Thursday, May 23, 2013

Play time? Or not.

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.


  1. My one sheltie did like to run and play with my friends dogs. We let them . It never was a problem getting him to work with me. My opinion is that I want my dogs to think agility is fun! Run fast, have a good time. Miley and Java play chase at the field while I set up. Again, not a problem getting them to work work with me when it's time. But they won't play with anyone else's dogs.

  2. I hate it when I go to a beginners obedience class with my young dog and have to fend off other dogs coming to "say hi" (at the end of a 16' flexi). When I say that my dogs don't play with other dogs, I get the "poor dog" comment as they try to reel in their obnoxious dog terrorizing my puppy. John Q Public don't "get" the performance mentality. They all have been taught that all dogs must be able to play together. A dangerous thing, just as dangerous as complete non-socialization. My dogs do all play together. And they play with my friend's pack, but that happens maybe 2-3 times a year. But I retain the title of "the funnest thing in their world" - or I work hard at it anyway!

  3. Wonderful post! Though proper social interaction is necessary in this day and age, too many people just don't get that having that play date or run in the dog park with the "pack" isn't a requirement of dog life. It's an option that they exercise and that I don't. I hate being rude to people in Petsmart of Petco, but what I really think is lacking with today's pet owners is an understanding of manners and common sense. My dogs love doing things with me and that makes the bond we have so much more special.

  4. While I totally agree with the comments on John Q Public's ideas of play, as a competitive trainer I still let my dogs play outside of the home pack, at least those who want to. I even let them chase squirrels at two of our regular training get togethers - I just view it as learning to turn off distractions until I say they can go play. OTOH, I am working with field bred retrievers who also run in the upper levels of hunt tests, so it may be that if they don't get that release they will explode! ;-) Just finished my fourth OTCh on a NOB in March, so I guess it's working out. It's all in knowing your dogs.

  5. Thanks for the post Melinda. Kismet is the first dog I've had who really loves playing with other dogs. Early on I encouraged lots of play (wanting to have a dog with good social skills), and her being my first puppy, it seemed like the right thing to do. Since she turned about 7 months, I've decided to limit play to a single place (my back yard). My other dogs have been either neutral or had space issues, so this is an entirely new problem for me! I'm picturing her watching the dog in the next ring, jumping and retrieving, and her sailing over the ring gates to go play... sigh. I have a hunch I have my work cut out for me.

  6. Taz the Terv cannot be trusted not to be a snot with other dogs, and is not allowed to play with dogs outside the family. The Little Wombat Dog,however, is intensely social, and loves to play with anyone and everyone. I sometimes allow her to play with friends' dogs at the training building, but there are rules. She has to wait to be released to play, she has to recall out of play, and she has to be able to work alongside her friend (as in doing retrieves at the same time). For us this works in a kind of "you play the games I choose and I might let you play the games your choose kind" of way. But I suspect it only works because however much she loves playing, she loves food more, so she has sufficient incentive to focus back on me.

  7. Two comments:
    = Folks just need to set up play dates *separate* from the training class at the training center. For folks with 6 to 18 month old, busy-personality, gun/working type dogs, a few times/week 20+ minutes play dates with a compatible dog can make living with that teenage dog more fun. [Controlling the situation can be useful for teenage dogs. At dog parks you are Relying on the Kindness of Strangers that they are bringing an appropriate dog that they can call away from stimulating situations.]
    = Dog play, especially for puppies & young dogs, is an excellent time to practice Come When Called Away From High-Level Distractions. Owners need to have high, high, high value rewards -- real cheese, tiny bits of meat like beef/pork/chicken thigh, real fur tug toys, beloved frisbee/ball -- to reward the dog for short bits of attention & engagement [at first] in the presence of inviting dogs. Note: All the handlers need to call/get their dogs at the same time. Later this can become work with owner off-leash & moving around in the presence of dog buddies. Dogs are one of the biggest attraction/distractions for young, social dogs. [I used puppy playtime as training time for my now-4 year old dog. HE learned to have some fun with me in the presence of other little puppies *and* then he got to go play. Yes, Premack Principle at work.]

    Your milage may vary. Happy training.