Pet Care

Choosing Playmates for Your Dog

Two dogs play in a kiddie pool

Just like us, dogs are social animals, and many enjoy spending time with each other. If your dog’s a social butterfly who seems happy—rather than afraid or aggressive—hanging around or playing with other dogs, it’s a great idea to give her regular opportunities to romp with her dog buddies. Play with other dogs helps keep her dog communication skills polished, wears her out mentally, tires her physically—and it’s a lot of fun!

So how should you choose your dog’s playmates? Where can you find them? How do you know when your dog’s having fun playing with another dog—and how can you tell if she’s not? Read on to learn how to choose the best buddies for your dog, how to introduce her to new friends and how to conduct safe, enjoyable play sessions.

First Things First: Make Sure Your Dog Really Wants a Buddy

It’s wonderful to watch two dogs running around together, wrestling and chasing each other, but not all dogs enjoy playing with members of their own species. Some might fear or dislike other dogs because they didn’t get enough opportunities to meet and play with them during puppyhood. Some dogs who enjoyed playing with canine companions as puppies would rather relax by themselves as older adults. Some dogs simply seem to prefer the company of humans.

Before you try to find friends for your dog, make sure she truly seems to want playmates. Take her on walks and notice her body language when she sees or meets other dogs. If she’d like to interact with another dog, she might whine or bark with excitement, bounce around, play bow (lower her front end while keeping her rear in the air), wag, paw at the other dog, lick the other dog’s muzzle, circle and sniff the other dog, or roll over on the ground. If she’d rather not interact, she might try to avoid the other dog, become stiff and tense-looking, stare at the other dog, show her teeth, growl, snap, cower, tremble or try to hide behind you.

Starting Your Search: Where to Go

Where can you find potential playmates for her? Several options are a local dog parks and dog daycares. (Please see our articles, Daycare for Dogs and Dog Parks, for more information.) If you have friends or family with dogs, you can arrange “play dates” at home. You can also look for playmates while on walks in public places. If you and your dog frequent a local park, for example, you’ll likely see other dogs and their pet parents on a regular basis. If your dog repeatedly meets and likes another dog, consider arranging some off-leash play in a safe, enclosed area.

Canine Matchmaking: Finding Friends for Your Dog

Age and Sex

If you have a puppy, it’s crucial for her to have plenty of play time with other puppies, but it’s important for her to learn how to interact with older dogs, too. Enrolling in a puppy class that includes off-leash play time might be a good option. If you have a dog between six months and two years of age, she’ll probably most enjoy playing with other energetic, young friends. If your dog’s over two years old, she may have become more choosy about who she wants to play with, and she might not enjoy the same rough-and-tumble games she played as a youngster. Another mature dog might make the best companion for her.

When possible, it’s a good idea to pair opposite-sexed dogs as playmates. Some female dogs don’t get along well with other adult females, especially if they’re close in age. Likewise, sometimes male dogs are more likely to squabble with other males. However, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Same-sexed dogs can often make wonderful friends. When you’re introducing your dog to potential playmates, just keep in mind that when two dogs of the same sex interact, fighting can be more likely if they don’t get along.

Size Matters

Many dogs learn to play gently with smaller or more delicate friends. However, it’s best to seek similar-sized, similarly built playmates for your dog. Dogs often enjoy throwing themselves on the ground, mouthing on each others’ limbs, necks and heads, crashing together like bumper cars, ambushing each other, and zooming around at breakneck speeds. During all this enthusiastic and highly physical play, smaller or less athletic dogs can accidentally get stepped on, injured or simply overwhelmed. Although it’s rare, larger dogs—especially when in groups—can even treat much smaller dogs like prey. (Please see our article, Predatory Behavior in Dogs, for more information.) To ensure everyone’s safety, try to find dogs who seem physically compatible with yours.

Play Styles

Dogs, like people, have unique personalities and enjoy doing different things. Dog play often includes stalking, chasing, wrestling and mouthing. But some dogs like specific games more than others. Border collies and Australian shepherds, for example, sometimes prefer activities that tap into their natural instincts to herd—like stalking and chasing. More robust breeds, like Labradors, pit bulls and boxers, often enjoy play that involves body contact, wrestling and mouthing. Some dogs prefer playing tug and keep-away with toys. Some dogs like to wrestle but don’t like other dogs mouthing on them during play. As you introduce your dog to potential playmates, notice which games she likes and dislikes. Then you can choose buddies for her who enjoy the same kinds of activities.

Let Your Dog Have a Vote

Above all, pay attention to what your dog wants. When you introduce her to potential pals, note which ones she seems most excited to see and which ones she plays with the longest. If she consistently ignores another dog or tries to stop play—by leaving the area, hiding, or growling, showing her teeth or snapping at the other dog—listen to what she’s saying. She might prefer another playmate.

Getting to Know You: About Initial Introductions

During your search for possible playmates, your dog will experience many introductions. Follow the guidelines below to make them go as smoothly as possible.

  • If possible, plan to introduce your dog to potential new buddies on neutral territory, like during a short walk through your neighborhood, in a nearby park or in a friend’s yard.
  • To minimize tension, try to keep the two dogs’ leashes loose so that they’re not choking or feeling pressure on their necks.
  • Don’t force the dogs to interact. If they try to avoid each other, or if they sniff and then try to go their separate ways, let them. Let them investigate each other on their own time. If they show no interest, try again on another day. If the dogs avoid interacting you’re you try again, they probably aren’t the best match.
  • Make greetings positive and light-hearted. As the dogs sniff and get acquainted, encourage them in a happy tone of voice. At first, allow just a few seconds of sniffing, and then gently pull them away for a minute. Lead the dogs back together and allow another several seconds of sniffing. These brief sessions will help keep the dogs’ interactions calm and prevent escalation to threats or aggression. You can also break up interactions by asking your dog to do some simple obedience, like sit and down, and give her treats for her good behaviors.
  • Closely observe the dogs’ body language. Their postures can help you understand what they’re feeling and whether things are going well or heading south. Loose body movement and muscles, relaxed open mouths and play bows are all good signs that the two dogs are feeling comfortable. Stiff, slow body movement, stiff mouths or teeth-baring, growls and prolonged staring are all signs that a dog is feeling threatened or aggressive. If you see this type of body language, quickly lead the dogs apart to give them more distance from each other. They probably don’t want to be playmates. Please see our Canine Body Language article for drawings of dogs that show what various feelings look like in dog body language.
  • Once the dogs’ greeting behaviors have tapered off and they appear to be relaxed around each other or excited to play, you can take them on a brief walk together. If all goes well, take them to a safe, secure area where they can run off-leash.

Let the Play Begin: How to Conduct Fun, Safe Play Sessions

General Tips and Guidelines

When you’ve found one or more friends for your dog, you can arrange some regular play sessions. Keep the tips below in mind to ensure enjoyable experiences for everyone.

  • Choose a safe area for play time with a secure fence or barrier. The dogs should have enough room to run and wrestle, but you should be able to get to them quickly if a scuffle erupts. So avoid cramped spaces as well as gigantic, open areas.
  • Take off the dogs’ leashes after a quick on-leash greeting so that they can play without getting tangled up. If you’re worried about being able to catch the dogs, you can clip mini-leashes, called tabs, to their collars. Use some scissors to cut the loop off of a lightweight nylon or fabric leash. Make the leash only about one foot long. If you need to separate the dogs, you can use the tabs as convenient handles.
  • Actively supervise. During play, watch both dogs’ body language carefully. If you sense trouble brewing, step in and calmly separate the dogs. (Please see below for more information about how to interpret what’s going on during play.)
  • Take frequent breaks. When play gets exciting, dogs often take quick breaks to cool things down. But if your dog and her buddy don’t take breaks on their own, interrupt play every five minutes or so. Both you and the other dog’s pet parent should approach the playing dogs at the same time. Enthusiastically say your dog’s name to get her attention. If necessary, you can use a favorite toy or some exciting treats, like pieces of cheese or chicken, to entice your dog to come to you. Running backwards and clapping excitedly might also help. After you’ve got your dog’s attention, ask her to sit or down. Then, if the other dog’s pet parent is ready, you can reward your dog by letting her go play again. (For more information about teaching your dog to come when you call her, please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called.)
  • Provide water and shade, especially if the dogs are playing outside in the sun. If neither of them guards toys from other dogs, you can also provide some balls, Frisbees or rope toys for tugging. If your dog doesn’t like other dogs near her things, it’s best to reduce the likelihood of aggressive behavior by making sure there aren’t toys in the play area before you allow off-leash play.
  • If, at any point, you think your dog might not be having fun anymore, don’t hesitate to ask the other dog’s pet parent to help you end the play session. It’s better to call it quits early so that your dog still has a good experience overall. You don’t want her to decide that she doesn’t enjoy playing with other dogs anymore.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a dog is enjoying herself and feeling relaxed or getting nervous and upset. Whenever your dog plays with another dog, watch for the following signs that things are going well—or aren’t.

Polite play. When dogs play politely and are enjoying themselves, they often play bow repeatedly, paw at each other and bounce around like puppies. Their bodies usually look relaxed, rather than stiff, and they might make “play faces”—holding their mouths open, looking a little like they’re smiling. During play, the dogs might growl playfully and open their mouths wide, exposing their teeth and pretending to be ferocious. They might switch roles so that one dog’s sometimes on top when wrestling and sometimes on her back, sometimes being chased and sometimes chasing, sometimes getting pounced and sometimes pouncing. The dogs might also frequently switch games and alternate between stalking and chasing each other, wrestling and rolling around on the ground, mouthing on each other, playing with toys, and taking breaks to drink water or sniff around. As the dogs run and wrestle, you might notice them pausing or freezing every few minutes for just a second or two before launching back into the game. These little pauses and breaks in play often diffuse building excitement, ensuring that play doesn’t get out of hand and tip over into squabbling.

Signs of trouble. Sometimes play can turn into fighting. Watch for signs that play isn’t going well and step in before a fight happens. You might notice the dogs’ bodies becoming stiffer and more tense-looking. Their movements might seem faster, sharper and less bouncy. Play might become louder and quickly build in intensity, without any breaks or pauses. One of the dogs might be the pursuer and the other seems to be on the defensive. If you see any of these signs, it’s time to step in. You should also interrupt play if you notice that one dog seems to be overwhelming or bullying the other. It’s definitely time to separate playmates if one dog tries to disengage or stop play by avoiding the other dog, fleeing, trying to hide behind objects or people, yelping, growling, showing her teeth or snapping.

The bully test. Is your dog being a bully? Sometimes one dog will want to quit playing, but his playmate won’t take a hint and leave him alone. If you suspect that your dog’s playmate is getting tired or isn’t enjoying himself anymore, do a “bully test.” Call your dog to come to you or approach her and take hold of her collar. Restrain her for a few seconds away from her playmate and let her playmate have freedom to move around. If he immediately approaches your dog and tries to reinitiate play, great—game on! Release your dog and let her play with her buddy again. But if your dog’s playmate moves away or ignores your dog, he probably wants to stop playing, so it’s time to call it quits for the day.

Damage Control: If There’s a Fight

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to monitor playtime, dogs get into fights. These scuffles often look and sound pretty scary. The dogs might growl fiercely, snarl at each other, bark, snap and show their teeth. However, most dog fights don’t result in injury to either dog. A normal canine scuffle is the equivalent of getting into a brief but heated spat with a friend or family member. Even so, if a dog fight lasts more than a few seconds, the dogs’ pet parents should separate them. However, doing this can be dangerous. If you grab a dog who’s in the middle of fighting with another dog, she might get startled and reflexively whip around to bite you. To lessen the likelihood of injury to all parties, follow these guidelines:

  • Prevent fights from happening in the first place! Actively watch dogs during play. If you think things are starting to look a little tense, quickly end play for a while.
  • Have a plan. Discuss what you’ll do in the event of a fight before you and another dog’s pet parent allow your dogs to play.
  • Don’t panic. Remember that most dog fights are noisy but harmless. If you stay calm, you’ll be able to separate two fighting dogs more quickly and safely.
  • Make some sudden brief noise, before you try physically separating the dogs. Clap sharply and yell. Consider carrying a small mini-air horn or two metal pie pans to bang together. A sudden loud sound will often interrupt a fight.
  • Use a hose if there’s one handy and spray the dogs with water.
  • Try teamwork. If you’ve tried making noise for several seconds and the dogs are still fighting, you and the other dog’s pet parent should approach the dogs together. Never attempt to break up a fight by yourself. Instead, you and the other dog’s owner should separate the dogs at the same time. Both of you should take hold of your dogs’ back legs at the very top just under the hips, right where the legs connect to the body. (Avoid grabbing the dogs lower on their legs such as by their knees, ankles or paws. Doing so could cause serious injury.) Like you’d lift a wheelbarrow, lift your dog’s back end so that his legs come off of the ground, and move backwards away from the other dog. As soon as you can, turn your dog away from the other dog.
  • DO NOT grab your dog by the collar. Many pet parents get bitten this way—even when their dogs haven’t shown any signs of aggression in the past.
  • After a fight stops, put both dogs on leashes and end the play session immediately. Keep the dogs apart and occupied elsewhere for at least the rest of the day to avoid giving them another chance to fight. If you want to—as long as no one was injured and you feel the fight wasn’t too serious—you can try letting the two dogs play again on another day. But if the dogs get into repeated scuffles, it’s best to find another playmate for your dog.