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Social Groups for Dogs

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Care & Wellness, Puppies, Pet Services

Dogs are basically social animals that enjoy the company of their peers. Well-socialized canines are also comfortable around people and adapt readily to various situations. The prime time for developing social skills in puppies is between 3 to 14 weeks of age. This is when they are more relaxed and rarely react aggressively or fearfully when exposed to new dogs, people, or experiences. Socialized dogs do not get stressed when car horns honk, strange dogs bark, bicycles buzz by, or crowds of people cruise past them. Sociable dogs live happy, care-free lives. So, how can you help your dog become better socialized?

What are puppy parties?

One simple way to socialize pups is to introduce them to unfamiliar dogs in a familiar environment, such as their own back yard. This works well for most puppies unless they exhibit aggressive territorial instincts. If your dog wags his tail when visitors arrive, a party is a good idea. If he barks and snarls, meeting on neutral ground may be more the ticket.

This should not be a major gathering. It is best not to overwhelm your puppy by inviting a dozen strange dogs to your house at one time. The goal is to help your dog become more comfortable around his peers, not more worried. Invite a few well-behaved dogs that belong to owners you enjoy spending time with and trust.

What is a play date?

Unlike puppy parties, play dates involve fewer dogs and take place with more regularity. If you have acquaintances with compatible dogs and schedules, you need look no further. You and your pup can both enjoy frequently scheduled visits. But if you do not have a ready source of human/canine friends, there are other ways to find them.

"For play groups, unlike dog parks, consider the size and temperament of the dogs held in private secure locations."

Scout your neighborhood for potential playmates/owners while walking your dog or visiting local dog parks. For play groups, unlike dog parks, consider the size and temperament of the dogs held in private secure locations. The internet has successfully connected the canine world so you may find a compatible friend for your dog by accessing one of the many “meet-up” groups. Online communication between owners can assess compatibility of the pets prior to a play date, much like online dating sites.

Should we go to a dog park?

Dog parks are springing up in cities, small towns, and even rural areas. These parks are usually open to the public and are playgrounds for all sorts of dogs. With this in mind, if you choose to visit one, make sure both you and your dog feel safe. Scout the park prior to bringing your dog to determine a less busy time of day to visit. Keep your dog on leash until you feel secure about other dogs in the park. Unlike controlled play groups, you can not choose your dog’s friends at a public park.

Should I take my dog to puppy classes?

A more structured socialization method involves enrolling your puppy in a “kindergarten class” that includes training as well as socializing. These classes can be informal where puppies are allowed to play off-leash in a confined area or more focused on obedience instruction. Puppies playing with other pups develop gentle mouths as they explore their new companions and learn to respect them. They also learn to tolerate different people as they meet dog owners. Some classes broaden the curriculum exposing puppies to stimuli such as car horns, children, loud music, etc. You can look online or ask your veterinary hospital about local classes.

What about doggy day care?

Busy families leave the house during the day as they head to school or work, which means hours of alone time for the family dog. To provide a little companionship, many pet owners opt for doggy day care, and drop their dog off at day care on the way to work and pick him up on the way home. Well-run facilities provide supervised play time off leash as well as individual walks and one-on-one play time with staff members. The dog gets both canine and human interaction during the day and returns to his loving home at night.

What is the etiquette when taking my dog to any of these groups?

As in human social settings, there are canine rules of etiquette. Here is a checklist of items that create a good canine social group:

1. Health status verification Make sure all dogs have updated immunizations for communicable canine diseases transmitted by coughing or close contact. Puppies should complete their initial series of immunizations before being exposed to other dogs. Dogs should also be free of fleas and intestinal parasites. Since this is difficult to enforce in dog parks, make sure your dog is vaccinated, at a minimum for distemper-parvovirus, rabies, and bordetella. and has a good flea and intestinal parasite prevention program (using products such as Advantage, Simparica, Bravecto, Nexgard, Revolution, or Advantix for fleas and Heartgard Plus, Interceptor, or Sentinel for worms) that will protect him from dogs that do not.

2. Temperament assessment Participating dogs should have compatible temperaments. There will usually be an alpha dog in the group, but even the “top dog” should be well behaved and not aggressive. Both you and your dog should feel safe in the group. It is best for females to avoid social groups during their heat cycles.

3. Controlled dogs Owners should have complete control of their dogs on leash and off. Dogs should respond to their owners’ voice commands and should respect their canine peers, especially when dogs of varying sizes are grouped together.

4. Compatible level of physical activity Energetic dogs enjoy physically active companions. Couch potatoes prefer calmer friends. Find a group compatible with your dog’s level of physical activity.

5. Bio Breaks Pet owners should pick up and dispose of animal waste promptly. When visiting friends or attending puppy classes, elimination etiquette is essential and dog parks are not latrines. Playtime makes dogs thirsty so find a source of fresh water or bring along bottled water and a collapsible water bowl.

What are the benefits of canine social groups?

Socializing your dog may have several positive benefits. Dogs, by nature, enjoy being active and instinctively revert back to their ancestral heritage of hunting or herding livestock. Pet dogs, however, spend a lot of time in a confined home setting where they do not have to work and often become bored. Boredom leads to obesity and behavioral problems. Physical activity and mental stimulation within play groups may decrease behavior and health problems. Investigating new sights, sounds, and smells found in the company of other dogs may provide enough stimulation to prevent the inclination to investigate the stuffing in your favorite pillow. In fact, your dog may actually need that pillow for a long nap after playing with his canine buddies.

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