Several times a week we offer small dog socials and puppy play groups at different locations in Manhattan. These trainer moderated groups are a wonderful way to allow dogs under 20 pounds (for the small dog socials) and pups under 5 1/2 months old (for the puppy play groups) an opportunity to socialize with other dogs and their people in a supervised, indoor environment. Playing with other, well socialized dogs is a superb way to allow a dog to burn off mental and physical energy as well as to improve upon and/or maintain social skills. As an added bonus, these sorts of play groups can be a lot of fun for people as well. Whether you take your dog to an indoor, trainer supervised play group or to a safely enclosed, clean dog park there are some rules of conduct that are sure to make the experience as valuable and safe as possible for all.
Perhaps most importantly, when exposing your dog to a group of other dogs (some of whom will be unfamiliar) you should be as confident as possible that your dog is not likely to behave aggressively. Aggression can be a tricky term to define, and any even trickier thing for pet parents to acknowledge as a problem in their own dogs. And of course, even the most well socialized dog may have it’s moments here and there. What is important is to carefully consider your dog’s general behavior and temperament and therefore suitability for a stimulating and constantly changing environment like a dog play group. To follow is a brief list of some of the things to consider about taking your dog to a play group:
• Are there particular types of dogs your dog is not tolerant of? For example, I just worked with a dog last week who consistently gets into scuffles with brachycephalic or pushed-faced dogs such as Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers. If you know there are particular dogs or types of dogs whom your own dog does not play well with, then excuse yourself and your dog from the group until you feel the mix is right.
• Is your dog intolerant of certain play styles? Some dogs don’t do as well in a high energy group where they become over stimulated. The dynamic of a group of dogs is constantly changing due to the types of dogs and to the overally energy of the group which changes as much as the dynamic at a cocktail party. Keep an eye on your dog to assess how they are doing at any particular time.
• Does your dog consistently mount/hump other dogs? While mounting is a normal dog behavior, excessive mounting is something that may cause issues in a play group even in the dogs are spayed or neutered. If your dog has an issue with this, then it might be best to plan play dates with dogs that he or she is not as likely to mount excessively.
• Does your dog growl, snap or bite people or other dogs when toys or balls are around? While people are discouraged from bringing their own toys to groups, sometimes, especially at public dog parks, dogs will have access to communal toys. If your dog has resource guarding issues, a group play date may not be a suitable option for your dog.
• Does your dog bark excessively? While barking is a normal and natural dog behavior, and some barking is to be expected during play, excessive barking can be as troublesome in a dog play group as in an apartment where neighbors will be exposed to the constant racket. Work on teaching your dog to respond to a request to come when called, hand target or sit so you have a way of refocusing him or her on something (i.e. responding to your requests) and thereby stopping the barking.
If you feel a certain a specific play group environment will be beneficial for your dog and that your dog will add positively to the mix you also need to think about your own participation in the group. To follow are some tips for pet parent dog play group etiquette:
• Always keep an eye on your dog. Regardless of where you take your dog to play, be sure you go there prepared to pay careful attention to your dog. As your dog’s guardian they are counting on you to supervise their encounters and help the group be all it can for your dog and all the others.
• Clean up after your dog. And to take it a step further, if you notice someone else forgot to clean up after their dog, you can kindly ask them to do so, or if they have already let, just pick it up yourself. Keeping dog play areas clean is an important part of keeping them safe.
• Avoid bringing personal dog toys or treats as they may cause your dog, or another dog, to guard and result in a fight.
• Avoid bringing adult intact (i.e. dogs which are not spayed or neutered) to play groups. While many intact animals can certainly play well with others, the odds of a scuffle are greatly increased in a high occupancy play space.
• Don’t bring your dog to a play group if the seem ‘under the weather.’ They could be coming down with something contagious and might pass it on to other dogs.
• If your dog consistently harrassed or mounts other dogs or people, be prepared to give your dog a time out from play or to leave the group all together. Even the sweetest, most well-mannered dog can have a ‘bad day’ and find a certain dog or a particular mix of dogs too stimulating or not to their liking.
• Avoid using prong, spiked, or choke collars. Being positive reinforcement trainers, we do not suggest these tools in general, but especially at dog play dates where they can be especially dangerous is another dog gets their teeth or nails caught in them. A plain buckle collar with proper ID is best.
• When you see a new dog entering the group, call your dog to you so the dog can enter as calmly as possible without being overwhelmed. Also, be aware of the dogs that enter the play group. If you suspect they might negatively impact the dynamic of the group or your own dog might not get along with them, then leave the group until you feel it is appropriate to return.
• If you have an extremely high energy dog, consider taking him or her for a nice, long walk before going to a play group. This way he or she is less likely to over stimulate the other dogs in the group upon entering.
• If a fight breaks out, everyone (even those whose dogs are not directly involved) should help to control the situation by calmly getting a hold of their dogs. Two dogs in a fight is scary and dangerous, but when a group of dogs gets over stimulated and involved it can be far worse.
• Avoid bringing children to a dog play. While kids can have fun watching dogs play, it can be hard for them not to become excitable around dogs. This can be frightening and therefore potentially dangerous when their are dogs who are not comfortable with children. Dog play groups are for dogs and we should do all we can to set them up for a safe, fun play time.
• Consider donating your time to help local dog play groups and runs to continue to allow dogs an opportunity to play in a safely enclosed area. Many need volunteers to assist on special clean up days and to help moderate the groups.
Following dog play group etiquette is one of the best ways to ensure your dog and all the others are as safe as possible and have the best tail wagging time a dog could hope for.