Dogs must learn at an early age to greet another dog nicely, and to interact pleasantly together. Play should be calm and confident, without becoming over-excited, boisterous or noisy. A bit of rough and tumble play with appropriately low level growling and gargling is fine, but watch carefully for any ramping up of the behaviour, indicated by an increase in the level and pitch of vocalisation and the aggressiveness of the physical play.
To ensure the dog learns to play nicely, stay very close to your puppy and dive in with your “YES!” positive reinforcer to mark the moments when he is playing well, followed quickly by a delicious treat. Do this repeatedly. It is particularly valuable to reward the times when the puppy steps back for a moment or two and just watches calmly, while taking a breather. This is excellent behaviour and should be encouraged.
If your puppy becomes too excited or boisterous, immediately remove him from the play area and ‘isolate’ him for thirty seconds from all the fun. We call this ‘timeout’, and I prefer this name to calling it the ‘naughty corner’ because he is not being naughty. He is either anxious or simply having a great time! Don’t reprimand him, because this just increases his arousal and could make him anxious – or more anxious. Commonly, dogs who are not feeling confident and who may be feeling anxious about the situation can get overly boisterous. Certainly, dogs who are aggressive start by becoming boisterous, so this must be prevented.
If you consistently reward good play with treats, and put him into brief isolation for unwanted play behaviour, he will quickly learn how to play in a sociable, pleasant manner. Always finish on a good note, so if it’s time to finish the play and go home or resume training, look for an interaction that is very positive and dive in with lavish praise, rewards and ease him away with more treats.
NOTE: Never call your dog to you to leave the fun. He wants to stay and play, so if you call him over – irrespective of the praise and treats – only to take him away from his play friend/s, this is effectively a punishment! It will teach him to avoid you and he could become hard to catch, and/ or he will become resistant to the recall ‘come’ command. And we don’t want that!!!
Problems with dog play:
Most dogs play nicely together, but this depends on their personality and history. If they are naturally anxious dogs or have previously had a bad experience in playtime, they may feel defensive when in close proximity to another dog and certainly when there is more than one other dog. The more dogs there are in the mix, the worse this anxiety can be and the faster it can develop into aggressive ‘play’, and then aggression.
This is very common at off-leash dog parks and beaches. These places should be avoided, because you have absolutely no control over what is likely to happen, nor over what sort of dogs (and people) you and your dog are interacting with. It is far safer to find a small circle of dog-friends – people with well mannered, friendly and confident dogs – and have your own little ‘play group’ sessions. This way you can stay in control of your dog’s environment.
Aggressive play occurs when normal play starts ramping up into over-excitement, and then becomes more physical, noisy and intimidating. This is UNACCEPTABE! Over-excitement must be calmly stopped, before it develops into an environment of aggression. Once a play environment ramps up into a noisy, rough and charged scene, other dogs can become reactive and the entire atmosphere becomes charged with aggression. This can happen in extremely subtle ways that we humans – busy chatting amongst ourselves – frequently miss. Suddenly there is a fight! The signs are there, so stay alert and look for them!
When allowing dogs to interact, each owners’ full attention should be on their own dog – looking for abnormal behaviour – and, at the same time, assessing the whole scene: looking for any problems that might be ramping up. Keep the play quiet and calm. Sure, let puppies tumble and run, gargle and growl – but as soon vocalization becomes noisy and sharp, or if there is boisterous play, defensive cringing or avoidance, and certainly if there is any snapping or worse, calmly separate the dogs and calm everything back down.
If a dog becomes over-excited or aggressive, remove him/them and allow the aggressor/s to chill out for a while, right away form the other dogs. Give him some things to do which focuses him on you, distracts him from his aroused state of mind, and earns him positive reinforcement. For example, ask him for a succession of sit and drop actions, or get him to perform some tricks. When he seems calm again, reintroduce the dog to the edge of the play area and select one very calm and confident dog to approach. Using positive reinforcement for confident, pleasant greetings and kind, gentle play, encourage him to relax in the play area. But if his arousal starts ramping up again, take him away and start again.
It is extremely important to end any training/behaviour situation on a good note, so if your dog ever has a problem with play (or anything) be sure she has a chance to go back to the play area and either successfully interact with the other dog/s, or be close to them without interacting and remaining happy. She should receive lavish praise for good, calm, confident and pleasant play. If she is too aroused/aggressive, however, or simply lacks the confidence to interact pleasantly with the other/s, just approach the play area, but don’t interact.
Take her towards them from a distance at which she is comfortable and showing no signs of stress or anxiety, and give more activities to do – without interacting. If this goes well, go a little closer – say by a step or two – and repeat your one-on-one interaction with your dog, but do not take her so close as to see signs of anxiety!
Once you have ended on a good note, even if you are still a fair way away from the other dog/s you have effected a positive training experience and should end the lesson. Take her home and call your behaviourist for an appointment!
The occurrence of increased aggression when a dog is on a leash is EXTREMELY common. The tension she feels, through the leash to you, triggers the dog’s ‘flight or fight’ instinct. She feels restricted in her ability to take flight because the tension of the leash is restraining her. If a dog is anxious about another dog, but knows they can’t run away, the other hard-wired instinct kicks in – the need to fight.
If your dog is more aggressive on the leash, she needs to be very carefully trained how to greet or play with calm, quiet confidence. Special one-on-one behavioural instruction is advised. If it is only mild, however, find yourself a friend with a ‘bombproof’ dog, and train your dog how to greet and, eventually, play nicely.
Take the lead-aggressive dog closer in tiny increments – in a zone where she feels confident and non-aggressive – and reward her for confident behaviour. Taker her back away again to take the pressure off, and then approach again to the same spot. If, after several repetitions of this, she is still really calm and confident, next time, approach a little closer. Depending on how big the distance of her comfort zone is between her and the other dog, this may be ten metres, or one metre, or one foot, but a 10% increment is the rough idea. In other words, go forward in tiny progressions, while watching at all times for any signs of fear or anxiety.
When interacting up close, avoid putting any pressure on the leash: preferably drop it completely, and let the dogs meet or play in a small enclosed area. The leash is still attached and there ready for quick extraction if necessary. Once she gains confidence playing with the ‘bombproof’ dog without the tension, gradually introduce gentle tension until she is happy to play on the end of the lead, which occasionally gets tight while you untangle it, but otherwise is not a cause for anxiety.
As always, finish on a good note – watch for a particularly pleasant interaction, lavishly reward her and then ease her away without any pressure on the leash. Use treats to lure her away and be sure she doesn’t have any negative feelings about being taken away, or she may feel as though she is being punished with the ‘isolation’ from her friend/s.