INHIBITION AND NORMAL PLAY
First, let’s decide, “What is a puppy?” For the purposes of defining this phase of development, puppies are puppies until they start to get their “big dog teeth” at between 4-5 months of age. They learn to inhibit their bite through play with other puppies by biting one another! When one pup bites the other, the pup that gets bitten stops the play, or even yelps. The biter then realizes that he won’t have a playmate if he continues to do that, and gradually, through many repetitions of this behavior, lo and behold, you will start to notice that while the pups are play biting and making horrible faces, or even play growling, no one is bleeding and no one is complaining.
Key Point: Getting aggressive with a nippy pup will make it more likely that he will be aggressive himself later. (Herron, Frances S. Shofer and Ilana R. Reisner, School of Veterinary Medicine, Penn). Learn how to deal with it in a positive way. The Pet Professional Guild has a great Puppy Nipping Guide Pups that don’t play normally early in life may be fearful of other dogs later.
WHAT DOES NORMAL PLAY LOOK LIKE?
While dog play can look very rough and tumble, it should not look like one dog is bullying another. There should be lots of back and forth play, wiggling, open mouths, leaps, pawing the air, lots of self interruption of the play, and things such as parallel running or feints and paw raises are very normal parts of play. Some dogs growl when they play. If you are ever worried that your dog may be a bully, and too much for the dog s/he is playing with, try gently pulling your dog away from the perceived “victim.” If that dog goes back to your dog voluntarily, chances are that the level and type of play is being appreciated. If he doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to redirect the dogs to new playmates or go home from the park that day. To see two normal dogs at play, see the video at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InP_5-0NDjI Notice the back and forth play, the curved body postures, open mouths, meta-signals (play bows, raised paws, mock pounces), brief self interruptions.
Key point: “Meta-signals,” such as play bows, tell other dogs that all is in fun. Well socialized dogs should be able to read such signals and respond accordingly. www.doggonesafe.com has good info on body language.
WHEN SHOULD I WORRY?
A dog that is anxious might whine or whimper, shake, have its ears back, be trying to hide behind you or an object. Fearful dogs may tuck their tails, look hunched, be tense, or try to make themselves look smaller to deflect a perceived threat. Some dogs may submissively urinate when another dog greets them as a signal that they mean no harm.
Normal play can look very rough and still be normal. Abnormal play, to an experienced eye, has a quality to it that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. For example, you may see one dog always chasing another dog that is fleeing and looks frightened, or a group of dogs running very fast, looking like they’re ganging up on another dog. You may see one dog body slamming or rolling another dog, or see one dog obsessively following another dog that seems not to want to interact. Repeatedly pinning or mounting another dog (except in very young puppies, where it’s mostly harmless and just seems to bother the humans and not the dogs), or a dog continually putting his head over another dog’s back, or one that gives a “hard stare” directly at another dog, or freezes, is worrisome. Such behaviors are reason enough to get your dog out of the park before he’s the next victim of such a dog, or before he aggresses against another dog. “Read the whole dog” is a trainer axiom – a wagging tail doesn’t always signal friendliness. The ASPCA has a dog body language guide here: http://www.aspcabehavior.org/articles/50/Canine-Body-Language.aspx
If you are ever unsure, opt for safety, leave or intervene, rather than putting your dog in a situation where he could bite or be bitten.
Key point: Do breed, age, and gender matter? Yes, sometimes. Learn your breed standard with regard to temperament. In some breeds, dog to dog aggression, especially same sex aggression, can have a genetic component, although certainly training and socialization are important, too. Some dogs are less apt to want to play as adults. Others seem to be puppies forever.
THE DOG PARK IS NOT THE PLACE TO WORK OUT YOUR DOG’S AGGRESSION PROBLEMS
Other people don’t want their dogs endangered by a dog that could be aggressive, or predatory. If you think your dog “needs more socialization” because there are issues, and s/he is over four months of age, you may need to use classical conditioning and desensitization techniques. In that situation, you may be doing more harm than good by exposing your dog to a situation that is “over-facing” him, so find a positive trainer or behaviorist to help you. Force free trainers can be found at www.petprofessionalguild.com
WHAT THEY NEVER TOLD YOU IN PUPPY SCHOOL
Not all dogs like to play with other dogs. Some dogs enjoy one or two good friends, and some dogs prefer human company to dog company. Dogs often choose their own friends. While you can improve a fearful dog’s emotional response to the approach of other dogs, it’s really unlikely that you can totally remediate your dog’s social deficits if they are significant, to the extent that he would enjoy the dog park, and it may be kinder not to force him to endure going there if he isn’t comfy or makes others uncomfortable. Your dog is not abnormal if he’s not a dog park dog! In fact, it’s more normal for adult dogs to lose interest in playing with others after they reach a certain age.
CREATING A DOG PARK DOG
For all the young puppies out there, aged 8-16 weeks, who are busy getting ready to be dog park dogs, here’s a Puppy Socialization Checklist. Be sure they get to a positive training class, too!
Key point: The most important safety precaution you can take before going to a dog park is to teach your dog to come when called every time! A dog that cannot do this is not a dog park dog! Even if your dog is friendly, other dogs may be overwhelmed by an exuberant greeting and prefer quieter playmates, so letting your dog just run up to others is very poor park etiquette.
Pamela Dennison’s Whistle Recall DVD is very useful for training this behavior reliably. You can either train with a whistle or use a recall word, the principle is the same. Once your dog is trained, have fun at the park!