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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Dare

Setting Dogs Up For Play Success

One of my favorite activities is watching dogs play happily together, without tension or rising arousal levels that shift the play from fun to annoyance. Some dogs just seem to be magical in their social skills and are able to peacefully navigate their way through interactions with many different doggie personalities. I was incredibly lucky to have a dog like that. Her name was Reina, and I called her a social Einstein. No matter the age, size, or energy level of the other dog, she would graciously interact in a friendly and gentle way.

Lilly, a lovely and frequent visitor at my house, is another social Einstein. I especially enjoy watching her with little pups. She's always careful to modulate her movements so that she interacts safely, despite the considerable size difference. Here's a video of Lilly playing with a 7-lb maltipoo.

Not every dog is a social Einstein, and that's okay. But if their social skills aren't perfectly polished, there are things we can do to increase the chances of a successful dog/dog interaction. For example, we can:

  • Take care in selecting a play partner who is a match in play style and energy level, and roughly a match in size.

  • Select a very calm and gentle adult dog if your dog is on the cautious side, so the interaction isn't overwhelming to her.

  • Take it slow to facilitate calmer introductions, so the dogs have the best chance of forming a positive first impression of each other.

  • Give a dog with a high-energy play style some exercise before the doggie play date, to burn off a bit of excess steam.

  • Begin with 1-to-1 play, rather than expecting the dog to smoothly integrate with a group of overstimulated dogs, like she may experience at a dog park.

  • Actively help the dogs learn to take frequent, calming breaks in play, before they spiral into overly aroused (and potentially crabby) behavior. With practice, they can learn to self regulate, toggling between excitement and calm.

Here's a video showing my two dogs taking brief but frequent breaks during a play bout, which helps to regulate their arousal levels. Notice how both dogs are in agreement when a break is initiated and when play recommences. The video lasts for 47 seconds, during which time there are 3 breaks in play.

With some dogs, even if we take great care in trying to set up positive social experiences with other dogs, they just may never get comfortable. And that's okay. Not every dog has warm and fuzzy feelings toward other dogs. It could be the result of inadequate, positive socialization as a pup, or because of a traumatic experience with another dog. (I imagine dogs may also fall at different points on a spectrum of sociability, just like humans do.) There are plenty of other ways to meet a dog's exercise and enrichment needs without having to play with other dogs.

Let me know if I can be of additional help on this topic!

Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppy parents.

She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in the northern areas of Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.

Please visit to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120

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