Are parks, doggie day care, and "play dates" hazardous to your pet's mental health? That's a question being asked by researchers who are looking into the dog-to-dog bond. We know that dogs are our best friends, but how important is it for dogs to have social interaction with other dogs?
Certainly, dogs are social creatures and they are pack animals. They do seem to enjoy the company of other dogs, as long as those other dogs are nice to them. Dogs have a natural sense of order and hierarchy -- which means that if some are top dogs then others must be "bottom dogs."
Whether your pet is a leader or a follower, no dog likes to be pushed around or bullied by another. Dogs are designed to be playful -- but every time a dog meets another of his kind, there is still an uneasiness or wariness that comes from not knowing if they other dog is a good guy or a bully.
Some owners who take their pooches to parks or doggie day care or go on "play dates" have reported that the dog begins to act up or misbehave at home. This can include more aggression or fear when walking on a leash, increased destructive chewing or scratching, and even soiling in the house. If you start to see bad or unusual behavior in your pet, it might be that he's reacting to the stress of being a new pack hierarchy (or a bully) whenever he goes out to play with "his friends."
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Think back to the first day of class in a brand new school. Remember the anxiety you felt? Dogs undoubtedly share some of those same concerns. Who will my friend and who will be mean to me? The best way to help your dog feel secure in those uncertain situations is to control his meeting and interaction with other dogs while maintaining your own sense of calm and control. If you start to tense up whenever another dog comes around, your pet is going to read your body language and become worried.
Body language is an important form of communication between dogs, and it is essential that you understand the messages that your pet is sending to determine if he is being dominated or intimidated another animal. There are very good books written on the subject, and I encourage you to educate yourself.
The reality is that dogs can have all of their "social needs" met by the humans in their pack. In fact, dogs that are raised predominantly around people tend to be more social -- not just with people but with other dogs.
If you want a happy and well-adjusted dog, putting him in doggie day care, hosting an occasional play date or a trek to the park isn't going to help. Instead, take your dog for a walk as part of a normal routine -- every day or every other day. Your dog will look forward to the walk and the time spent will strengthen the friendship between the two of you.
Dogs are unique among domesticated animals because, by default, they prefer human company to that of dogs. Sure, other dogs are fun to play with every now and then, but in a socialized dog's mind, you are still his "best friend."
Dr. Jon Klingborg is a veterinarian associated with Valley Animal Hospital in Merced. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org