How Do I Teach My Dog to Play Nicely With Other Dogs?

Not all dogs are natural social butterflies. Some dogs are born a bit more aloof with others, while other dogs learn to be socially standoffish after a bad experience (or just too little social experience).

But as humans, it’s really hard for us to teach our dogs to play nicely with other dogs! What to do?

In the latest “Ask a Behavior Consultant” question, we’re exploring what to do when your dog needs better social skills with other dogs.

We actually for TWO Ask a Behavior Consultant questions in one day on this subject! Our readers write,

Teva isn’t very confident meeting other dogs. Any tips for training dogs to be more normal and sniff butts and stuff?

– Sarah

My goldendoodle Duncan has been attacked a couple of times recently by the same dog. Nothing too serious. I’ve been able to pull the other dog off. In the past, every dog owner wanted Duncan to play with their dog. He’s just the right amount of playfulness and fun, happy go lucky and knows when to back off. The past month I’ve seen Duncan become more aggressive with other dogs, even when they’re just playing. I’m guessing he’s reacting now out of fear. I’m looking to get him back to his old self.

– Bob

It’s hard to teach dogs to be social with their own species – we’re only human. But I can help!

I offer 15 minute behavior help calls1 hour calls, and month-long email support packages to suit your needs, no matter where you live.

Want more on teaching impulse control and other real-life skills? We’ve got a product for that! Purchase our 29-page e-book, Polite Greetings and Life Skills 101.

Why Your Dog Doesn’t Play Nicely with Other Dogs

Like I always say when I try to answer a question that starts with, “Why does my dog…” I have to start with this caveat: we can’t be sure why your dog does something because we can’t ask your dog. 

That said, there are some main culprits for less-than-friendly social behavior in dogs:

  • Social Maturity. Many dogs just get a bit less outgoing as they hit social maturity between the age of 12 to 30 months. It could be the case that Duncan (who’s about 23 months old) is showing some natural behavior changes with his age. This is especially relevant for dog parks and other socially intense situations.
    • People do the same thing! My 22-year-old sister is much more enthused about going to concerts and clubs than my parents are!
  • Inadequate Socialization. If your dog hasn’t had much experience with other dogs, especially as a puppy, that can be a problem later in life. Dogs go through a critical socialization period when they’re young. During this time, they learn about what’s good in life. If your dog didn’t have enough good experiences with other dogs when she was young, this could be the problem.
    • Many dogs go to puppy kindergarten and then don’t get social experiences outside of that.
  • Inappropriate Socialization. Some dogs get exposed to other dogs as they grow up, but it wasn’t done quite right (remember that exposure isn’t the same as good socialization). Maybe you let your dog get roughed up a bit, maybe you micromanaged your dog’s social interactions. Maybe your dog was in a shelter or maybe your dog was sick. There’s a lot that can go wrong between a puppy being born and social maturity!
  • Upsetting Social Experiences. Again, this is a good guess for what happened to Duncan. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after a few dog fights/attacks, Duncan is starting to not play nicely with other dogs. After a scary experience, our dogs are more likely to be defensive in the future.
  • Breed Tendencies. You know what? Our dog’s behavior is not “all in how you raise them.” Humans created dog breeds with specific goals in mind, and sometimes those goals either didn’t include dog-friendliness or outright selected for suspicion of (or aggression towards) unfamiliar dogs, people, etc. Most of the border collies that I know (and I know a lot) tend to be pretty introverted and sensitive. Many of them would prefer to “sniff and go,” if they even greet the other dog at all.
  • Play Style Mismatches. Just like humans, not all dogs love all other dogs. My own border collie plays well with other border collies in general. He also tends to enjoy sighthounds (like greyhounds and whippets). But he gets quickly irritated (at times leading to growling and snapping) with super pushy, playful dogs like adolescent labs, boxers, and bulldogs. That’s totally normal and just fine with me. This play style mismatch often gets worse as dogs age.
  • Pain. An injury or illness can easily cause a change in your dog’s play style or habits. When my dog Barley had a torn iliopsoas in the summer of 2018, he got much less friendly to boisterous oncoming dogs. He’d move away if he could, or growl if he couldn’t. That’s because their playful body-slamming hurt! A vet checkup is always a good idea when you’re seeing behavioral changes in your dog.

How to Teach Your Dog to Play Nicely With Other Dogs

The first thing I always recommend doing with dogs who are less-than-friendly with other dogs is this:

Do not try to socialize your unfriendly or shy dog with unknown dogs. Only use dogs that you KNOW are friendly, polite, and gentle.

This doesn’t mean asking the other owner, “Is he friendly?”

The vast majority of owners will say yes, even if their dog is the equivalent of a drunk college boy who will rudely body-slam your dog (then yell in his face if your dog asks him to back off).

Many, many dogs are not aggressive AND are still bad “teachers” for an unsocial dog.

Go to a dog trainer and ask if they know of any socially appropriate dogs that can help teach your dog to be OK. You can also check at doggie daycares (but only if the doggie daycares are knowledgeable about canine body language) or ask around at dog parks.

Be sure to do your homework here! A bad experience with a “helper dog” will only set you BACK.

Here’s what to do next:

  1. Study Canine Body Language. This will help you learn to identify signals that your dog is uncomfortable before the fur starts flying! See my book recommendations above (and if you purchase from the link, it funds this blog at NO extra cost to you!)
  2. Hit the Road. Allow your dog to have socially normal encounters with these rock-solid helper dogs. Try going for a parallel walk, taking the dogs for an off-leash hike, or just letting them run around a dog beach together. The goal is to have the dogs off-leash if possible AND give them something to do (hiking or swimming) other than pestering each other. Lots of space to communicate is key.
    1. If your dog isn’t trustworthy off leash, use a back-clip harness and a long leash (but skip the flexi-lead, as these keep tension on the dog) to keep the dogs relaxed. Tense leashes, training collars, and inability to circle the other dog can all make situations worse.
    2. If you’re really worried about your dog’s behavior, use a muzzle. It’s a safety tool! I’m all about muzzles. You can read about fitting muzzles and giving treats through muzzles here.
  3. Build the Circle. Continue introducing your dog to other socially savvy dogs. Expand her social circle slowly.
  4. Make Long-Lasting Friends. Keep coming back to the same dogs, if possible. Most dogs would much rather have a few close friends than go to a dog park! These dogs can learn to interact together much better because they know each other!
  5. Skip the Canine Frat Parties. Avoid high-density, high-intensity areas like dog parks, festivals, and dog-friendly events. It’s just too risky! Your dog can have a full and fulfilling social life without dog parks.
  6. Pay Up for Good Behavior! Reward your dog for seeing and noticing other dogs, especially if the other dogs are being rude. My own dog gets a stick toss or a piece of hot dog EVERY time another dog barks or lunges at him.
  7. Give Dogs Space. Give other dogs a wide berth if you don’t know them – EVEN IF the owner says, “It’s ok, he’s friendly!” It’s not worth the risk, especially if your dog is already a bit unsure about other dogs! I try to always carry citronella spray to help deter unfriendly off-leash dogs, just in case.

Day training with a high-quality local trainer is another (though more expensive) route to take.

Be sure to avoid making situations MORE uncomfortable for your dog by scolding her if she communicates that she’s uncomfortable by growling or snapping. Instead, calmly move your dog away and ask the owner to do the same.

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