Many dogs love to play, and it's glorious to let them bound around with playmates of their own choosing. Considering that they're a social species, it is unsurprising that most dogs play just fine with each other. They wrestle, chase, bow, and bounce, with what looks like abandon but is actually a well-choreographed dance governed by intricate dog-dog communication.
"Does not play well with others"
So. I did say most dogs play just fine. As any dog trainer will tell you, some dogs who enjoy play also seem to be...well, kind of bad at it. They may sometimes play well (much to their owner's joy and relief). But at other times, or with other dogs, they seem to go into hyperdrive, or head off to la-la-land: they can't seem to pick up on signals from their playmates that things are too rough, they frequently end up in a snark-off or real squabble, and (alarmingly, from the human perspective) they just don't seem to learn any lessons from the other dogs who try, with varying levels of ferocity, to tell them to back off, pleaseandthankyou.
If this sounds like your dog, don't despair. (And don't sequester them away, woeful that you will never see a play-bow again). Push up your sleeves, call in a great dog trainer, and help your dog to find their inner play expert. It works, I promise: I have proof.
The Walter Chronicles
Walter is a stunning sled dog, dark chocolate brown with perfect sleddie eyebrows. Like most sled dogs, he enjoys the company of other dogs, especially the doe-eyed Datson. However (up until a few months ago, at least), his version of "enjoy" meant much-too-rough body slamming, drive-by hazings, and play-biting of the unilateral onslaught variety. Unlike normal play, during which both dogs consent, Walter seemed to get a kick out of rough, glassy-eyed interactions that Datson clearly did not like. One doesn't have to be a canine mind-reader to see that Walter's "play mate" of choice wasn't having fun, either. Datson (and Walter's other targets) snarled at him, actively avoided him, and sometimes even bickered.
This may seem like a conundrum to a dog lover like me. I want Walter to have experiences he enjoys, and I recognize the value of play as a great source of exercise and enrichment. But I definitely do not want other dogs to be hazed, uncomfortable, and constantly having to snark to keep their (clearly annoying) younger brother in check. Furthermore, my large crew of dogs get daily loose hikes as their main source of exercise, so I couldn't simply leash him up and pretend nothing was amiss. What's a dog trainer to do?
There is a Way
Luckily, this is one of those scenarios well-covered by the old maxim of "when there's a will, there's a way." Since Datson's snarks were obviously not castigating enough to reduce Walter's undogsmanlike play, I knew I had to step in. Every time he went overboard, I gave him fair warning and then leashed him up, briefly turning a freedom-filled hike into a more constrained affair. In addition, when Walter pulled out his more sociable self, I reinforced this with a nice food treat. It's true that consenting play itself is reinforcing, but why not stack the deck?
Soon enough, the drive-by harassment decreased, and then halted almost completely. Much to his own apparent delight, Walter found that social interactions with Datson such as mutually consenting play and co-sniffling were just as much fun as hazing, and (huge bonus perk, to his mind) didn't result in temporary loss of freedom. This technique is a bit tricky to implement well so is best carried out under the supervision of a trainer, but it works wonders.
How did I know there was a straightforward way to get from Harassment Lane to Playful Park? The science of animal behaviour change provided the map, of course. Just as it did with Datson.
Wait, Datson? Yes, you read that right: Datson, the doe-eyed, long-suffering, and beguiling target of Walter's unappealing affection was himself a rowdy pest when he was young. He learned to be a rowdy non-pest through the exact same protocol, and has had years of joyful play as a result.