Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Play Time!

I had such fun on Sunday, overseeing a first playdate between dogs belonging to two of my favorite clients.  Both have young, large breed dogs and were looking to set up a playdate that would be safe and fun.  I was happy to introduce them, knowing that their dogs would get along really well and have fun together, but I promised to attend the playdate, just to make sure it all went well, and it did.

I love talking with people about play behavior; it was the topic of my dissertation research in fact!  Play is important to normal growth and development for many animals, and the value of good play cannot be emphasized enough.  Good play helps build confidence, problem solving skills, and sociability. Good play is not necessarily synonymous with large group experiences; some of the best play you will ever observe will be between two participants, whether those two participants are children, dogs, or birds.

Those of you who know me or have been reading my blog for a long time, know how much I dislike dog parks. I feel like I need to explain again why that is the case.  You see, back in the late 90's when dog parks were really taking off, I was invited to be at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the brand new dog park in Alameda.  It was a beautiful park and they'd incorporated so many of the features in their design that I thought were important in a park made for dogs, including signage that indicated who should (and who should not) be using the dog park.  It wasn't a year later that the sign was gone and the park had become a very different place, one that wasn't all that safe for the dogs using it.  After visiting a few other Bay Area dog parks with clients whose dogs used them regularly, I discovered that the problems I'd seen at the park in Alameda were not unique to that park; problems at the dog park seemed universal.  There were people taking dogs there who were aggressive; there were dogs there who were bullies; there were people on their phones not watching their dogs; there were kids running around in the dog park; there were toys being thrown (and guarded) by dogs; there were filthy communal water bowls; there were older dogs who clearly wanted to be anywhere but there; there were young dogs who wanted to be anywhere but there; and there were dog owners who clearly knew nothing about basic dog body language or behavior, letting their dogs' behavior influence the experiences of others.  I always became overwhelmed, frustrated, and upset when I went to the dog park with clients to the point where I tried really hard to never have to go!

Now, I know some of you regularly use dog parks and love them and that's great. I also have clients who simply get together at local school fields at certain times of day to let their dogs run together.  Me? I love a good playdate in someone's backyard.  Whether it's two dogs or more, I feel like playing in a yard is an environment that can be better controlled.  You know all the players, you know their owners, and you've established that the physical space is safe for play.  In a dog park, anyone can join in on your dogs' playtime and those dogs joining in may be unsafe and you may not realize that that's the case until it's too late.  I've had many a client tell me that they had to leave the dog park after their dog was repeatedly bullied or attacked by another dog, all while that other dog's owner was telling them that it was fine and "that's just how dogs are."  I'm here to tell you, that's NOT how dogs are; most dogs are not aggressive, nor are they bullies. But some dogs clearly are and for whatever reason their owners are taking them to the dog park and allowing them to behave badly.  I'm not okay with that.

One of the many benefits of attending a puppy class with your new puppy is that you will meet other puppy owners. I always encourage the people in my puppy classes to exchange numbers and email addresses so that they can set up playdates between classes and after classes are over with. I want those owners I've educated on what makes good play to continue to give their puppies those opportunities to play in a safe environment.  And for many of the puppies who don't enjoy playing in puppy class because it's too many puppies off leash etc., they do end up enjoying those smaller playdates, one on one, as they can play without getting overwhelmed.  And that feels safer to me than any dog park.

My almost 8 month old puppy, Henley, attended puppy classes where he fit in best with the bigger, older, rowdier puppies. That's his personality and I have to find him playmates who match his energy level and enthusiasm for tag, chase, and barking while running in circles.  Luckily, he has a young "cousin," my friend's male French Bulldog, Argon, and those two run around like lunatics, playing hard and being a pair of goofy boys, until we tell them enough and make them take a break.  They play hard.  Ozzie is not a fan of this kind of energy, so I don't take him to these playdates.  While Henley and Ozzie do play together, it's different than when Henley plays with other puppies his age, or with his Frenchie cousin. Henley is getting all kinds of play opportunities, including play with me.  He's developing into a very confident, outgoing, fun-loving dog. He needs to play and I need to make sure that need is filled, but I'll not be filling it at a dog park. I know too much about dog behavior and body language and I'd drive everyone there nuts!

I'll finish up a dog play seminar this Saturday and my hope is that the participants in that seminar will now have a much better idea on what constitutes good play, and what doesn't, and thus be better observers of behavior when they use their local dog parks. You need to feel confident enough to step in and step up on behalf of your dog if someone else's dog is behaving in an unsafe manner.  You need to tell that other dog owner that bullying is not, in fact, normal dog behavior and they need to collect their dog and get that dog under threshold or leave the park.  That other dog owner will likely not take that advice well, so you may just want to leash your dog and leave the park instead.  But you do need to stop it.  The number of times I've treated dogs repeatedly bullied to the point that they are fearful and/or aggressive around other dogs is too numerous to count.  Don't risk your dog's behavior and well-being by forcing them to stay in an unsafe "play" environment.  I've often used this analogy with parents/grandparents:  You wouldn't allow your kids/grandkids to play on a playground where they were being repeatedly beat up or bullied, so why are you letting that happen to your dog?  They are family members too!

Henley has a playdate coming up with someone who was in his puppy class and I hope to have time to set up another play date with his "cousin" soon.  In the meantime, he and Ozzie are running around the yard together at full speed and they are having a good time. I'm monitoring them to make sure it continues to be fun for them both.  Why? Because that's the right thing to do for both of my dogs.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Here they are mid-chase!  Henley is bowing to indicate he's still interested in the game and Ozzie is looking back at him right before he takes off to the left, straight through my flowers and tomato plants!

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