…and does he really need to?
That’s a good question. It should be perfectly natural for a dog to be able to communicate with his own kind. But more and more often, dogs are lacking the essential skills they need to interact appropriately with other members of their own species. It is one of the most common problems I am asked to help with. And it causes more problems than you might think.
This is a huge problem, that has been caused mostly by a recent decline in dogs being allowed to exercise off lead. This new trend has come about partly due to off lead bans, partly from a growing fear of other dogs and what might happen when they meet, and finally, a lack of training. With the availability of extendable or extra-long leads, more and more people feel no urgency to train their dog to be off lead. This is especially the case for small dogs, who many people believe need less exercise than bigger dogs.
But, it’s not just about the exercise. There are so many other reasons your dog should get off lead time…
Playtime is not just for fun
Playtime is an essential part of a dogs routine, not just because it’s fun, although that is important. But mostly, because dogs use playtime to practice some of their most essential survival skills, such as communicating, hunting and fighting.
Of course, we could play with our dogs ourselves. And many of us do so regularly, it is one of the many joys of owning a dog. This is great for bonding and can help them practice in some capacity. It is never going to be as good to chase you as it will be with a fellow canine though. We are so much slower and weaker than another dog, and so play will feel stilted and awkward for him.
Chasing, tugging and wrestling with another dog can be much rougher and faster. If he doesn’t get the chance to let loose with another dog regularly, you might struggle with inappropriate play behaviour at home. This may manifest as play biting, grabbing at hands or clothing, and stealing valued items to instigate an unwanted chase or a tug game.
Regularly fulfilling his need to play and interact with dogs will also make him less reactive when he is on his lead. He will have already fulfilled this need adequately, and at an appropriate time, and will be much calmer in general.
Improved mental health
Interacting with other members of his own species can only be good for your dogs mental health. It will help boost his self-esteem, and it reminds him who he is and allows him to behave like a proper dog for a bit. This is particularly important these days, when dogs are often being treated less and less like dogs – we are all guilty of it sometimes!
Spending quality time with other dogs also helps him to learn to cooperate with others. This will help him become more trusting towards dogs, which will also help diminish any territorial behaviour he may exhibit towards them. He will also feel more protected amongst his own kind, which can be of huge benefit to a dog that has general anxiety problems.
Honing his communication and fighting skills, in a safe environment, will give him a massive confidence boost too. He will feel safe that he can handle any situation that comes his way. You may think that this will encourage aggressive behaviour, but in fact, it does the exact opposite.
Playing with old friends is great. But meeting new dogs on neutral territory, and learning how to interact with them, is particularly beneficial to your dogs mental health. This type of interaction stimulates the problem solving part of his brain, which fulfils another important psychological needs.
Finally, fast, energetic and rough play with another dog can also help to release any pent up tensions and anxieties he might have. This is essential for an altogether calmer and even tempered pooch.
Better quality exercise
I think it is pretty obvious, but I will mention it anyway, just in case there is any doubt. Running with other dogs is always going to be better physical exercise than dandering along beside you. Although it is important to incorporate some slow, calm, lead walking into your daily walks too. But we’ll talk more about the benefits of that that in another article. The fast running pace means he can really let off some steam and will come home from his walks tired and ready for his nap.
And even if he doesn’t play with other dogs, being confident around them, means he will be much more likely to be let off his lead when it is safe. In fact, recall is naturally much better in well exercised and properly socialised dogs. Mostly because other dogs are almost always the biggest cause of distraction for an off lead dog.
Socialise your dog safely
How you introduce your dog to other dogs mostly depends on how trustworthy he is in their presence. If your dog is over excitable on his lead in the presence of other dogs, then it is likely he will be much calmer off his lead than on. The restrictive nature of the lead often causes frustration and anxiety. They are also less able to communicate freely on a lead so it is always good advice to let dogs meet on loose leads, or even better, with no leads at all. Frustration comes because he is unable to move freely and a tight lead often forces dogs to meet nose to nose, this is very rude behaviour for a dog and can actually cause fights. He is also anxious because, if things go wrong, a dog is more likely to choose a flight reaction, but in this scenario he is restricted to a freeze or fight response only.
If your dog is normally friendly and playful, but you are worried he might run away from you, then dog parks are a great way for dogs to meet and play with each other. They offer a safe environment for a dog whose recall is still a work in progress, and it will give you the chance to practice his basic training in a more distracting environment. If it has been a while since he was last off lead, then don’t expect too much from him for the first few minutes while he gets the novelty sink in. He’ll be more responsive once he has checked the place out.
Keep an eye out for roads and other dangers
If he has a trustworthy recall, then you will meet dogs in parks, at beaches, forests and a multitude of other similar places. Just be responsible and make sure it is a safe place, where there is no potential to run onto a road, or chase livestock, or whatever.
He might be a little rusty
Don’t worry if your dog gets told off the first time he gets to meet new dogs. This is quite normal, especially if he is over excited or just needs a bit of practice at greeting behaviour. He will likely have come across as a little rude to the other dog, in this case a snap or a growl is just that dogs way of saying I don’t like the way you are behaving right now. Don’t panic, give him space and let him learn how to adjust his behaviour himself. He won’t wake the same mistake again. But if you run to his defence, he will worry, and may start to fear other dogs, which is the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
When in doubt, get help
Maybe your dog is fine with other dogs but you are not confident yourself. In this case, it may be time to get outside help. There are two types of help I would recommend in this situation.
Your first option is to employ a dog walker; they will be experienced with dogs of all shapes and sizes and will be very good at introducing a new dog to their existing pack. Just check that they have a group he can join that can be trusted off lead. That way he’ll get that all important playtime that you are looking for. The downside is that his new group of friends probably won’t change hugely from week to week, so he won’t be meeting many new dogs, but still, much better than none at all.
If a dog walker doesn’t appeal to you. You might prefer to use a doggy day care centre. This is becoming increasingly popular with dog owners; me included. The day care will look after your dog during the day for you, which is great if you need a puppy sitter for the whole day. But more importantly, most of them separate the dogs into manageable groups so they can socialise and play with each other all day. They will obviously be heavily supervised, but the benefits are well worth the cost of a days care, and, as a bonus, your dog will be exhausted by the end of the day too.
If your dog is not good with other dogs, or if you are not sure how he might react, you will need to get help from an experienced behaviourist first. They will assess your dog properly and give you specific advice about how to help him, so in time, he can be safe with other dogs and you can start reaping the benefits we have been talking about here.
Would you like to let your dog play with other dogs?
In a previous survey, 13% of participants said they never let their dogs socialise with other dogs. I think that’s a shame as they are missing out on so much.
I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.
I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.
In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.