Recently I read, on social media, that we should not allow our young dogs to play with other dogs. The suggestion was that it causes reactivity or that dogs will injure people as they attempt to play with other dogs. There was also a suggestion that reactivity has increased in line with the practice of socialising dogs. Could this be true? Could we really be increasing the problem of reactivity through the widespread practice of socialisation?
I don’t write this blog in order to put others down: it’s vitally important that we question common beliefs; I do this very often. However, we should not assume that dogs are socialising more in the present day than they did forty or fifty years ago. My recollection of dog ‘ownership’ forty years ago is that many wandered the streets during the day and returned home in the evening. They tended to meet up in small groups and wander the estates. I don’t remember seeing a single fight and there was certainly no mention of behaviour problems. I agree with the notion that we now have more behaviour problems, but I suggest this is in fact because we actually have far less socialisation today than in the days when dogs had a less restricted lifestyle.
Any idea that dogs should be prevented from playing together is, in my view, to prevent dogs from being dogs. There are of course exceptions because many dogs are not able to play with unfamiliar dogs due to aggression or fear issues. But how is a dog to learn appropriate behaviour around other dogs if they do not learn how to interact with them? How are they to practice the subtleties of canine body language if they don’t interact with other canines? For many dogs, especially young dogs, playing with others is fantastic for coordination, fitness, and emotional development. Furthermore, critical periods in the early development of animals are well understood. A lack of appropriate exposure to other dogs at this time will make it more difficult for the dog to be at ease with such exposure later on.
The law (in the UK and many other countries) specifically states that animals must be permitted to express normal (species specific) behaviour. What could be more normal than young dogs playing together? Nobody is suggesting that dogs should be permitted to run around in the street, darting off in all directions to say hi to all the other dogs. It’s not an all or nothing situation. Dogs are quite capable of understanding the concept of playing with other dogs on the field, but remaining with us at the roadside. To prevent friendly dogs from interacting together is to prevent them from being dogs. I want puppies to be puppies, not puppets! But, of course, dog to dog socialisations should be done without ever exposing the dog to situations they cannot cope with; this is what leads to reactivity.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read