Choosing Playmates for your Dog

Posted by  on June 14, 2010

It’s always fun to take your dog to the dog park or to a doggie daycare, but how do you know if your dog will be safe from the other dogs there?  What if your dog is the one who is endangering other dogs?

Size Matters

One of the first things you should consider when choosing a playmate for your dog is the relative size and strength of the two dogs.  Small dogs have very often been hurt or even killed by playing with older, stronger dogs, even though no ill intent was present.  Larger dogs, particularly when they are puppies, do not often realize their own strength.  And very few small dogs understand that they are small and thus, somewhat fragile.

The mark of a dog park or daycare that has safety in mind is that the facility has separate areas for large and small dogs.  There should be clear signage indicating which area is for whom, and there should be some method of enforcement for guardians who aren’t considerate enough to obey the posted signs.  An alternate plan is to allow small dogs to attend only on specific days and large dogs to attend on alternate days.

Why do dogs fight?

Dogs are, at their cores, pack animals, and in every pack there is a leader.  The problem arises when more than one dog thinks the leadership post is not yet decided.  Although certain dog breeds are known to have more aggressive tendencies than others, any dog can become aggressive given the right circumstances.

Common issues leading to aggression include food, toys, and women.  (Sounds like humans, doesn’t it?)  In a typical wild pack, the alpha dog would have first choice of the food regardless of who killed the prey animal, and the alpha dog would have first choice of mates.  In some cases, the other dogs might not even be allowed to mate with any of the females in the pack, as the genetic make-up of the leader would be seen as the strongest and best chance for survival of the pack.

Now that dogs have been domesticated, these issues have not necessarily gone away.  It is only through consistent training and socialization that dogs are able to overcome, or at least deal peacefully with, the pack mentality.

Signs of aggression

In order to see if a dog might be a prospective good match as a playmate for your dog, you will need to be able to identify any signs of aggression or dominance in either dog.  The cardinal signs of aggression are:

  • Tension of the body
  • Mounting or humping
  • Leaning forward when standing
  • Raised lips/wrinkled muzzle
  • Growling
  • Raising of the hackles, the fur on the back
  • Lunging
  • Biting

Introducing new dogs to each other

The safest way to introduce two new dogs to each other is through a chain-link fence.  Allow the dogs to approach each other from opposite sides of a fence, preferably with neither dog on a leash.  Watch both dogs for signs of aggression and for signs of fear such as backing away from the other dog.

In a “normal” encounter, the two dogs will approach each other with tails held high, noses sniffing each other, either in the face or in the rump.  The dogs will typically be excited, but not fearful or aggressive.

In some cases, a dog may immediately surrender the dominant position in the pack to another dog by simply rolling over onto his or her back in a submissive posture.  There will not likely be problems between the two dogs if one dog makes it abundantly obvious that he or she has no interest in the leadership position.

Temperament testing basics

A more formal method of testing dogs’ personalities is done by means of a temperament test.  If you are considering enrolling your dog in a daycare setting, you might want to ask if the center does temperament testing.  It can be a good indication of which dogs will do well together, and at least should weed out those dogs who are too aggressive to succeed in a group play setting.

According to the Partnership for Animal Welfare in Washington, DC, a dog’s temperament can be defined as “the general attitude a dog displays towards people and other animals; it is the combined inherited and acquired physical and mental traits that influence the dog’s behavior.”  Testing is used to “measure traits including stability, confidence, shyness, friendliness, aggressiveness, protectiveness, prey instincts, play drive, and self-defense instincts, and ability to distinguish between threatening and nonthreatening situations.”

When testing a dog, it is important that the tester have a good history of the dog including any past aggression and the circumstances under which the dog has lived such as past abuse or neglect.  The dog should wear a sturdy collar during testing so that the tester can control the dog if necessary, and a spotter should be present for observation and additional safety and control if needed.  Testing should be done in a quiet area, removed from other dogs and interruptions.

Specific temperament tests

The things that are usually tested for include sociability, reaction to certain stimuli such as sudden movement, unfamiliar objects, noises, and other animals, leash skills, trainability, personality traits including shyness, activity level, dependence, and food or toy possessiveness.

Although there are several specific protocols used for testing (see links below), most include some variation of the following elements.

  1. How long does it take the dog to pay attention to the evaluator?
  2. Does the dog come when called?
  3. How does the dog react when the evaluator approaches and makes eye contact or stares at the animal?
  4. Does the dog tolerate petting?  Hugging?
  5. Does the dog panic or investigate when presented with new objects and noises?
  6. Does the dog allow the evaluator to coax him or her into lying down?
  7. How does the dog react when the evaluator leaves the room?
  8. Is the dog interested in playing with the evaluator?
  9. Will the dog release a toy the evaluator tries to take away from him or her?
  10. Does the dog chase other animals?  (This is done under controlled conditions such as allowing the dog to see a cat or a small animal through a glass wall to gauge the dog’s reactions.)
  11. Does the dog take a treat nicely from the evaluator’s hand?  Does he tolerate a treat or bone being taken back after having been given?
  12. How does the dog react to praise and affection?

All of the following web sites will give you ideas you might use when assessing the temperament of potential playmates for your dog.

Evaluating Temperament in a Potential Rescue Dog
by M. Shirley Chong

Assess-A-Pet Program
by Sue Sternberg

Puppy Aptitude Test
by Wendy and Joachim Volhard

Temperament Testing Program at C.A.R.E. Shelter

Matching Dogs and People: Temperament Testing Shelter Dogs

American Temperament Test Society

Tough Temperaments: Dominance, Aggression, Viciousness and definitions of other terms such as Submission, Temperament, Socialization

Fostering a Rescue Dog

Canine Drives

Choosing and Getting a Dog

Adding a Dog to Your Family: How to Prepare for Success
Mixed Breeds