Aging Out Of The System–dog play

Aging Out Of The System–dog play

“My dog used to love going to the dog park and playing with all the dogs.  He was always fantastic and never had a problem with any of the dogs at the park.  Recently he’s been getting into fights at the dog park and I don’t know what is going on.  He doesn’t run with the dogs anymore and will attack other dogs that try to play with him.  I don’t know what to do!”

When Rio was a young dog, he was relentless playing with anyone and everyone who would listen to him.  He had a blast running with lots of new dogs at the small dog beach near our apartment.

When Rio was a young dog, he was relentless playing with anyone and everyone who would listen to him.

It is normal and actually appropriate for dogs to become less playful and different in their play preferences as they mature and become adults.  There are many species that simply don’t play once they are adults. Dogs (and humans for that matter) aren’t the type of species that will quit play entirely but it certainly changes and often reduces.  Play wastes energy and burns calories and on a survival of the species level, it is not good practice once an animal is mature.  Adult lions spend their days laying down, sleeping, and generally hanging out–unless they are hunting. It’s either work or rest, playing would burn calories and require them to eat more.  Play in the juvenile animals serves lots of purposes, they learn social interactions, practice fighting skills, and practice hunting skills.  Through their play they will learn the skills they will use as adults but once they are adults the play reduces because they don’t want to waste the energy.

Yes, our domesticated dogs are different than their wild cousins, but this type of maturation is normal and common among many species, including dogs.

What does that mean for Fido?  Well, it means that at some point many dogs who previously loved the chaos and frat party style play that is often found at dog parks will start to become less accepting of those environments and more selective with who they consider friends.

Dogs who were once social butterflies at the dog park may start getting into occasional scuffles, they may start disliking certain types of dogs, or may start becoming more standoffish or defensive.  Some dogs who used to be great on leash around other dogs may start becoming reactive on leash and may no longer enjoy going to doggie events.  There are also dogs who will become increasingly aggressive towards other dogs and will go beyond just being selective with their doggie pals to being not dog friendly.

A lot of factors can go into this shift in preferences, socialization as a pup, experiences while maturing, and genetics are three big pieces of the puzzle.  If your dog is experiencing a shift in their preferences with regards to other dogs, it’s important to remember that it’s actually relatively normal.  There are many dogs who will be social butterflies their entire lives but there are far more whose preferences will shift over time and that’s okay.

As an Adult Rio still likes to play a lot but he prefers doing so with dogs he's gotten to know a bit.

As an Adult Rio still likes to play a lot but he prefers doing so with dogs he’s gotten to know a bit.

I would venture a total guess that most dogs simply become more selective  with who they want to hang out with as they mature and even more selective with who they want to play with.  They have their dog friends and they like their friends but they are not interested in the rowdy play with groups of unknown at dog parks or typical daycare situations.  Although they don’t like the crazy play with a group of unknown dogs, they are often quite friendly when introduced to other dogs an an appropriate manner.  It’s their preference to get to know dogs and build a relationship with them rather than be subjected to the typical frat-house party atmosphere at dog parks.  Learning to cope with a dog like this is pretty simple, stop going to dog parks and instead have some play-dates with one or two other dogs that are all socially sound–let your pup build true friendships with dogs that he/she can have regular social hours with. If some leash reactivity issues began to develop, get that nipped in the bud sooner rather than later with positive tools like counter conditioning, LAT, focus games, and other activities.

Some dogs that used to love to play with certain dogs (‘sibling’ dogs, neighbor dogs, or your friend’s dogs) may become snarky or aggressive to those particular dogs.  In these situations, it’s typically certain situations that cause the snarky behavior (play solicitation, during meal times, during high arousal moments like visitors, etc), not just a general behavior shift. They may also become hypersensitive to rude behavior and often overreact to rude behavior with snarkiness or aggression.  Living with these types of dogs can be a bit of a challenge, especially if the dog has become sensitive to another dog in the household.  Keeping the dogs separate may be a viable solution or doing extensive training to help build enough tolerance that they can be safely together when supervised closely.  If it’s largely dogs outside of the household, it’s not as big of a challenge to either not allow canine visitors or to use barriers to keep your pup away from the visitor.

There are certainly a few dogs who go from being social butterflies to being completely intolerant toward most/all other dogs (these dogs often don’t show serious reactivity, they will act if another dog gets in their space but are pretty indifferent at a distance).  Sometimes this behavior does not extend to ‘siblings’ but sometimes it does.  This is often the most difficult for handlers to cope with because it’s scary seeing your little social butterfly turn into a potentially scary dog and it’s stressful living with a dog who isn’t friendly or tolerant of other dogs.  It takes a lot of work to manage a dog like this making sure they stay safe,  they get the mental stimulation, and physical exercise they need while not risking the health/wellbeing of other dogs.  It’s stressful having to assure such a strictly managed environment knowing that if management fails, the consequences could be extremely serious.

Although change is a normal behavior as a dog matures, it’s extremely important to have a thorough medical exam if that change is drastic, dangerous, or you have concerns.  There are many medical issues that can arise as a dog matures that can cause behavioral problems like those mentioned above.  Catching these medical issues sooner rather than later is important to the health of your dog–it’s can’t hurt to rule out medical causes of behavior changes, it may actually save your dog’s life.

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