By Marika S. Bell, WHS Director of Behavior and Training
As Ripley, my puppy, grew, I would frequently take him to a puppy socialization group. He loves to play with other dogs. Despite his passive nature, he easily becomes fearful; however, with dogs, he has always felt comfortable. He does best with dogs who have a similar play style to his. Particularly with small dogs, his play style can be a bit rough (I am apologizing to the Chihuahua he nearly stepped on last week). He likes to body slam other dogs, and he enjoys chasing and being chased. He will also stop and have a good wrestle with a willing partner.
Ripley has just turned four years old and is certainly not a puppy anymore. So why do I continue to bring him to the socialization groups and dog parks? Because I have seen a huge benefit to puppies who meet a slightly older dog with manners.
Dogs Who Lead By Example
Quite a few times now, I have seen a puppy get overly aroused or over threshold with the stress of the introduction to a socialization group—that’s my polite way of saying they were scared to the bone. So I gently encourage their owner to bring them to a quiet area of the park, and I bring Ripley along. I have found that when a young dog is showing fear (lunging, screaming, panicking on the lead, or cowering), it just takes a few minutes of Ripley on his own, inviting them to play, but not being pushy, to turn things around. He offers a play bow, and if they seem scared, he immediately turns his side to them and sniffs the grass, a classic calming behavior. This gives the puppy confidence, and very soon they are romping and batting at each other playfully.
If You're Not Sure, Interrupt
Not all dogs at a playgroup can be as easy going as Ripley. Recently, a dog about Ripley’s age showed up and started nipping and bullying the other dogs—large or small, he didn’t care. He would bark and lunge towards them in a way that made me distinctly uncomfortable. It was obvious this dog had not had enough socialization as a young puppy, and the owner was trying to make up for it at almost a year old. Unfortunately, this means that a bunch of tender, impressionable youngsters are being subjected to a bully.
I hear a lot about how dogs should “sort it out” themselves, and maybe sometimes this is true, if the dogs are similar sizes, ages, and socialization level. But more often than not, people can’t read dog body language well enough to know when a situation with a playgroup is turning from “argument” to “fist fight.” Even Ripley will occasionally have a moment of “predatory drift” with a smaller dog, and to me, that is an inappropriate behavior, and I step in.
Don’t be afraid to interrupt a dog or dog interaction if you are
uncertain of what is happening. Just because the other owner says “it’s
alright” doesn’t mean you should let your dog be subjected to bullying, or let
your dog traumatize another dog. As smart as many dogs are at reading social
cues and body language, there are plenty of dogs out there who wouldn’t know a
calming signal if it sat on them!
Don’t risk your dog’s wellbeing on a maybe. If you are even a little unsure, interrupt and redirect.
For more on this subject, I recommend reading:
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