Hosting a doggy play-date

In love
Crazy eyes in love. Heath and Pyrrha.

As you probably know by now, one of Pyrrha’s favorite things is playing with other dogs. We’re really grateful for this, because it evidently brings her so much joy, and there are so many other things that make her so scared. So, we have gradually turned our backyard into an occasional dog park. Here are some of the things we’ve learned about hosting a play-date!

Play-date with Ozzie
Ozzie and Pyrrha.

BEFORE THE PLAY-DATE

Cap the number of dogs, and know their personalities

I think, due to the size of our yard, and to the various complicating factors, four to five dogs is the max number of dogs we should have in the yard at one time. It helps knowing the personalities of the dogs coming, too. For instance, when we have rowdy adolescent males come over, we probably won’t invite a new puppy or a senior dog (and vice versa). It’s helpful to have a general idea of the canine personalities that are going to be in the mix. If you don’t know, we’ve preferred to play it safe and just invite one dog over at a time.

Set out a bowl of water

Nothing gets pups tired like wrestling and playing tag! We’ve found that, regardless of the season, the pups get thirsty very quickly.

Poop scoop

No one likes to accidentally step in a land mine.

Put away any toys

To avoid any tussles over toys, I like to clear the yard of anything that could potentially cause a possessive scuffle. (Even though dogs, like children, will usually find something to pick a fight over, such as that enticing stray stick…)

Play-date with Juniper
Juniper and Pyrrha.

DURING THE PLAY-DATE

Be vigilant and watchful during introductions…

As I’ve written about recently, we’ve become very careful and mindful during dog introductions. This is usually the most tense and delicate part of the play-date. If introductions go smoothly, usually, the rest of the play-date will too.

… but don’t zone out entirely

Keep an eye on the dogs. Watch your dog’s behavior and watch for any warning signs (such as stiff body language, hard stares, etc.). I particularly liked this post on The Unexamined Dog about watching for pauses during play. Healthy, happy play sessions should have lots of little rest periods. Be ready to break the dogs up to give them “time outs” if needed. We learned this with Roland and Pyrrha; they would occasionally play too hard and too long, and then the play would start to shift into frustration and annoyance. We’d intervene, call them apart from each other, and then in five minutes, they would be OK to play again.

Get those leashes off

If introductions have gone smoothly, dogs naturally play better untethered! (Although we may let them drag the leashes for a few minutes in the beginning, just to make sure that everyone is at ease.)

Sunday play-date with Roland
Chomp! Pyrrha takes a bite out of Roland’s leg.

AFTER THE PLAY-DATE

Take a nap!

Pyrrha finally meets Bo
Bo and Pyrrha.

Do you ever host canine friends at your place? What have you learned from your experiences?

How to introduce unfamiliar dogs

As you know, we have learned the hard way from some dog-to-dog introductions (see Rainer attacking potential adopter’s dog) that introducing strange dogs to each other is a very important and delicate process.

Heath and Loki
Young bros Heath and Loki sizing each other up.

Most of you probably have already heard these tips before, but here are some of the things I’ve had to remind myself of, repeatedly, when introducing dogs to each other.

Calm yourself first

Especially after the Rainer incident and seeing how badly introductions can go, I get SO nervous about new dogs meeting. Pyrrha, obviously, picks up on this, and this only ratchets up her anxiety. The big thing I’ve had to teach myself, every time, is to slow down, BREATHE, and loosen up. I close my eyes for a second, I take deep breaths, I loosen my posture and my grip on the leash (not entirely, but so that Pyrrha isn’t feeling any tension on her harness or collar). Dogs reflect our moods and study the nuances of our body language so much more than we even realize. Putting myself in a calm state is always the first thing I have to do when introducing new dogs.

Truly “neutral” ground is hard to find

All of the advice you read says to let the dogs meet on “neutral territory,” but I’ve found that this is quite difficult. Fosters are often just dropped off at our house, and even if we went to a nearby park, there’s still the possibility that Pyrrha would see that as “her” territory. Thankfully, Pyrrha has never shown signs of territorial protection/aggression (she is not very shepherd-y in that way), so our strategy has been to keep the dogs leashed and far apart in our spacious front yard, and then if that observational period/meeting goes well, we transition to the backyard and let them drag their leashes for a bit before unhooking them. Have you been able to find and utilize “neutral” ground when introducing new dogs?

Don’t try this alone

Always have another dog-savvy person help you! Particularly if you don’t know the dogs’ backgrounds (as if often the case with foster dogs who have come straight from the shelter). My husband is usually the one who helps me introduce our fosters to Pyrrha. Talk to your helper in advance about what your strategy is going to be (e.g., you walk that way, I’ll walk this way, and then we’ll see how they do, etc.).

Resist the urge to let them meet face-to-face

This is a hard one, and this is why the “walk apart from each other for a while” method is repeated. Most dogs are naturally going to pull you straight up to each other, and this is how the fights can start. I wasn’t sure how to pull off this “walking apart” business, but the best strategy I read seems to be to have one handler-dog pair walk in front of the other, kind of staggered, and then switch places, let the dogs sniff where the other dog has been, and carefully observe the next step:

Study that body language!

Brush up on the subtleties of canine body language, and watch for those calming signals (or, more importantly, the lack of calming signals). Be extremely wary of stiffened postures and hard stares. The slightest shift in a dog’s movement can signal a transition toward either play or fight mode.

Also: Don’t be afraid to tell the other handler what signals you’re noticing. I wish, wish, wish I had done this with the dog that Rainer attacked; I should have told his owner, “Your dog is giving Rainer a really hard stare. This probably isn’t a good idea.” But she couldn’t see that — and I couldn’t see what Rainer was doing. And so we ended up with a fairly serious dog fight. The dogs are already communicating with each other silently; as humans, we should remember to communicate with each other verbally about what we’re observing, otherwise we can both miss some pretty clear signals that the dogs are giving off.

Off-leash behavior vs. on-leash behavior

Once dogs have passed the on-leash greeting portion and seem to be amiable toward one another, I like to transition them into a spacious fenced area for them to be off leash together. As we know, leashes build tension, and dogs can really have the freedom to interact naturally with one another when the leashes are off. I like to let them drag the leads for just a few minutes once in the fence — in case something does escalate, we can intervene with more agency if a leash is still attached. But once things seem to be going smoothly, leashes come off, and we stand back and watch and let the dogs do their thing.

Play-date with Juniper
Juniper and Pyrrha. As you can see, this could have been tense, but Juniper is defusing Pyr by averting her gaze.

Online Resources

Break for some butt sniffing
Some good old-fashioned butt sniffing. (Pyrrha and Roland)

What have you learned from your experiences of introducing two unfamiliar dogs? Any helpful advice or wisdom you’d like to share?

Double play-date weekend

After a very sad weekend (the death of a colleague and the unbearable tragedy in Newtown, CT), it lifted the spirits to have some puppies over to play. Get ready for the deluge of photos…

SATURDAY

Play-date with Juniper

Juniper, our landlords’ pointer/pit mix, came over for a brief romp while our plumbing was being repaired. She is a muscular sweetheart. This was Pyrrha’s first introduction to Juniper and the two of them played very nicely together. It is fun to observe how differently every dog plays. Juniper is a playful growler and she likes to use her strong body to block and check, as if she were a hockey player. And so Pyrrha would alter her body language accordingly.

Play-date with Juniper

Play-date with Juniper

Play-date with Juniper

Play-date with Juniper

Cute little incident: Juniper is apparently both cuddly and protective. I would crouch down to watch them play, and Juniper would sidle up next to me and lean against me. If Pyrrha tried to approach us, Juniper would snap at her and challenge her to a wrestling match. I thought it was cute and interesting; I’ve never seen a dog so quickly take “possession” of a new person.

SUNDAY

On Sunday, we had lots of friends come to play: Loki, my coworker’s five-month-old Newfoundland was the first to show up. And he is such a doll. Just look at that face!

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Pyrrha’s gregariousness was a little much for him at first, but he warmed up very quickly and was soon flopping around and chasing her.

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Loki (Sunday play-date)

As you can see, he was very soon holding his own:

Loki (Sunday play-date)

Roland, a dear favorite whom you may remember from previous play-dates, arrived next. (Check out Loki’s expression in the following photo… Cracks me up.)

Then came Roland...

Then came Roland...

And then we had a newcomer, Stella, the young Jack Russell terrier, who was none too pleased to join in the fun. She was terrified when she first arrived and emitted these sad, high-pitched screams whenever the other dogs would approach her. Poor girl. I don’t necessarily blame her: She is about the size of her playmates’ heads.

And then came Stella

And then came Stella

Stella eventually sought us for comfort and was more than happy when her mama, Audrey, showed up to take her home.

And then came Stella

And then came Stella

Aside from poor Stella’s fears, everyone else got along very well and we had a great (if chilly) afternoon in the backyard. I’m looking forward to keeping up these Sunday play-dates again after the holiday season.