A couple of days ago, I posted a video of Louie the Doberman and Rua the Australian Shepherd engaged in play on a training hike.
This video sparked a valid question from a client...
I thought you didn't allow play on your hikes?
True. Very true. I have definitely said that, and I'm sure it will be said again in the future.
Now, it isn't quite that simple - but in general, one on one wrestling style play is discouraged on our hikes.
I'm sure you have seen your own dog, or maybe a friend's, unable to recall out of play at the dog park, or even in your backyard with playing with their friend. That can happen on our hikes too, it is a skill that needs to be developed.
Reasons why play is restricted:
Some dogs haven't yet got the ability to recall out of it. This means they are not under control, an important factor with a pack in a public area
The skills needed to respect and communicate effectively with each other during play need developing - this leads to a lot of management and guidance
A dog not involved in the play, is made uncomfortable by it and begins to 'police'. Think barking, chasing, stiffer body language, maybe even nipping at the dogs playing
Energy levels come up, this is when accidents (and fights) are more likely to happen
We are on public trails. I need to be able to throw the brakes on and turn the other way at a moment's notice. Wrestling dogs can be unaware of their surroundings
Too much play can push a dog into an over aroused state - think the dog that has hiked for two hours, yet is still running around like a maniac when they come home
It can be noisy... this one is probably more of a personal preference, but I like quiet on our nature time
Ok valid points, but that sounds a little... boring for the dogs? Aren't they out there to have fun?
Absolutely! There is so much enrichment on our hikes, play is just one part of it. There are logs to jump, trees to sniff, trails to run down, treats to be earned, skills to be worked on.... and so much more.
By starting with a calmer base (easier some days than others!); we build co-operation, focus, mutual respect; we learn to respond to cues promptly, the first time!
Nervous dogs, shy dogs, older dogs, those who just aren't interested in play, learn to feel safe on our hikes. They run alongside the pack, taking space as needed - minus the direct, face to face, pressure of wrestling style play.
This is why the pack hike environment can be a great fit for those who may have struggled in daycare, where there is a lot more 'pressure' to interact and be in close proximity to other dogs.
So why were Louie and Rua allowed to play?
Several factors combined into a magic formula that day
It was a training hike, we only had four pups on it - much easier for me to devote the attention needed to ensure a successful interaction
The other two pups on the hike weren't interested in getting involved. Lou attempted briefly, and soon lost interest
Rua is my dog and will absolutely call out on a single word. Louie is working on those skills, but would likely follow by default
They were listening to each other, checking in, matching play styles and taking turns
It was a valuable experience for Louie, who is learning to listen to, and respect, other dogs
It warmed my heart to watch, who couldn't let it continue?!
As dogs build the ability to respect each other, and an impeccable recall... I do slacken the rules a little on our full hikes. But that takes time, and the magic pack combination. Having some structure and boundaries in place does wonders for a dog's mental health, not to mention my own!
A big thank you to the wonderful client who asked me that question, and unintentionally sparked what will hopefully become a useful and informative blog.
Feedback and questions are always welcomed.
'til next time!