Dog owners, we gotta talk. Sorry — new dog owners, we gotta talk. I’ve been one for 16 months, which makes me a complete expert, and I’m seeing a problem around the issue of playing, or more specifically, not playing.
But first, some facts. Over the past two-plus years, basically everyone now owns a dog. How do I know? When I’m walking mine, I see a lot, like at least 12. Here’s another: This is the first time these people have owned a dog as an adult. How do I know that? Because I never did and everyone is essentially like me. The problem is that expectations have changed. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s when I was a kid, there were only six breeds, and we didn’t take them to training classes or own leashes.
They were just dogs. They were meant to overreact to doorbells, relieve themselves under pianos, and if they were German shepherds, run around fenced-in yards and scare children who walked by.
But now we take our dogs out multiple times a day, and, if we’re lucky, get them into groups.
I got lucky and connected with some neighbors whose dogs are the same age and size and want the same thing from each other — namely, to be morons. If you haven’t done that yet, it might be time to find a dog park, someone’s backyard (please, be invited), or one of many public places that allow dogs off-leash. Our gang meets most days, and we talk about the best rain gear and tacos as the dogs play.
I guess it’s play, although it doesn’t always look that way and it took me a few weeks to get used to the visuals, something that goes back and forth between a mauling and adult cinema.
Are they overly enthusiastic? Sure. Loud? Occasionally. Slobbery? My God, yes. But scary? Not in the least. We might go out for coffee, but this is their idea of fun.
Throwing a ball for 10 minutes is good. It’s even better if your dog will bring it back. And taking your dog for walks has its place for exploring the world and all its smells, but that’s more “a human need” — most dogs need more than that, says Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Dogs have dog needs, and research published in the UK journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science and elsewhere shows that a lot of those needs are only met by playing with their buddies. Dogs learn about their bodies and develop motor skills. They learn how to handle new situations and the unexpected, which is why some will lie down and basically say, “Take your best shot.” In party talk, it’s called “self-handicapping.” They bite one another to learn what won’t cause an injury. Oh, and it’s fun. They stay happy and healthy, and when they get to panting, possibly furniture stays intact. (No guarantees though — and no need to send in photos of your chair legs.)
It’s like with kids. Are they exhausted or satisfied by only doing daily strolls of the neighborhood with mom and dad? No. Of course not. Your canine “kids” want more, so in the words of the great, scenery-chewing William Devane in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, “Let them play. Let them play.”
But I still see people hesitating to let their dogs join in the fun. We invite them and the usual reply is, “Maybe next time.” No. That’s not soon enough. You gotta push through that fear, new-dog-owners-as-adults. It’s like letting your kid ride a bicycle on the street for the first time in traffic (been there; got two). You hold your breath, fight the urge to get the bubble wrap, and let them roll. Remember, though, this isn’t a drop-off birthday party. You’re staying, and you don’t give up control of your dog. Side note: You need to have control of your dog. Second side note: Saying “Be careful” loud enough for everyone around you to hear does not count as control of your dog.
And it’s also not an open invite. If your dog doesn’t share their ball, they shouldn’t be playing with other pups. If they’re aggressive, they shouldn’t be off-leash. Yeah, the prospect of unhooking is scary, but you know if your dog tends to run away or enjoys the company of others. If it’s the latter, there’s a good bet they’re hanging around.
And while it might look like the aforementioned pile of chaos, Borns-Weil says to keep in mind that dog play actually follows something of a pattern. There’s the getting-to-know-you sniffing, followed by rumps into the air, which is what it looks like — a bow to signal that whatever follows is in good fun.
If you need more proof that no one is about to get eaten, the mouths are open, bodies are loose, and there’s a rhythm to the whole thing. Dogs don’t go full-on, nonstop. “They play, play, play, break,” she says. Then repeat.
And again, it’s not unlike how kids would play. If your dog is trying to get away or hide behind you, they want out and they’ll probably never want anything to do with those other dogs. But if they’re being chased, body-blocked, undercut, and spun around, and after a pause and chance to escape, they go back for more, they’re totally cool.
It’s time to follow their lead.
Steve Calechman is a freelance writer on the North Shore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.