By ELLEN WHYTE
The Gremlins next door – Miko, Mei-Mei and little Po-Po – love their wrestling. Usually Po-Po ambushes Mei-Mei and then the two barge into Miko, until all three of them are rolling about in a silky terrier tangle, growling and biting.
It always sounds vicious, especially the growling, but the reality is that almost all of the time, it’s pure play-acting. When they break apart, they’re panting with excitement, little faces alight with doggy laughter.
Sometimes though, someone nips a bit too hard, someone else bites back, and then it’s for real. Like children, the Gremlins’ play then turns into a quarrel. It’s not often, but it happens.
When a play growl turns into a true snarl, the change in pitch alerts their mum and dad. Usually they simply call out, and it’s enough to break the dogs apart. Occasionally, it takes physical interference to stop the fight.
When the Gremlins have gone overboard, there’s a bit of grumbling afterwards. However, again like kids, they make up fairly quickly.
Why your dog should play
If you’re new to dogs, then play-fights can look alarming but they are perfectly natural. Dogs of all ages need to play for the same reasons people do. They are social animals who need the company of others. A lone dog is a lonely dog.
Also, for puppies, play is about learning. The young animals learn to communicate with others, and get an idea of their own power. It’s also fun, and as a benefit for us humans, a pup who has run off his excess energy is easier to train because he’s readier to concentrate.
The Gremlins are a family who grew up together – mum, dad and son – so they are a natural play group. If you have an only dog, you need to set up play dates, and that takes a bit of planning.
Play dates deconstructed
Ideally you introduce two puppies, both of whom are socialised.
“Scent is key,” notes Edmund De Run, founder and trainer at Smart Guard in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, a service that provides specialist guard dogs. “Rub your hands on your dog’s fur, and then let the other dog sniff. Take it slow. Let them look, sniff and inspect each other. If they’re reserved, then take them aside and pet them.”
Some dogs are tense, either by nature or by breed, and need special care. “Rottweilers can be highly strung,” De Run points out. “If you spot them bullying, separate them and calm them down.
“The two rules are: first, always use the pet’s name when you talk. That way the dog feels known and familiar. Second, remember that hands are always about kindness, and the voice is the command. Never spank!”
Introducing adult dogs is a similar process. However, it’s usually easier if you have a male and female meeting rather than male-male or female-female so you can avoid leadership challenges. Also, it is usually sensible to keep to dogs that are about the same age so you don’t have an old pet feeling intimidated by a bustling young one.
“In the dog world, making friends is all about respect,” says Carlos Huertas, owner of G-Pet Hotel and canine training centre in Shah Alam. “When they are strangers, they sniff and their tails wag but they’re not nipping and pawing at each other.”
At this point, it’s vital to look at body language.
“Read your dog,” Huertas advocates. “Know if your pet is happy or not. Generally speaking, if your pet isn’t moving his tail, it’s up and stiff, it says, ‘I don’t know you!’ And if the tail is between the legs, it signals a nervous, ‘Eek, who are you?’ Both are signs that there may be trouble.”
Take your time, and understand that it can take several meetings before the dogs decide they are friends. Basically, once the sniffing is enthusiastic and the tails are wagging, the canine friendship is on the way.
“When they get to know each other, and become friendly, they run together. That is the first stage,” Huertas says. “Then once they’re pals, they begin to share space. That’s when they give each other permission to play. At this point, you see the paws coming up and the nipping that makes up rough-housing.”
Cooling down quarrels
A real fight is to be avoided, because dogs can injure each other. However, even the best-behaved and good-natured pets can quarrel sometimes. Dogs aren’t saints! If it happens too often, or a pet is injured, consult your vet and a trainer.
For the occasional squabble, the one where voices are raised but there’s no damage or animosity, cooling down has to be done with love. Don’t hit or scream. Separate the pets and call for a time-out.
Remember that the dogs don’t like to fight for real; they were hoping to have fun. So as they’re upset, it helps to sit down with them. Talk in a comforting way, and when they are calm, have a cuddle. I’ve seen treats being handed over too, just to help sweeten everyone up.
Because life should be happy, right?
Planning play dates for your pet
Are you going to take your pet for a play date? Here’s a list of basics.
1 Be aware that angry dogs talk with their teeth. If they fight, and you stick your hand in, you may get bitten. Even the tiny Chihuahua can be savage when scared or angry. So know how to work with your dog and follow sensible safety rules. Do not create a situation where you aren’t in control! It could end in stitches – or worse.
2 Make sure all the dogs are fully vaccinated. There are killer diseases, like Parvo, that attack young dogs. Flea and tick prevention is a must. Flea eggs can live for three months in a kind of hybernating state, only to waken up when there is a live body near by. So if you want to avoid bringing problems home, make sure your pet is protected.
3 Know your pet’s character and moods. If your pet is basically shy and reserved, a play date may be stressful. So keep it short and positive. Also, dogs have happy days and quiet days, just like us. If your dog isn’t feeling social, cut the date short.
4 Don’t expect super-wonderful behaviour. We feel our pets reflect us, so if they’re well-behaved, we feel awesome, and if they’re less than adorable, we feel let down. However, it’s important to remember that you and your pet are two separate beings. Try not to over-identify with your pet.
5 Remember your pet is a dog. Sounds daft but, while dogs are amazing and intuitive, they see the world differently from us. So when you look at pets interacting, think from a doggy point of view, not your own. That means understanding territory, fear, leadership, sniffing and other important dog issues.