This is a hard post to write because while I know the right answer for me, I also know it’s not the right answer for everyone.
Some friends and I were visiting recently about letting our dogs play with other dogs (dogs outside of our home “packs”). I know many people will meet to train together, then turn their dogs loose to play afterward.
The result, somewhat predictably, is that many of these dogs come to obedience class and view the other canine students as potential playmates, increasing by tenfold the amount of effort their owners must expend to keep them focused and engaged, not zipping off to visit the other dogs.
Since my own dogs have never been much for the canine social scene, this has largely been a non-issue for me. There were a few occasions when a small group of friends and I would let our dogs all run and play together but in reality those instances were few and far between and the last time it happened was literally years ago.
My shelties weren’t fond of associating with the unwashed masses, as they viewed other dogs. Jamie’s idea of “play” was stealing whatever toy was the focus of the amusement and going off to tear it up. Since he was bigger than everyone else, he got the ball or bumper with little effort and then the game was over.
And Phoenix? Phoenix has never been “dog park” material. Turning him loose to “play” with other dogs would not end well. He generally prefers that "strange" dogs keep their distance and mind their manners. From time to time, I allow him to sniff noses and “make nice” with dogs he expresses a friendly interest in and ones I trust not to spontaneously combust in his face. He wags his tail and occasionally play bows and that’s as far as it goes. It’s sort of a “Hey, dude, how are ya?” “Good, you?” “Awesome.” “ ‘kay, see ya later.”
Knowing Phoenix does not care to interact with other dogs in general and knowing that in order for us to succeed as a team in my chosen sport (obedience), he needs to look to me as the source of good times, not other dogs, it doesn’t bother me much that he rarely gets to socialize with others of his own species. Of course, he gets to play with Jamie. I’ve always let my own dogs play together. We have routine sessions of “pack play,” which vary in structure and content as puppies are added and as geriatric dogs age.
But I totally understand the desire to let one’s dog play with other dogs. They're so dang fun to watch! It’s fun to study their body language. It’s amazing to watch the subtle split-second messages that change the tone of a game only the dogs know the rules to.
At the same time, letting your dog play with other dogs, especially in a training venue, sends a loud and clear message - go have fun without me. You don’t need me to have a great time. Just forget I’m here. I could never be that much fun so I won't even try.
Okay. On one hand, how long is this session going to last? Maybe 20 minutes? What’s 20 minutes out of a week? Especially if you add up all the time during the day you spend walking your dog, training him, grooming him, feeding him, cuddling while watching TV and just interacting around your house? What’s it going to hurt to let him play with another dog for 20 minutes a week?
My head says, “Really? C’mon. How can you expect your dog to value the time he spends with you if you constantly allow him to have a BETTER time with someone/something who is not you?” I would like the presence of ring gates, of matting, jumps and the whole “atmosphere” of obedience sites to flip a switch in my dog’s brain that says, “This is where I work/play with Mom and ignore everything else cuz she has the coolest plan for fun and I want to be with HER.”
My heart says, “For doG’s sake, quit being such an obedience Nazi and let the dog go play with another dog if he wants to. A few minutes won’t hurt anything, will it?"
The bottom line on this is: it’s a personal choice. I know that the competitive goals I’ve set for my dog and I demand a level of relationship that goes beyond average Joe Public pet owner, as well as many other trainers who are pursuing different journeys. There are certain skill sets we must achieve and if I constantly let him replace me with another dog as the source of fun and mental effort, we will not master them.
You're the only one who can decide what is right for your team.