When we first adopted Mo, we were excited for all the dog parks we would visit and all the dog friends he would make.  When we realized he was barking and lunging on a leash at other dogs, we really hesitated.  We had been to parks where off leash dogs approached us and Mo (on a leash) would cower and try to get away.  We had also been to dog parks and Mo just didn’t seem to be truly comfortable.  He was still a puppy in all these instances, but I decided to limit his interactions with dogs because I was afraid that he might bite another dog.

We had approached a trainer to help us with Mo and some of his behaviors.  One of the awesome things we learned from her, was that Mo did well with another dog off leash.  Mo now goes to doggie daycare and plays with other dogs, he has play dates, we can dog sit for friends, and we can go on walks with his dog friends.  We’ve learned a lot along the way about setting up some successful meetings with other dogs

Mo’s reactivity with other dog’s on leash is excitement and frustration based. He REALLY wants to play with them. We currently don’t meet other dogs with leash in hand, but we do make play dates!  Play dates are a great way to keep your dog socialized, but also be in control of the environment and who they meet.  Unfortunately, at busy dog parks (if you go at off hours to have an empty fenced in space, that’s great!) you don’t know the type of dog owner or dog that will be there.  There are some owners that are responsible and others that will ignore their dog even if there’s a dog fight.  If you’ve never had a problem, that’s fine, but it is probably not the best environment for a reactive, fearful, or nervous dog.

If you have a dog that just DOESN’T like other dogs, do NOT push it or force them to interact with other dogs on your own, please contact a professional dog trainer if you’d like to work on this!  With all reactive dogs, it may be best to contact a trainer before you do a meet and greet with another dog. They can help you assess if this is the right step for your dog.

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Here are some tips for an AWESOME doggie play date!

1. Pick a location

Choose a location wisely.  If you’ve got a territorial dog, choosing your backyard is not a great option.  Find an empty dog park, the other person’s yard, or an empty school yard (sometimes fenced in!).  If you’ve got a scaredy cat, choosing your yard or house might be best because they feel safe there.  Asking a trainer to host a play date at their facility could be an option too!

2. Start with one dog

This may be the first time you are introducing your reactive dog to another dog, so just start with one! It will be easier for you to keep an eye on what’s going on and won’t be as overwhelming for your dog.

Reese was Mo’s first playmate. Reese taught Mo how to play respectfully!

3. Choose the date wisely

Be picky about who you ask for a play date.  If your dog is new at dog-dog interaction, don’t invite another reactive dog or a puppy over.  You might want to ask a friend with an adult dog, that is even-keeled.  Try to match energies too.  If you dog is timid, don’t ask a high energy dog for a play-date!

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Max met Mo’s energy level, but he didn’t have an off switch. They were not the best fit and that’s ok!

4. Bring your cellphone only to take pictures

Do not sit and talk or text on your phone.  If this is your first play date, your attention needs to be on the dogs.  Your job is to make this a positive encounter for your dog so that he/she learns that playing with dogs can be an awesome experience.  Watching their body language allows you to judge when it’s time to stop or keep going, or if things are going great and they are a great pair or if its too much for the dogs.

Go ahead and take pictures of the cuties, but be present.  Things can go south very quickly, so put that distraction away.

5. Speak with the owner before about any concerns

I know my dog very well, so before we have interactions with other dogs, I make sure that their owners are aware of my dog’s issues.  I explain that he sounds really loud and mean, but if we introduce slowly in the backyard he will be fine.  This may make some people nervous, but that’s ok.  I totally respect their decision if they don’t want to have a play date. It will do neither dog any good if one owner thinks the play date is a bad idea.  It’s best if the owner is familiar with you so that they trust that you will handle your dog and make the best decisions when both dogs are together.

Teddy and Mo were great buds!

6. Keep the toys packed away

Toys are awesome, but they can add another level of chaos during a first meeting.  Leave them at home or pack them up and out of the way.  Dogs can resource guard toys and some don’t really know what to do with a toy with another dog around.  Let them focus on reading each other’s body language and figuring out how to play together. That is enough to deal with!

Eli and Mo were not great at sharing toys, but they were an excellent balance of play and chill!

7. Bring water

When dogs first meet they can be nervous and this can include some panting!  Make sure water is readily available.  Being thirsty can be distracting and uncomfortable, so if we meet all their basic needs, they’ll be able to have a better time!

8. Bring treats

Don’t bring toys, but do bring treats.  Treats can be great to distract the dogs if they need a break or to reward good behavior. Again, we want this to be a positive experience and treats can let them know they are doing a great job!

9. Study some dog body language

Dog body language is the way our dogs communicate to other dogs and humans. They don’t have words, so they have to tell us through a different language.  Lili Chin has some great illustrations to learn about body language in dogs.  The signals dogs give us have different meanings, like yawning doesn’t necessarily mean they are tired, but could be they are stressed and nervous.  These signals should be used in context too.  A great example is growling. Growling can absolutely mean a dog is giving a warning signal, but during play, they are just playing.  Watch for other body language, is the dog relaxed while growling, are they’re faces hard, is the body stiff?  If a dog is growling and they have a loose body, soft face, they are playing!  5652847156_61faac0853

10. Stay Calm

Keep in mind that our dogs watch our body language and can read our feelings.  If you are anxious and nervous about your dog meeting a new dog, chances are they will be too.  Trust that you’ve set them up for success and that you know what to do if there’s a problem.  Have fun and relax!

11. In case of emergency: know how to break up a dog fight

There is always a chance that even if you’ve done everything right, a dog fight breaks out. Doesn’t make your dog or the other persons dog bad, it just means that something provoked them. It could be they found a stick and didn’t want to share or one dog was wearing down physically and emotionally and wasn’t handling playing any more.  It’s ok, no one is a bad dog!

The wheelbarrow method is a safe and effective way to break up a fight.  Don’t try to grab their collars, scream pull on leashes, or get in the middle of a fight, you could get seriously hurt.  Instead grab the dogs back legs and pull them away.  The other dog owner should do the same to separate them.  It is harder for them to reach around and bite you, as well as being distracting enough to move focus away from the other dog.  You should get them in different areas quickly after disengaging.  Let the other dog owner know about this method as well, just in case of an emergency.

Have fun and be safe!

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