Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Playtime Gals!

The cairn terrier I had growing up never really had a chance to be around other dogs. She was friendly enough, but my family just never knew other dogs to put her with. Cousteau liked to play with other dogs when he was younger, but he was never really appropriate with them. His misread or ignored other dogs' signals and was generally more of a pain in the butt than a good playmate. I attribute this partly to being a Lab and partly because he was separated from his mother, and primary dog-language instructor, when he was only 5 weeks old and really needing those lessons. Then there was Beamish, who loved to play but was fear aggressive toward other dogs and would start fights as often as he'd have a nice play session.

Imagine my joy to now have Havana, my playtime queen. As a dog trainer, few things make me happier than seeing a group of dogs playing nicely together. Many dogs seem to have a favorite game and gravitate toward other dogs who will play that game with them. Not Havana. She just wants to play and will do whatever the other dog wants to do. Cousteau wants to play tug? She'll tug like mad. JJ wants to be chased? Havana chases. Toby wants to play bitey face? Then bitey face it is! She respects most signals from other dogs and is appropriate in correcting dogs who go too far with her. She may snap or growl, but as long as the dog backs off it doesn't go farther than that. I compare this to someone saying "Hey! Back off!" or "Let's tone it down a bit."

Collies happen to have a pretty innate sense of rules (as they see them) and since they were bred to read sheep to be able to herd them, I think they're a bit more in tune to the body language of other dogs as well. Also in Havana's favor is that she was allowed to be with her mother and litter mates until she was 9 weeks old. She also had a couple of other dogs in the house to play with. The breeder knows what appropriate play looks like and was able to intervene when necessary, but typically it was mom who gave necessary corrections. If I ever buy another puppy from a breeder, it will be a puppy who has been with litter mates and a mother, or mother figure, until I pick it up.

Bug, while not quite as versatile as Havana, was my little two-legged collie this weekend at a party we hosted. I wasn't sure how she would feel about a bunch of kids being in her house, playing with her toys, and in some cases, taking her mama's attention. She did really well. We set up things as best we could by telling her she could pick 3 toys to put up and away, but everything else, with the exclusion of her lovey, Geti, was fair game for others to play with.

Usually Bug is surrounded by adults who are willing to cater to whatever game she wants to play. She doesn't always like kids because they aren't as easy to direct, but for a good 5 hours she was constantly playing and on the go. She played store, playhouse, cars, tag, ball, and who knows what all else. She sure wasn't coming to me for ideas! She followed along with what the other children thought up and added her own flair. But she also was willing to lead younger or quieter children. She played "go up and down stairs" with a 2 year old for several minutes, until the 2 year old got her confidence and could do it by herself.

In some ways, introducing children to appropriate play is a bit like socializing puppies. There does need to be an enforcing figure to make sure nothing goes too horribly wrong and you want to make sure that the play group is made up of children who have somewhat similar play styles. (Putting the rough and tumble ball crazy child with the shy, quiet doll lover can eventually result in good play, but it will take some more patience than just putting the kid who loves tag with the kid who loves balls and the doll lover with a child who enjoys dress up.)

You also need to teach children approrpiate language and coping strategies to deal with play they don't like. Giving them specific words and telling them it is ok to get up and walk away to do something else can be very helpful and empowering to a child. Of course, the child also needs to respect a playmate who uses similar words and strategies.

I'm not so naive as to think that Bug is now a super-play wizard and will be a welcomed asset to any play group a child begged to come to everyone's house because she's so wonderful. And I know full well that not every play interaction will be as positive as last weekend's was. But I was glad to see that my child does have the social skills to have fun in an environment with many children - and without coming running to me to tattle over every little thing!

I wish I could take all the credit for this weekend's sucess, but I can't. I'm proud of the groundwork I laid, but I think the work Bug's preschool teachers have done has really helped her to understand and accept play with other children. I'm very, very glad that I listened to my gut (and my wallet, but mostly my gut) and sent Bug to a preschool that emphasizes social skills over academics. She'll still be ready for kindergarten and by being exposed to early language and math skills, but she's being exposed in such a way that she has to interact with other children during that exposure.

I can take some credit for Havana's play successes. Her breeder and genetics set her up very well for success, but I've made sure that she has appropriate playmates and that she stays appropriate in play, even if the other dog doesn't say anything.

Could both of my playtime gals have been successful without much input from me? Possibly. Probably. Goodness knows there are children and dogs who have had every disadvantage that still do very well socially. But I feel better knowing that I've done what I can to foster good social skills and at least for now, they have been paying off.

(Now I just hope and pray that I don't get a call from the preschool today asking me to pick up Bug after she started a huge fight...)