I know that “play dates” are a great way to socialize puppies. How do I set one up and what should happen during one?
The best way to socialize your puppy is through sponsored or supervised play groups. Ask your trusted trainer, groomer, or vet if there are any groups in the area. Play sessions through a trainer are perhaps the best route for first time dog/puppy owners who may need a little hand holding in the process, or a little explanation as to why Fido growls and pounces, loves to chase, or barks during play. A supervised play group can help you determine what is appropriate puppy play, and what may constitute as “bullying.”
Meetup.com is fantastic resource for finding existing play groups in your area. You can search by breed, by location, by type – or even all of the above! My students are constantly telling me about all the wonderful experiences they have at these puppy romps that they discovered through Meetup. Don’t forget your camera.
More often than not, puppies will run, chase, bark, tussle, fall down, and (of course) play bow during a play session. You may notice your puppy play bows when you have something he wants, or is taunting the family cat. This is normal puppy play, and nothing to be concerned about. Dogs and puppies should engage in role-reversal: chase/be chased, pounce/be pounced on.
Occasionally a young puppy may bite too hard on a playmate. This is absolutely normal. Your puppy is learning “bite-inhibition” (that is, learning to not bite too hard during play). If they do bite too hard, their playmate walks away, and the game is over (for about 5 seconds). Your puppy just learned a lesson. However, if this behavior is persistent, or is accompanied with growling, lifting his lip, general overstimulation, or is “bullying,” see a trainer with a background in positive reinforcement. They can help you curb unruly play before it becomes a more serious behavioral issue.
Keep in mind that some dogs are intrinsically shy or introverted. With time, these pups will likely come out of their shell, but don’t force them into play. In the event your pup gets stepped on, startled, or injured, his trust in you will be diminished, and he will have a negative association with play, which is harder to correct than shyness. If your dog seems nervous or shy, make sure there are plenty of places they can hide, duck behind, and escape to. In cases of severe shyness, try exposure to one gentle dog or easygoing puppy. A few backyard sessions with an easygoing canine can be the perfect precursor to rowdy dog parks.
If your dog is the rowdy one at the park, direct him to play with dogs of similar energy levels–no bombarding the shy ones. Play is an excellent way to tire out your dog, build socialization skills, and teach them how to behave around small dogs and big dogs alike. It’s a great way for your puppy to learn bite inhibition and become comfortable with different kinds of dogs, all while doing what dogs do: pounce, run, drool and roll in the dirt. It’s also good for their humans – they get to hone their socialization skills as well.