Off-leash play in puppy classes is considered the norm by some and abhorrent to others. This is likely because it can go well or horribly, horribly wrong.
First thing to understand is what socialisation is really all about. Socialisation doesn’t equal playing with everything or greeting everyone. Socialisation should produce social neutrality; your dog should be able to see another dog and think “there’s another dog…so what?!”, “there’s a new person…whatever!”.
Being so comfortable with other dogs or humans (or other goings on), that they are not cause to go bonkers, is the goal. They can be friendly and appropriate, but they don’t NEED to watch, interact with, pull toward, run up to, sniff or bark at dogs as they pass.
Dogs who have lots of uncontrolled, high-octane play with other dogs, especially as puppies or adolescents, may have difficulty with this. They learn to associate other dogs with HIGH levels of arousal (stress), frustration and even distress; the effects of which can be addictive which is why they can appear to enjoy such contact.
Yes, learning appropriate social skills is important for young dogs, especially as we have only a short period during which we can do this really effectively, but we don’t want to magnetise our puppies to other dogs…the key here is learning APPROPRIATE social skills.
Emphasis needs to be on teaching puppies and dogs that focusing on their owners is super-rewarding, even in the presence of other dogs. Other dogs are part of the background, and that’s cool…but their owner is AMAZING!
As usual, this isn’t a YES/NO answer. Off leash play can be done well and provide benefits to puppies and young dogs, but unfortunately, it very easily leads to damage to social development and behaviour.
For it to benefit, puppies must be chosen and matched carefully and play supervised directly. All puppies should have some basic skills so they are not learning that the presence of other dogs means immediate crazy arousal levels, with lots of interruptions, opportunities to escape and plenty of breaks for relaxation. And throughout, owner education and participation should be emphasised.
We don’t always do off-leash play in class, it is not the sole focus of our puppy classes. Developing comfort, promoting owner engagement, and helping puppy-people build skills is far more important.
But, puppy class is just one hour per week. Organising little play dates with puppies and appropriate friends, in a more controlled environment with direct supervision is important too.
We can help with our PlayDates service, which is designed to provide young dogs with appropriate social outlets so that owners can work on focus, engagement and training exercises from class.
When we do off-leash play, this clips shows how we do it. But, it’s not the be-all and end-all – it forms part of an educational process, not just in the curriculum to entertain or tire puppies.