When are Dogs Too Old to Play?

By Mary Ann Rombold Zeigenfuse

Socialization! We all know we must socialize our puppies. But when is it enough? When can we stop? When are they too old to play off leash with other dogs?

We learned in the last Forum that “Canine Socialization” is up to 7 weeks of age. Good, we all do that. Then “Human Socialization” is up to 12 weeks. Ok, got that covered. New owners are always ready to take on that responsibility. So, are we done? No, we are never done.

Dogs need to be socialized longer than just as puppies. True, puppy socialization classes at an early age are invaluable. But we need to continue this socialization through adolescence (4-9 months.) Continued canine socialization can prevent aggression throughout the dog’s life. Dogs need to learn how to communicate and continue to practice these communications all through adulthood.

Off leash socialization!!

Many owners stop permitting dogs to be off leash while playing and interacting with other dogs off leash. I disagree. The experience of off leash socialization as young adults teaches dogs what the rules are within a canine group. It teaches “pack” order and the language that goes along with hierarchy. It teaches them their place within a pack and how to communicate acceptance of that role. It teaches who is in charge. It teaches manners. It is no longer play; it is learning how to relate and work well with others.

Dogs evolved as pack animals. It is easy to see a mother and her litter as a pack. We also recognize our family unit as a “pack.” Within our family pack we work hard to communicate our place as top dog to the real dogs in the household. We do that with training and consistency. This training should start the first day a puppy enters its new home. This is something breeders need to be certain every new owner fully understands: Learning starts then. New owners need to be in control of what their puppy is taught. They need to take an active role. Learning is permanent at this age, 7-12 weeks of age, take advantage of that and start teaching basic commands.

It is important to maintain our leadership role with our dogs throughout their lives. We do this with training and by formally working with them in structured obedience work. Perhaps the best single thing breeders can do for their puppies is to convince new owners to take their puppy through a basic set of obedience lessons.

We do leadership exercises and teach our dogs right from wrong. The mother dog started these lessons in the whelping box; we need to continue them from day one. It is our responsibility to take over the leadership from mom right away so we won’t need to reestablish it later when it’s been lost. It is never too early to train a dog and it is a work in progress for the rest of the dog’s life.
Our dog’s pack extends outside our immediate family. A canine pack has rules and a hierarchy that must be learned and practiced regularly. These rules and communications hold true throughout a dog’s life. If dogs are given regular off leash playtimes with other dogs, such dogs will acquire and maintain a well-balanced personality that will make them fabulous canine citizens, both in the dog world and in the human world. They will know how to communicate their acceptance of their place in the world.


Dog owners need to give their dogs off leash socialization time with other dogs. To do this you need to become part of a dog playgroup. A playgroup can be as simple as you and a friend getting together with your dogs and allowing them to play off leash. Breeders should never underestimate the value of giving their dogs opportunities to interact with dogs away from their premises. It can also be a romp after a training class with a few doggie classmates.

A doggie playgroup can be any group of dogs allowed to be off leash for some interaction. Dog parks are becoming very popular. Any time spent at a dog park is considered a playgroup. If you are walking your dog off leash (which, to be clear, is something that is increasingly against the law to do in most urban and many suburban areas), and you meet another dog, instantly you are potentially going to have a playgroup or you are going to have an encounter. This encounter can go one of two ways: well or disastrous. If you teach your dog how to socialize off leash, not just as young puppies but continue that socialization into adulthood, this encounter need only take one path and that is the path of successful interaction.

It is important when socializing dogs off leash, that you do not inadvertently teach your dog that the presence of other dogs means: “This Is Only Play Time.” You should start your time at any dog event with some formal work or training. This need not be as formal as actual obedience commands – but requiring the dog to do as it is instructed is essential.

Ideally, it would be a long sit or down that lasts 3-5 minutes. Then do some heeling around the area with you determining the route. If you do this, the dog will learn that when in the presence of other dogs, he or she must first be attentive to you – with concentration and behavior, “work,” you require. If you do not take the time to do this, your dog will see other dogs and react as they see fit, something you will almost certainly dislike. In a worse case scenario they will learn that in the presence of other dogs, it is a free for all with no obedience to “Mom” required.

Be certain not to allow this to happen

Occasionally call your dog out of a group play. This will keep your dog listening for your voice while playing with other dogs. It will keep the dog interacting with you in the presence of the other dog distractions. This is an invaluable exercise.

When you call your dog out of a group, make sure that he or she actually comes to you. Give them some quality interaction – PRAISE – for listening to you before you release them back to the group. Do not just allow your dog to “sort of come.” Have your dog come and remain with you until you release him or her back to the playgroup. Remember you are the one who makes the rules and your dog needs to be reminded of this occasionally with a short command. It must be a command that they respond to immediately.

Never too young for distractions

A dog is never too young to learn what “obedience” is around distractions. Socializing with other dogs is simply offering you the opportunity to train around distractions. Distraction training is teaching your dog that he or she can work in the presence of other interesting things. There is no training breeders of show dogs can find more useful. You can start this at home in the family room while the rest of the family is doing other things nearby – even before those promising show prospects go to their new homes.

You can also do simple exercises while the dinner bowl is sitting on the floor near by… and filled. You can even practice stays while you drop food around your feet, or toss toys around the room while your dog stays in position. Of course you need to be prepared to reinforce the stay if your dog breaks when you do these distractions.

This practice is worth it. Your dog will learn to focus on you even when other things stimulate his or her senses. Training is called “obedience” because it requires the dog to listen and obey your demands. If that weren’t the case, it would be called negotiations, not obedience. When you negotiate with a dog, it puts the dog in charge. Remember you are the coach. The dog is the player. There is no room for negotiation.

This training begins early. After you feel your dog understands a command, 2-3 weeks into his education, it is time to add simple environmental distractions. Basically, by time a dog is 3 months of age you can begin with simple distractions. By time a dog is 4 months of age, you can make these distractions more inviting. By the time a dog is 5 months of age, life is at full force and any distraction is fair game and needs to be trained around. If you make the excuse the dog is too young, you will spend a lot of time later trying to re-train unintentional training that could have been avoided.

After your dog has been trained to understand what the word “come” means, he or she needs to be taught that they must come no matter what is happening around them. So after 3 weeks of training, by 10 weeks of age, a dog is old enough to start discerning your voice from other stimulations.

If your dog doesn’t come when called out of a group situation, go in and get him or her. Simply go up to your dog and make your presence known. Gently attach your leash to the collar and walk backwards to where you had been when you called your dog. Do a few sits or turns in place. Then practice doing a few recalls while on the leash. For example, on leash, allow your dog to become distracted. Let him look around and ignore you. Then call him. Since he is on leash, you can bring him back immediately. Reward your dog for listening and then have a quiet moment before returning your dog to the group. If you cannot get your dog to focus on you, you will need to work more around distractions.

Correct behavior is learned

Canine socialization is as necessary during adolescence and adulthood (9 months to forever) as it is during puppyhood because it teaches dogs adult social manners. If a dog is too pushy or rude, other dogs will reprimand it. If a dog never learns these lessons, it can become an intolerably rude dog.

Rude dogs can cause altercations in a class or social settings. Unfortunately, the owners of rude dogs rarely see their dogs as the cause of the altercations. When this happens, the well meaning, well socialized, adult dog who simply says, “enough is enough” to the rudeness presented by the poorly socialized dog, will get the blame. We need to learn how to read interactions by our dogs with other dogs.

Dogs effectively communicate to other dogs

When a well-socialized adult dog, growls, or snarls at a dog, it is usually for a good reason. It is their way of saying, “get out of my face, you are being too rambunctious and it is time to stop.” Usually all this is said with a warning look. If the look is not heeded, a growl may follow. If the growl is ignored, lips may begin to curl. If the snarl goes unobserved, a lunge may be executed. All of this can be done with lots of vocalizations. Usually our interaction is not needed. When well-socialized dogs are interacting in such a way, they can communicate much better than we can and get their messages across.

If we do intervene with the dogs, we need to be sure we do it in the correct way. In the scenario of a rude dog getting told to back off by another dog, our interaction should be to control the rude dog and tell him to settle or lay down. Now remember, the rude dog may be the one on the bottom of the pile if the message sent by the well socialized dog is good and clear. The rude dog may be vocalizing also, “Help, I have been shot, I am being unjustly reprimanded by this dog, save me.” It is not our job to save him, but rather, to follow thru with the lesson and get him to go lay down and settle.

Inexperienced handlers will often pamper their dog and get the lesson backwards. The inexperienced handler may incorrectly blame the teaching dog for the scuffle. Inexperienced handlers learn more quickly by example than by lecture.

It all depends on how much they think they know versus how much they actually do know.

When a doggie playgroup is in progress and dogs are interacting and teaching, watch but let them go uninterrupted. If someone jumps in to “save” their youngster, call them back and tell them to let the dogs work it out. Remember, we are talking about well-socialized dogs, teaching canine lessons.

Group play is not fighting

We are not talking about escalating dogfights. We need to know the difference. Most dogs don’t want to fight, they want to interact, teach, and be part of a canine group. Being part of a group requires regular reinforcement of where everyone stands in the hierarchy of the group. Since we are not members of the canine core, we do not need to interrupt the pack in play. We do need to be able to call our dogs out of the group occasionally for training and connection with us, but that is different.

Off leash socialization throughout a dog’s life is a gift that will be paid back many fold. It will result in a dog that knows its place and knows how to communicate well and play well with others, us included.

So, enjoy your dogs in many ways. Enjoy them as friends at home. Enjoy them as competitors in the ring with you. But don’t forget to enjoy them as the social creatures that they are in groups with their canine friends. Remember, work comes first and play comes last. End your training sessions with play. Not play just with you, but also with their canine buddies.

Socialization should never end. We are never too old to play and neither are our dogs.

Permission granted to reprint article from PEDIGREE Breeder Forum Vol. 11, Issue 2, published by MASTERFOODS Inc., Vernon, CA