Play Dates for Your Dog

Does your dog have friends or do you just assume that all dogs like each other?

I met my (human) friend at the dog beach last week, and her cheerful, playful golden bounded over, wearing a huge smile as she ran up to say hi to Jana. They’ve played together many times at dog beaches around the Bay Area (tough life, I know) and they are clearly friends.

But, while 9-year-old Christina and 8-year-old Jana are BFFs, there are other dogs we see regularly with whom Jana is cordial, but distant. Remember being forced to play with your mom’s friends’ kids? It’s the same with canines — our dogs and our friends’ dogs don’t always hit it off.

It might seem obvious. Not all dogs like each other or enjoy hanging out together. We certainly don’t instantly bond with every human we meet. Some become friends. Many do not.

But when some people take their dogs to dog parks or dog beaches, they somehow assume that everyone there will play nicely together. Similarly, they get irked when their dog seems to take an instant dislike to another dog they meet on a walk or in a training class.

Just like our parents, we want our dogs to be polite and friendly all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. When some dogs take an instant dislike to another, they lunge, bark, or even attack the other dog, for no reason that we hapless humans can see.

I’ve spent a lot of time in dog parks lately doing observation research with my students. What we’ve noticed is that most of the dogs there don’t play with each other. They run, play with their humans, chase balls, roll in the grass, and sniff things. Often, they are sniffed or given a play bow from another, more social dog, and politely and appropriately decline the invitation to play. Sometimes, dogs chase each other a few times, and sometimes the “play” chase turns into something closer to bullying.

Those of us who take our dogs to dog parks for exercise need to be involved. It is no more acceptable to spend dog-park time involved in a long cellphone conversation than it would be for the mother of a 2-year-old human child to do that while her child ran unobserved at the playground. A dog park, fenced or not, is not an opportunity to take a break from your dog.

We can go to dog parks with friends whose dogs are really our dogs’ friends — or set up play dates at our homes. Or, we can go to the dog park with the plan of engaging with our dog while we’re there — to walk with the dog, or maybe toss a ball. What we need to avoid is just assuming that all the dogs will play together and get enough exercise while we ignore them. As many dog experts will tell you, the more engaged the humans are at the dog park, the fewer unpleasant incidents you’ll see.

The same goes for walks. Even on-leash dogs can hurt each other. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, consider working with a trainer to improve his socialization and help him learn to behave more calmly. If your dog seems to attract hostility from other dogs, ask their owners not to let their dogs approach. Meanwhile, work at building up your dog’s confidence and social skills with dogs you know are friendly.

But the bottom line is, we’re our dogs’ protectors and advocates. Don’t throw your dog to the (domesticated) wolves at dog parks or in the neighborhood, and don’t let your dog become the bully, either.

Check out these doggy buddies: Dog Guides Blind Dog

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