Dog Play Groups

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On the first night of my puppy training classes, I tell all the owners to take the leashes off their puppies and let them play. At first no one wants to do it. They are afraid there will be fights or a puppy will be hurt. After a lot of persuasion— and often I unsnap the leashes myself—the puppies are turned loose and start to play. And the owners start to smile. It is fun to watch the puppies run and wrestle and tumble around the room, having the time of their lives. Some of the puppies may be a little shy at first, but they join in eventually.

After a few minutes of playtime, we begin class with puppies who are more able to concentrate because they aren't bursting with energy. After class, the puppies are rewarded with another play session. The owners are rewarded with tired puppies who go home and collapse. I also try to have a playtime after the beginners class for dogs over five months old. Because the dogs are older, not all of them will want to play. There may be two uncas-trated males who are likely to fight if given the opportunity. Or there may be a dog who has lacked socialization with other dogs to the extent that he cannot interact normally with other dogs. After these dogs leave, the rest of the dogs are allowed to play.

You can also exercise your dog this way and provide him with the opportunity to socialize with members of his own species by forming a dog play

These two Belgian Tervurens may look like they are fighting, but they are really playing.

group. This is a group of dogs who gets together to play on a regular but informal basis. It is especially beneficial for a dog who doesn't live with another dog. You can start by just getting together with one other dog and owner, and add more as interest develops. Whether the group meets every morning or only once a week or month, any opportunity for your dog to play is better than none.

The advantage of a regular play group is that your dog will play better with dogs he knows well. As the dogs become better friends, they will become less inhibited with each other in their interactions. They will get to know what games the other dogs like to play and what behavior they will or will not tolerate. The dogs will develop their own special games, complete with elaborate rules that escape a human's understanding. They will even develop special friendships. A regular play group is especially helpful if your dog tends to be uncomfortable or even aggressive around dogs he doesn't know.

The dogs will get along better if they are off leash. A leash prevents dogs from being able to communicate normally because it restricts their body language. Dogs also are more likely to fight if they are on leash. In fact, a dog who behaves aggressively toward other dogs when he is on leash may be fine with other dogs when he is off leash. If a dog has to be on leash, it is best to use a long line.

A dog play group is a good way to provide your dog with exercise.

Dog play groups can meet in a variety of places. It is best if you select a site where the dogs can be off leash. Public places should be avoided except during off-hours. A pack of dogs playing together can be very frightening to some people. Sometimes the dog owners in a development can meet in an empty lot at the end of the development. A dog owner without a fenced yard may be grateful for an opportunity to let his dog off leash in someone's fenced yard. Tennis courts may be good when they are not being used. And you don't have to stand still while the dogs are playing. One of the things I enjoy most in life is to go for a hike in the woods with a group of friends and their dogs. It is not unusual for us to have 6 to 8 dogs along, and we once had 16!

Dog play groups can be combined with dog training. Besides providing you with an opportunity to train your dog around the distractions of other dogs, you can get advice from the other owners. It is more fun to train as part of a group than by yourself. Don't forget to line all the dogs up on a sit-stay and take a picture of your dog with his buddies.

It is likely that when dogs play together there may be a fight. They are usually not serious, although they may sound horrible. Dogs rarely hurt each other in a fight, if neither dog has a severe psychological problem and if they have enough space to separate. If one occurs, do not scream and get hysterical. That will only make the fight worse. Wait a few seconds and see if it will resolve itself without your interference. Then try yelling loudly in a firm tone of voice and telling them to stop. If this doesn't work, separate them by grabbing their tails and pulling. You can also grab the skin and fur on the back of the dogs' necks to separate them. Do not reach in and try to grab for collars. That is a good way to get your hand in the way of their mouths and get bitten.

When you become more skilled at reading dog body language, you will be able to see the fights developing and warn the dogs to behave before the fight happens. This requires a dog who is very responsive to commands, however. Typically in our play group, the male dogs will start stalking each other. We just warn them with "Boooys . . ." and because the dogs are trained, they separate and find something else to do.

Don't mistake rough play for fighting. There can be a lot of growling and biting between good friends. A student of mine says people have come to her door to warn her that her dogs were killing each other in her backyard when they were only playing. It amazes me to watch my two dogs, Zephyr and Sabre, chew on each other. Zephyr has the typical, tissue-paper-thin, fragile skin of a Greyhound that seems to split open incredibly easily. However, Sabre has never broken her skin in even their roughest wrestling matches.

Avoid giving the dogs toys if they might fight over them. However, sometimes an old rag can stimulate a good game of tug-of-war or catch-me-if-you-can. Dogs who won't chase a ball normally may do so when there is another dog to compete with.

Watching dogs play is entertaining and relaxing. It is fascinating to observe their behavior with each other and how they communicate. You can learn a lot about dog body language. And you will probably spend more time exercising your dog if you have company. Everybody benefits from a dog play group!

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