Living with Labrador Retrievers, the joys and tribulations of living, loving and training dogs
This blog is a tribute to Belle, and all the dogs who have come before and after. They are my friends, my companions, my teachers and my students. They bring me both joy and heartache, laughter and tears. There is nothing as sweet as the smell of puppy breathe, and nothing as sad as the final goodbye.
Let’s Be Friends! : A Few Tips for Introducing Dogs
When I’m not writing for TU, I work with dogs at a large animal sanctuary. We get dogs in from all over with a variety of issues, and while many of them are a little selective with their doggy friends, we try hard at work to find them suitable roommates and playmates. There are a lot of benefits that come with dogs having friends: first, dogs can play with each other in a way that humans just can’t duplicate, and I suspect it’s a relief for dogs to be able to easily communicate with each other. An analogy I use a lot is this: if you’re in a foreign country, even if you’re pretty good in the local language, it can be a huge relief to find somebody who speaks your native language and can understand your little idioms and colloquialisms and accents. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to fight to be understood, and while dogs work hard to make humans understand what they’re saying, other dogs speak dog as a first language.
Second, dogs benefit from keeping their dog skills up. Even dogs who don’t care much for other dogs need practice walking peacefully down the street when other dogs pass them, and having occasional low-stress exposure to new dogs can be a big benefit, even for dogs who don’t really want to play. Sometimes our ‘playdates’ at work just consist of two dogs peacefully coexisting in the same space, not interacting, just sniffing around and exploring on their own terms. They’re not very exciting looking, but those low-key encounters can be valuable too!
Because my older dogs in particular can be pretty selective with other dogs, I have absolutely been guilty of limiting their dog-dog social time in the past; however, doing lots of dog introductions at work has gotten me a lot braver about it, and these days, Widget and Nimbus have a several playdates every week, Nellie has periodic playdates with with specific dogs and Lucy’s started to go on group walks where she doesn’t interact with other dogs but walks peacefully in the group. This is a terrific thing for all of them, and I’m glad I’ve started to be able to do it again. Below the cut, I’ll lay out the steps we use for new dog introductions at work, which have also worked really well with my own guys!
1) Pick the right friends
Who better to be friends with a cattlejack? Why, how about ANOTHER CATTLEJACK!
The best way to set your dog up for success is to think carefully about the kind of dog you’re going to ask them to be friends with. Does your dog take a while to get comfortable with new dogs? Pick a dog who isn’t going to immediately run up and get in her space. Does your dog tend to run up and greet right away? Look for an easygoing dog who isn’t going to take offense. Is your dog super intense about toys? Find them a friend who doesn’t care much about toys, or make sure all the toys are put away. Does your dog prefer males or females? Do they like one size of dog better? Lucy, for example, loves puppies and tolerates dogs her size or smaller better than she tolerates dogs bigger than her. Widget is small, but a pretty rough player and she can often be too much for more timid small dogs. What is your dog’s play style? Michelle wrote a great post on canine play styles and if you’re unsure what might be a compatible play style for your dog, check that post out. It’s especially important to pick the right buddy for dogs who are still building their comfort level with new dogs; as they continue to amass good experiences with new dog friends, you can start pushing things a bit (maybe, say, trying your dog who prefers males with a nice easygoing female), but especially early on, try to pick dogs who you think will be a good fit.
2) Start with a parallel walk
One of Cerb and Fly’s early walks together. See how Cerb is still a little worried about Fly? This is why parallel walks help!
River practices walking calmly with a new dog.
When we do parallel walks at work, we’ll often start by walking down a quiet road or large path with one dog on either side. This is a great opportunity to play Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That game with your dog. Once you’ve walked a bit and both dogs are calm about the presence of the other, you can move a little bit closer. If the dogs are pulling and anxious to get over and greet each other, keep them separated and just continue to walk. Usually, we don’t like to have their first meetup happen on leash right away: leashes tend to add to the stress level, and even if the dogs do start to play right away, it’s easy for the humans to wind up in the middle of a Maypole made of leashes and dogs. In general, meetups go better if dogs’ first interactions happen when they’re calm instead of when they’re all amped up and feeling like, “Oh boy, A DOG A DOG A DOG!”
3) Find a neutral zone for the first introduction
A lot of dogs, even very dog-friendly dogs, can get a little protective about their own space, so if you can avoid it, it’s often better to have dogs meet somewhere other than either dog’s home/yard. At work, we use our enclosed agility area for meetups, but if you’re just out and about, fenced tennis courts and playgrounds are great for this; you might also ask a neighbor if you can trade some homemade cookies for use of their backyard for half an hour.
Dierdre likes to meet new friends at the dog beach
4) Drop leashes, but leave them attached to the dog’s collar or harness
When you get to the new area, if it’s safe to do so, it’s usually easier for dogs to meet each other if they’re not dragging their human behind them. This is mostly because it’s often a little scary to have your dogs meet other dogs (especially if your dog has been snarky in the past), so we get tense, and then that tension and stiffness we feel is transmitted right down the leash into our dogs’ necks, making them more likely to get tense and stiff (imagine somebody is holding your hand and then all of a sudden, they grip a lot harder and their hand gets cold and sweaty. How does that make you feel?) So: when the dogs are calm and not pulling towards each other, drop the leashes and let them greet each other. Keep the leashes on, though: if things don’t go well right away, it’s nice to be able to reach in and grab your dog’s leash so you can move them away from each other.
[Note: if you're a person who uses a prong or a choke collar, PLEASE don't use these during intros. Dogs can really get hurt if the collar gets yanked while the dogs are playing, and the extra pain/pressure these collars cause collars is very likely to make your dog have unpleasant associations with the other dog. Flat collars or harnesses only during intros, please.]
A good dog greeting looks like this: the dogs are in a nice C-shape, both bodies are loose, they’re doing mutual butt-sniffs. This is the politest way for dogs to meet each other.
Some dogs greet by quickly passing face-first, walking side to side and doing quick check-out sniffs: this is an abbreviated version of the really involved C-shaped butt sniff you’ll see above. This is something you’ll frequently see in puppies or insecure dogs: it’s like a nod to an acquaintance rather than a full-on handshake. In this picture, my puppy Nimbus is meeting my mom’s fifteen year old dog Helen, who is blind and deaf, so neither is looking for a very intense engagement.
Nimbus isn’t huge; Helen’s just tiny.
These two corgis are not sure they want to be friends.
A less-good dog greeting looks like this: face-to-face greetings are not the end of the world, but they’re a lot ruder than the nice, C-shaped, butt-sniffing greeting above. At very least, things are starting off a little tenser. That said, many greetings start off a little stiff and intense, and then one dog play-bows and both dogs go zooming off together. Tension isn’t the end of the world, but it is a sign that you should watch things carefully: tense intros tend to either end up really well (crazy zoomy playtime!) or really badly (big fight!)
If the dogs quickly go in for a sniff and then separate and go off and do their own thing, this is generally a pretty good thing: they’re being respectful of the other dog’s space, and giving each other a chance to get comfortable. One of my friendliest, most playful dogs at work usually begins his intros by ignoring the other dog for a solid ten minutes; you get to the point where you’re about ready to end it and do something else, and then, all of the sudden, somebody playbows and it turns into crazy, happy fun play for a half an hour.
5) Watch the dogs’ body language.
Things you want to look for: loose, wiggly body language, play bows, dogs shaking off or sneezing, soft eyes, relaxed, open mouths and tails that are neither tucked nor straight up in the air and waving stiffly. Also, as the dogs play, watch to make sure the play is mutual: if the dogs are chasing each other, look to see that they’re taking turns (some dogs really like being either the chaser or the chase-ee, and that’s fine: you just want to make sure that they’re both enjoying it!) If they’re wrestling, make sure that one dog isn’t getting constantly pinned and body-slammed by the other. Here are some examples of nice body language you’ll see in dogs who are happy playing together.
Here’s Nellie playing with my foster dog Stella. Nellie’s coming in sideways rather than from the front, and both dogs’ body language is loose and floppy: check out Stella’s goofy paw placement.
Perri’s friend has that same C-shaped body position you saw in the nice sniffy greeting photo and both dogs have relaxed, open mouths.
Widget playbows at her friend Charlie.
Dahlia and her friend are leaning into each other as they play chase.
Widget and foster dog Shine have relaxed, floppy ears and loose open mouths even in the middle of some pretty intense play.
Some dogs like to use their paws to incite play. That’s what Nimbus did a lot as a baby.
Here’s Nimbus and his new friend, a four month old Frenchie puppy (who has a cherry eye: don’t worry, it’s in the process of being fixed). She’s a great player: see how loose and floppy her body language is? She’s very good at signaling, “Sure, I’m biting you a lot, but I don’t mean it!”
If one dog growls, or there’s a little bit of snark, it’s very tempting to jump in and get all, “FLUFFY! BE NICE!”. That’s usually not a great idea; dogs tend to be pretty good at communicating with each other, and there’s usually a period of negotiation while the dogs try to figure out how the other likes to play and what the other finds rude. If the humans step in and yell at the dogs for growling at each other, the dogs start (reasonably!) thinking, “OK, well, I’m going to get yelled at if I growl at that other dog when he’s a jerk, so probably I just have to bite him” Wrong message! Now, that said, I’m not advocating the old “just let them work it out” strategy. If Dog A is repeatedly correcting Dog B and Dog B isn’t listening or altering their behavior, it’s time to step in. If one dog seems to be trying to get away from the other dog, it’s time to step in. If, after the dogs greet each other, they get very stiff, face each other, hackles go up and tails get high and tight, it’s DEFINITELY time to step in. But if it’s just a little grumbling, try your best to give them some space. If you think the dogs need it, you can take their leashes and walk them around the area for a little bit, just to help chill everything out; then you can try dropping leashes again.
Lucy corrects Nimbus: Nimbus leaps back, tongue flicks and says OMG I AM VERY VERY SORRY PLEASE DON’T EAT ME I’M JUST A PUPPY!
At work, we usually leave the dogs’ leashes on unless they’re clearly really enjoying each other and engaging in some rough-and-tumble play where there’s a chance they’ll get tangled in the leashes. You can use your judgement, though: if the dogs are clearly having a blast, feel free to take them off. Just be sure your dog has good enough recall that you can call them away from their new friend when the playdate is over!
6) End on a good note
There’s a quote that’s attributed to PT Barnum: “Always leave ‘em wanting more”. That’s something that is very true in dog playdates! Dogs, like humans, can get sick of each other’s company (especially if one has more energy than the other) and so the ideal thing is to end the interaction on a positive note before everyone’s bored and/or grouchy. Good playdates between dogs usually involve a big burst of play (chasing, wrestling, tug, whatever), and then everyone shakes off and takes a break to they get some water/eat some grass/sniff around/lay down. It’s usually best to end the playdate during one of these little moments of downtime rather than waiting until both dogs are exhausted and panting on the floor. Then, when the dogs meet again, they’ll have a pattern of play already established and a lot of good associations with each other already built up.
The result of some fun playtime.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing more fun than watching your dog bomb around happily with another dog, playing and zooming and having a blast. So go out and have playdates!