I love to travel, and usually I travel alone. This means that I have spent a fair amount of time in airports all by myself. Now I am a normally social, friendly type of person, and I am never lonely in the airport. If I lack for conversation, I might chat up the clerk in the book store, or say hello to the security guard, or talk to the gate person. If I am sitting in a waiting area and someone sits down next to me, I will say hello and we may strike up a conversation. What I don’t do is rush up to every person I pass by, give them a big hug and a kiss and expect that they will enjoy the interaction! Imagine what travelling might be like for YOU if I behaved this way. I imagine that I might get arrested if I persisted in this sort of behaviour. It certainly would not be a pleasant way for everyone else if I interacted this way.
So, what does airport behaviour have to do with moving through life with your dog? I was talking to a client today who was lamenting that her dog used to really enjoy interacting with random dogs in the local park, but who now doesn’t like it much at all. I suspect that there are a number of reasons why she may no longer enjoy interacting with new dogs in public any longer and many of those reasons have to do with what she has experienced with the other dogs she has met, and also with the expectations that have been shown to her over the years.
The dog park is a lot like an airport in many ways. There are a lot of other travellers that your dog has not yet met. There is a lot of chaos and busyness that your dog has to cope with. And there are a whole lot of social conventions your dog has to cope with, both from the other dogs and from the people. There has been a fair amount of discussion in my Facebook feed lately from other professional trainers about what people expect when we teach them in puppy class all about puppy play. One of the things that people seem to be taking away from puppy class is that all dogs must interact with all other dogs every single time that they meet one another! Nothing in fact should be further from the truth.
In puppy class my preference is to have a good amount of free play. This means that the puppies need to be well matched with one another, that the people need to be aware of the signs of distress during play and that play is not required to go on and on and on and on forever. A good puppy play session teaches puppies that dogs who look different from them are safe, and that there is more than just one play style. In good puppy play, we look for evidence of puppies who are confident, and for evidence of those who are not. We look for evidence of pups who are overly forward in their interactions with people and for those who are overwhelmed and shy. Puppy play gives us lots of information about what to do to help these pups develop into the most confident adults they can grow up to be. Puppy play is just that though; play for young dogs. Puppy play is not intended to happen for the rest of the dog’s life!
Puppy class is a lot like nursery school. For most children nursery school is a lot of fun. You get to play with new toys, and try new experiences, and meet other children. In a good nursery school, you are going to learn things like saying please and thank you, waiting your turn and that kicking your friends is frowned upon. There is a lot of play and some quiet time and some learning time. In a good puppy class, pups should be learning similar lessons.
What you don’t want children to learn in nursery school is that every single person they meet needs a hug and a kiss or that every other child is going to want to play with you all the time. Again, these are lessons we hope puppies will learn in puppy class, but sometimes that message seems to get missed. Here are some things that I have been hearing from clients lately that tell me that we as an industry may not be doing the best job ever at conveying this information.
I have a client who has an older dog who is out of his mind every time he gets to the dog park and is completely out of control. This client didn’t go to puppy school with us, but went to a school where the puppies were placed in an enclosure and the only person in the enclosure was the instructor. The puppies were carried in, and then put on the floor inside the enclosure off leash. This strategy (I had never heard of this before, but apparently it was a thing where they went to puppy class!) virtually guaranteed that every puppy would expect to play as soon as they saw the other dogs. When the dog got old enough to go to the dog park, he was very difficult to handle and would not wait to be let off leash, so my client took to driving to the dog park, and then opening the door and letting the dog out of the car to play. Skip forward four years and this dog screams in anticipation every time they drive towards the dog park. So lesson number one I want my students to know about dog-dog interactions. Don’t let your dogs off leash to play until they are showing some level of self control!
The drill I have for letting a dog off leash to play with his buddies is to stand far enough away from the crowd that my dog is not losing his mind, and then wait for him to look back at me. Looking back at me tells me that there is a connection. When I have this, then I reach down, hold my dog’s collar and unclip the leash. THEN I let my dog off leash to play. In our puppy classes we talk about this a lot because it gives the handler a much better level of control and then you don’t have a dog waiting to hear the snap of the leash clip and bolting. As my dogs learn the game I add in bits of obedience skills before releasing them to play and the really advanced dogs do that part off leash.
The next thing that clients have been telling me about is when their dogs have played for a bit, and they don’t want to continue playing. People spend a lot of time and energy in the dog park telling their dogs to play almost like they are encouraging a child to finish their school work. Dogs and puppies play for between 5 and 10 minutes at a time and then they go do something else. They may come back to play again shortly, but it is not normal in my experience for dogs to play incessantly, UNLESS they have been encouraged to do so. In a large group, dogs will sometimes play sequentially with one partner for a while and then with another partner and then another and so on, but two dogs don’t normally just go on and on and on. Let your dog play. Then let him rest. If he wants to play again, that is fine but he shouldn’t have to. When we encourage our dogs to get back to play as though play is work, we are in fact interrupting their normal social behaviour. If your dog is done after a few minutes, that is perfectly okay.
Somethings are appropriate for children and not adults and of course vice versa. In our puppy classes, we usually have toys out for the pups to play with. If you look at most puppy classes, you will see that there are far more toys than puppies. I had a client come in for help recently because her dog was being snarly at the dog park. I asked if they brought toys to the park, and she replied yes, that she always had a ball. One. She was very put out because the other dogs in the dog park would sometimes steal the ball and her dog was often targeted while they were playing. The problem is that ownership and dogs is fairly clear cut, the fastest, strongest and nastiest dog is often the one with the ball. In fact, I wrote a whole blog just about that; you can find it at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/fast-strong-or-nasty/ . My general rule about toys in the dog park is that if an item happens to be available and a dog chooses to engage with it, I will keep an eye on things to make sure that they don’t get out of hand and allow the dogs to play with it. If a person throws an item, or makes a fuss to get their dog to engage with the item, I take my dog out of the equation. In general, toys are appropriate in quantity for puppies, but not for adult dogs.
Another idea that we share in puppy class that seems to cause problems is that your puppy needs to meet as many people as you can find, and as many different people as possible. This is another rule that applies to puppies, but not to adult dogs. When I teach puppy classes my priority is to make sure that your puppy is confident about all the people she will meet as an adult, so until she is about 16 weeks of age, I want her to meet lots of people. That does not mean that I want her to jump on every person that she meets or that I want her to expect treats from everyone either. I want her to see lots of people, doing lots of things and learn that they are safe. When I am socializing a puppy, for the most part, I do the feeding. I will recruit a few people to feed my puppy, but in general, I feed my puppy treats for politely looking and not pulling towards the new person.
The same thing is true for meeting other dogs. I want young puppies to learn that other dogs are out there, and if I think it is a good idea, they can go say hi. If I don’t think it is a good idea, then taking a pass on meeting a dog should be cool too. I don’t want my dog to be the Walmart greeter of dogs! I want him to be able to walk through a group of dogs as an adult and choose to not pull towards every dog he meets. I think about D’fer, my last chessie as the best example of what that might look like. Deef was my service dog and I remember travelling with him in New York City a few years after 9-11. We were going through Central Station and a whole group of military working dogs came through. These were large, high strung dogs and they were straining on the ends of their leashes ready to go! They caught sight of D’fer and immediately began to bark at him. D’fer was so cool! He just calmly looked up at me. The handlers were brilliant too. They each cued their dogs to stop and come back to heel. Leashes went loose, dogs came back under control, and they passed by. Then the dogs were cued again and they went back to straining on their leashes. It was an elegant example of dogs doing their own work and minding their own business and not engaging in anything they ought not to have been.
On that same trip, D’fer exhibited another behaviour that was spectacular. We went to visit a friend he knew well but he had not seen in several months. This friend, a canine friend, was his very favourite dog ever. When we arrived at our destination, he recognized where we were and he started to pull on his leash. D’fer was very highly trained and rarely pulled on leash, but he was excited to see his friend. This is a time when I did not expect him to mind his manners, because for him, this was much like meeting your Grandmother at the airport. You know who she is, you have been waiting to see her and now that she is here, you are going to jump up and down and hug her. D’fer knew the difference between saying hi to unknown military working dogs, and greeting his very best friend. This is what we need our dogs to learn to do when they are out and about. They need to learn to discriminate between the two situations and behave appropriately in each of them.
Something that is amazing to me is that many of my students seem to miss this distinction. They often get upset when their dogs are happy to see people they know well and worried when their dogs are not happier than they are about strangers. What a mixed up way to be for the dog! In puppy class I want pups to learn to meet people, but not be silly about that, while understanding that when they haven’t seen someone familiar for quite some time, they may be a little silly even though they have been taught how to greet appropriately.
Out in the wide, wide world is a bit like travelling through the airport. There are people I need to speak to, and I need to do that politely. There are people I am thrilled to see, especially if they are picking me up after a long journey. There are people I need to not interact with. There are also people I need to interact with casually. I need to learn the differences between all of these people and act accordingly. That is what I wish people knew about helping their puppies to learn about the world, about other dogs, dog play, and the many people they will encounter.