The last 30 years of dog training lore revolves around the connection between wolves and dogs. You can buy 100 books that prattle about dogs being descended from wolves; animals that voluntarily live in groups, called packs. This perspective invariably assumes that dogs are likewise “pack animals”. The underlying implication is that dogs possess the same wolf-like ability to live in harmony with their own kind. That’s a wonderful, peaceful thought, but unfortunately it’s neither logical nor factual. Put a Chihuahua into your play group and you realize that some dogs are more aggressive than others. That is because Chihuahuas (and many other breeds) do not have to survive in the wild. Some of them have no skills that would allow them to coexist with their fellows.

Here are some basic thoughts that may help you develop your own knowledge of our very unnatural friends.

PLAYGROUP RULE #1

A dog is assumed to be capable of violence merely because it’s a dog. Dogs are a conglomerate sub-species of wolves that range from French Bulldogs to Russian Wolfhounds – meaning a widely diverse group. Some dogs bark, some don’t. Some dogs are designed to kill animals (Rat Terriers), while some are designed to move cattle around, but not injure them. Some dogs live in huge packs and kill rabbits, but do not kill other dogs. Some dogs are best suited to be solo farm dogs and will fight any dog they see. Other dogs can live peacefully in a multiple dog family, but will attack dogs they don’t know. This type of dog will be a real problem-child in a doggie daycare setting, as every new introduction is a potential fight.

PLAYGROUP RULE #2

Try to keep like-sized dogs together. Yes, it looks incredibly cute to see a big, galumpy lab puppy being nibbled by a playful Fox Terrier. This rule isn’t meant to stop you from putting a big puppy in with a feisty, but much smaller dog. The idea is that if a potentially lethal fight breaks out among dogs of 300% difference in size, somebody could be critically injured before you can stop it. Tip: The infamous last words “he’s never done that before” will not relieve you of financial liability
or embarrassment.

PLAYGROUP RULE #3

No, fighting breeds aren’t vicious. My recommendation is that you treat all “known to be aggressive” breeds with a cautious eye until you know them well as individuals. Statistically, all of the “dangerous” breeds are very sweet, lovable dogs. I have trained many of them who never displayed the slightest aggression toward other dogs or people.

PLAYGROUP RULE #4

Age is a factor in serious aggression. Keep pups and adolescents with each other, and away from adults. Most serious aggression occurs between adult dogs. Though most people use sexual maturity as the indicator of adult-hood, social maturity is a better milestone. In most breeds, social maturity occurs between 18 and 24 months. A dog can behave passively as an adolescent and for months beyond sexual maturity. Suddenly the dog attacks another dog viciously – a dog that it has played with every day, for a year. The cause is simple – the dog is growing up. Tip: Consider keeping the pups with the pups and the adults with the adults.

PLAYGROUP RULE #5

No, most dogs are not capable of “working it out for themselves.” If you have been doing doggie daycare for years, and in your experience the dogs always figure out “who’s the boss” and the violence never escalates, good for you. However, if you interview veterinarians you’ll find out that dog bites are a pretty good money maker for them. In reality, most dogs don’t fight. The issue is really about those few who do. Of “dogs that fight” there is no standard rule of thumb for detecting the ones who are likely to fight to the point of serious injury or death. That is because every fight takes at least two combatants. Sometimes the specific pairing makes all the difference. Allowing two dogs to settle a dispute is a risk that one or both will be seriously injured. Tip: Better to lose a client because the dog isn’t allowed back to the playgroup than to lose one by arterial bleeding – and it’s easier to clean up afterward.

PLAYGROUP RULE #6

Get a plain, old, corn-straw broom and put it in the common area. The safest way to break up a dog fight is to stick the straw part of the broom under the jaws of the combatants and lift firmly but gently upwards. At some point, the dogs will loosen their jaws in order to get a better grip – that’s when you haul up quickly and break them apart. You now have about a half second to start playing “pup hockey.” Hold the broom so that the straw is up and down, presenting the biggest barrier to the dogs. Keep it in between their mouths. If possible, swing it from side to side like a hockey stick and literally sweep the dogs from each other. Do not attempt to strike the dogs. Make sure your broom does not have any plastic on it – just a plain old stitched corn-straw broom on a wooden pole. The idea is to get the dogs to back off long enough so that they can be separated.

PLAYGROUP RULE #7

Positive Reinforcement cannot create inhibitions – especially when it comes to normal, instinctive violence. As much as all-positive trainers would like to convince you that treats can solve all problems, it simply isn’t true. Positive reinforcement does not stop normally occurring behaviors from happening – that’s not its job. Punishment stops behaviors from happening but you have to know the rules to do it safely and humanely. If you learn how to use punishment effectively you can often nip aggression in the bud and pave the way for a dog to continue to play with other dogs. It is beyond the scope of this article to give that topic the focus it deserves.

The service of offering playgroups and doggie daycare is incredibly valuable to captive animals. The ability to romp and play in a protected, supportive environment helps insure their mental health and overall happiness. Like any business that serves animals, the quality of care is in direct proportion with the knowledge of the provider. In this business, clear powers of observation and a fundamental knowledge of dog behavior lead to the perfect win-win-win situation for you, your clients, and their dogs. ✂