There are many puppy playgroups and puppy parties that occur. If you’re thinking of attending one it is important to ask what experience the organiser has of canine body language, to ensure that every puppy is having a good time. Moreover, how many people are observing each puppy. One person observing ten puppies is not enough. This is a small ratio, and unless the organiser has eyes in the back of their head, it is not a suitable option.
The environment is an important aspect. If the space is small and the puppy physically cannot move away and gain space the they are likely to feel very intimidated, especially if there are lots of dogs. In addition, if there are chairs or stands then the puppy may climb underneath them in an attempt to move away, and this again can make them susceptible to injury. A puppy who feels threatened (even if other puppy just wishes to play), may resort to barking or growling as a defensive mechanism in an attempt to gain space. A puppy, at this young age, is not suited to being placed in this predicament, and practice this behaviour. As they are likely to continue this behaviour if the puppy does move away.
The number of puppies
A sensible puppy meet up will take into consideration, the temperament and play style of the puppies. One dog who loves to engage in boisterous play where they pin down another puppy, and the other puppy who is nervous, will not be suitable playmates for each other as it can be overwhelming.
Many puppies are not used to being handled by their owner or even the breeder in some cases. Early handling is a huge component to puppy welfare with it being identified as having an impact on responses to challenges (Cirulli et al., 2003). However, many of the people in puppy socialisation experiences, do not have experience in handling puppies and may do the following behaviours which can intimidate:
- Leaning over a puppy.
- Squeezing them and pulling them towards their face resulting in a nip on the nose
- Not pairing any handling with treats
For the puppies being handled by someone they have only just met, smelt and seen can be a concerning experience. They may have not experienced being handled by their owner that much yet, therefore being handled by a stranger can be a scary experience.
Allowing a puppy to play non-stop with a host of puppies, is something many people do not want to see in day to day experiences with their dogs. Many people come to training and explain that lack of engagement, eye contact and wanting to play with every puppy they see is infuriating them and making walks stressful. Therefore, non stop, over exuberant play is not recommended. Thinking about where this behaviour is practiced is also important. If you attend a play session that is in a veterinary surgery, then this behaviour is likely to be repeated there too, this obviously is not something you want your dog to do if they are injured or other pets are injured too.
Just as schools are a place of fun, education, training and building bonds, I argue that puppy socialisation experiences should be placed in the same light. Training is a fundamental element of life, to keep dogs safe. Socialisation also means to be able to act in a way that is desirable in different circumstances, such as learning to settle in the pub, a coffee shop without saying hello and pulling towards every dog that they meet.
Adapted from Sarah Whitehead, the hidden risks of uncontrolled puppy playgrounds.
Cirulli, F., Berry, A., Alleva, E., 2003. Early disruption of the mother-infant relationship: effects on brain plasticity and implications for psychopathology. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 27, 73-82.