…and does he really need to?
Does your dog speak dog? 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 skills they need to interact appropriately with other dogs. In fact, it is one of the most common problems I am asked to help with as it can cause lots of problems.
One thing I’ve noticed recently is a steep decline in the number of dogs being allowed to exercise off lead. This new trend has come about partly from a growing fear of other dogs and what might happen when they meet, a lack of training, and of course the dreaded effects of lockdown.
With the availability of extendable or extra-long leads, more and more people feel no urgency to train their dog to be off lead either. 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 should be an essential part of a dogs daily 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 hunting, fighting, and conflict resolution.
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 wrestle with you as it will be with a fellow canine! We are so much slower and weaker than another dog, and so play will feel stilted and awkward.
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 other dogs will also make him less reactive when he is on his lead. He will also have better communication skills which will make him a more empathetic dog!
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 at a time when dogs are being expected to behave less and less dog-like!
Spending quality time with other dogs also helps him to learn to cooperate with others. This will encourage him become more trusting towards dogs. Which, in turn, 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 need.
Finally, fast, energetic and rough play with another dog can also help to release any pent up frustrations and anxieties he might have. This is essential for an altogether calmer and even tempered dog.
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 doddering along on the paths. 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 at another time. The fast running pace means he can really let off some steam, it will improve his cardiovascular health, and he will come home from his walks content 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 excitable on his lead, then it is likely he will be much calmer off his lead. The restrictive nature of the lead often causes frustration and anxiety. Dogs are also less able to communicate freely on a lead. So it is always good advice to let dogs meet on very 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, he will be restricted to a freeze or fight response when he might have preferred to run.
Keep calm and loosen the lead!
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 still needs work. 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 lets the novelty sink in. He’ll be more responsive once he has checked the place out.
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.
Take my 30 Day Online Recall Programme for an awesome, distraction proof, recall
He might be a little rusty
Don’t worry if your dog makes a few mistakes the first time he gets to meet new dogs. This is quite normal, especially if he is over excited or is a bit rusty at greeting behaviour. He will likely have come across as a little rude to the other dog. 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.
In a previous survey (pre-lockdown), 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.
Get a dog walker
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 it’s 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.
Get a Behaviourist
If your dog is really not good with other dogs, or if you are not sure how he might react, you may 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 of a well socialised dog.
How can I help you with your dogs socialisation?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area, and beyond. If you are looking for kind behaviour advice for your dog then please get in touch!