YYou have a lovely new puppy and you want to get out an about socialising and allowing your puppy to play with all the other dogs in the park or you may see a puppy social party advertised and think this a good idea and yes while pups do need to have interaction with other pups and older dogs for good social development we do also have to be aware of our pups temperament so that we can ensure the social interactions they have are appropriate to them and not causing them or other pups any kind of damage.
To understand how our puppy is feeling in different situations we can observe their behaviour and body language.
We tend to observe the whole puppy taking into consideration many aspects of body language when deciding if an interaction is positive or negative for a puppy. This information guides us allowing us to build the puppys confidence at their pace and with other appropriately matched individuals.
Qualified professionals understand body language and help you to understand it too. These professionals don’t allow puppys a free for all wrestle in a puppy play party they manage things carefully to ensure interactions are appropriate and not damaging in any way.
Below is a rough guide to some things were looking for but it’s not everything as different breeds express themselves in different ways.
Tail position - the hight of the tail , the speed of movement can tell us how relaxed a puppy is. A tucked tail between the legs is generally a sign of insecurity ( some breeds such as sight hounds tuck their tail most of the time)
A high tail can be sign of confidence or insecurity (again some breeds carry their tails curled over their backs (pugs etc and some have no tail)
The tail may be tucked during a zoomie.
Ear position - low ears laid back to the head or dropped down the side of the head in floppy eared dog can be a sign the puppy is not happy.
Erect ears can be a sign the puppy is aroused and taking in information (different breeds may have different natural ear positions so they may not be able to move them - floppy ears are an example of this although they often can move them back and forth).
Body position - low and cowering or standing tall are both sign of insecurity or being unsure of the situation, You may also notice weight shift if the puppy shift's it's weight backwards or to the side it's trying to remove it's self and disengage from an uncomfortable situation. They will also shift weight back and forth in play a qualified trainer will be able to show you what is going on with your puppy.
Vocalisations - most pups are high pitch yippers and this sound is exciting to others but if this is paired with other behaviours such as tail tucking, running away, cowering and hiding then it’s not in play.
Eyes - wide open eyes possibly paired with head turns often called whale eye are sings that the puppy is nor comfortable. ,
Mouth - Tight lips, lip or nose licking and yawning can all be signs of a puppy not being comfortable
If these signs are ignored then a puppy may escalate their behaviour with lip curls showing the teeth.
Running - can be to get away but of course running can just be for fun and play too. But as mentioned before is the pup runs away from other pups and hides then this is not a comfortable puppy.
This is not an exhaustive list
In puppy social sessions all of these points must be taken into consideration together. Pups who are uncomfortable because they may be younger, less confident or just not want to bomb around should be given space to observe other interactions or have a calm interaction with a similarly behaved puppy so that they can gradually gain confidence. .
Interactions do not need to be about running around jumping and wrestling - social sniffing is an interaction and can be done with some distance.
Equipment - confidence courses can be fabulous but for the more confident pups we should take care that they don’t have too much free access whereby they may hurt themselves or they can push the less confident pup.
This equipment can also create space to separate pups and allow them to sniff and have physical (proprioception) experiences.
Confident pups should not be allowed to chase less confident pups.
Social sessions should not just be a free for all royal rumble affair
Owners be there for your puppy - you are your puppy secure base for learning and exploring. Let them move away from you but always be there for them. If your puppy shows signs of being nervous don't move away from them support them while they gather information about the world.
Look for qualified professionals who run these sessions
If you are looking to attend a puppy social session ensure that the person/s running it are qualified to do so, trainers and behaviourists will sometimes run them they will be in attendance watching everything and offering advice where needed if a pup needs space of their own they will step in facilitate this while owners of more confident pups will learn how calm them so they don’t get too overexcited and loose their heads. These trainers are insured, they have pet first aid certifications and will have a first aid kit with them, some may even be human first aid trained, they will go through what happens in the event of an accident or fire etc, should you be indoors, everything will be thought about.
Older dog social sessions with puppies.
Some trainers will have older dogs who are calm around puppys at social sessions these dogs are not there to wade in and stop scraps they are there to show appropriate behaviour through social learning.
Social sessions should have small numbers so that everything than be easily observed and every puppy has enough space.
if you would like to know more about how to find trainers who run these sessions please ask.
Clair Litster-Huckle has a BSc (Hons) in Animal Behaviour and Welfare and an MSc Animal Behaviour and Training and has studied Canine psychology and Canine diet and nutrition.