I was going to title this “Skip likes it rough,” but, well, you know . . . the internet. But the fact is that Skip came to us loving to play rough and Maggie didn’t, and we’ve gone through a year of managing and conditioning and innovating and despairing and come out the other side with two dogs who absolutely adore each other, and play happily and hard every day. Whew.
Before talking about the two of them, let me preface this by saying that first, play is powerful stuff. As Karen London and I say in Play Together, Stay Together, “Play is fun, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just goofy or frivolous.” Play is important for mental health (why not dogs too?), physical fitness, and social relationships. Second, watching dogs play well together is one of my greatest joys in life. I sometimes forget how important it is to my own mental health until for some reason, usually an injury, my dogs could no longer play together. Even Skip’s two weeks off of playing with Maggie after his cryptorchid surgery got me down.
That said, all play is not equal, and play between two dogs can resemble a bad playground experience where Ronnie, in the first grade, won’t stop grabbing you and hugging you, and you get disciplined for finally fighting back . . . Oh, wait. Dogs, we’re talking about dogs.
Good play occurs when both actors are enjoying themselves, when the stronger one “self-handicaps” and avoids overpowering or frightening the other. But that’s not what happened a year ago when we got Skip.
Skip came to us loving to play, but played like a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers (you know, the team who should have won the Super Bowl because Aaron Rodgers is the bomb, not that I’m upset about it or anything). Skip would charge, a freight train of power and muscle, into Maggie, eyes shining, and quite literally run her over. He was, and is, especially fond of hip slamming, and thought it was especially amusing to slam Maggie into the fence. The bottom line is that Skip loves to play, but came with no self-handicapping skills. Here’s a not- great video taken the day after Skip came to us. It will give you some idea of how mouthy and physical Skip was, but it’s not a clear example of how hard he would hip slam Maggie, get on top of her, or simply charge into her at a gazillion miles an hour. Nor is it a good example of how Maggie increasingly became afraid of him. But still, you can see something of his physicality in it, and how Maggie cuts it off:
If you had the sound on, you’ll hear Jim and I agreeing that Maggie was “giving as much as she’s getting.” Ah, how wrong we were.
But, still things looked great those first few days. We kept the dogs separate in the house because Maggie was afraid of Skip in close quarters, but she seemed thrilled to finally have a dog to play with again after Willie died. Maggie is fast and agile, and Skip was not in good condition when we got him. As far as I know, he’d never been in snow before either, so Maggie held all the cards. You can see how much fun she is having in the video below. It made me happier than I can say…
Maggie and Skip appeared to adore each other. Maggie looked like a teenage girl blushed by her first crush on the guy in her French class, and Skip looked like the guy in the class who just discovered girls. And then, Skip got better at playing in the snow, and began slamming into Maggie as if it was the most fun he’d ever had. It possibly was, but Maggie quickly became afraid of Skip. Rather than disciplining him for being a jerk (one of our nicknames for Skip is “d—head,” with apologies to males everywhere), Maggie withdrew and tried to avoid him. I am sure, absolutely sure, that if Maggie had just once laid into him, Skip would have deferred with some sort of canine “Gosh golly gee, Ma’am . . .” and played more politely. But she didn’t.
Here’s where I insert the video showing just how rude Skip was. Oh wait, I don’t have one. I’ve searched all my videos, and I found nothing. I’m guessing that I had my hands full enough trying to monitor and manage their play. You’ll just have to believe me that Skip became ruder and ruder, and Maggie began liking him less and less.
I did all I could, or all I could think of. In the early days Skip was so new I couldn’t count on a recall to work, and any vocal correction scared sound-sensitive Maggie, while having no effect on Skip. But relatively early on I got the two of them playing with toys, and that helped tremendously.
Soon too I had a recall that I could use reliably, so I could simply call Skip off when he began his full out cavalry charge toward Maggie. Whew. Things were looking up–Maggie seemed to enjoy playing with Skip again, and I thought we were free and clear.
And then, in April Skip badly injured a back leg and was off of play for over two months. When he could finally play again, I expected Maggie to be happy to be able to play with him because things had been going so well. On the contrary, against all expectations, she played with him a few times, looking increasingly worried about it, and then refused to go up the hill with him on a walk, much less play with him. I wasn’t going to force her, so I began walking them separately while I pondered how to get them playing again. After a few days of this, Maggie refused to go up the hill at all, even with Skip still in the house, even to work sheep.
Whaaaa . . . ? I still cannot say why this occurred. I searched my brain for answers, talked to my colleagues, mulled, pondered, but never really figured it out. My only guess is that Maggie associated going up the hill with the emotional event that occurred when Skip was injured. “Emotional” it was, because when Skip walked toward me after running into a gate post with his back leg sticking straight out away from his body, I was gutted. It looked like a horrible injury. All the endless months came back, of rehabbing Maggie’s torn cruciate, Willie’s mangled shoulder, and later liver cancer surgery. I envisioned 7-8 months of rehab for a new dog I had just gotten, not long after Willie’s awful death from lung cancer. I relate this not for sympathy, but simply so you understand why my knees buckled and I sobbed into the grass for a very long time. Skip’s affectionate nick name might be d—head, but Maggie’s is “Trisha’s Mood Ring,” so perhaps that was it? And we know that the effects of trauma tend to percolate and strengthen in the brain, sort of a reverse version of wine improving over the years. Perhaps when Skip was able to go up the hill again that trauma was triggered? But what caused it mattered less than what to do about it.
I won’t go into all the details of how I got Maggie back up the hill, but it took six to eight weeks of conditioning Maggie to first walk toward the path up the hill by throwing pieces of chicken ahead of us, then partway up the hill, etc etc. (I didn’t write about it at the time because I needed the time and space to deal with it–more lessons learned when learning about how to deal with my own traumas.) Of course, all this was separate from Skip’s walking and exercise routine, so it kept me busy. (If you’d like more on how I did this just ask, and I’ll make it another post. I will admit to being as pleased with the result as about any training I’ve ever done, because Maggie seemed outright crazy for awhile. But it is different issue from dealing with rough play, which is complicated enough, so I’ll keep it short here.)
Want some good news? Here’s a video I shot just a few days ago of Maggie and Skip playing beautifully together, which they’ve been doing for many months now:
Skip self-handicaps more, Maggie is on offense more, and uses her agility and speed to outrun Skip in the snow while still being completely engaged with him. Skip learned that Maggie just stopped playing when he got too rough. He also learned that full charges, before he got anywhere near Maggie, got a recall from me (a happy, chirpy “Skip Skip!”), and interred with his play. I rarely need to do that now, because he no longer slams into her, and she is better at countering him.
Here’s one last video of them playing tug, which I should mention they usually do before the running play you saw above:
So, right now, paws crossed, things are great at the farm. But here’s the question for all of us: What do you do when you have two dogs who want to play, but one has a play style that doesn’t work for the other? To get our conversation started, her are some things that have worked for Maggie and Skip:
OBSERVE Maggie needed to know that Skip wasn’t going to be able to run roughshod over her without some protection from me. That meant being observant enough to see when she was getting nervous, and to be able to predict when Skip was about to charge into her. It also took knowing what is appropriate and what isn’t.
PROTECT As soon as I could, I used Skip’s fantastic recall (partly due to training, partly due to his nature) to call him back whenever he looked like he was going to overpower Maggie. We also put him on a leash and let Maggie free, focused him on toys rather than Maggie, walked them separately for a while when she was the most worried, and kept play sessions very short when they were going well.
REDIRECT We taught Skip to play with toys (including teaching “Drop It” as part of the game), and encouraged him and Maggie to play tug. Maggie is so smart and agile she found out early on that she could hold her own at this game, even though he outweighs her by 25% and is as strong as an ox. If I had to guess what was the most important thing that helped them learn to play together, I’d pick this. But I’m just speculating. (I should mention that I do have concerns about the dog’s necks when they play tug so hard two times a day. For awhile I gave just Maggie the toy because Skip thought it a fun game to herd her as if she was a sheep, but that brought out problems with his actual herding work, so it’s back to playing tug. And regular visits to the canine chiropractor just to be safe. So far, they seem to be doing well. Please cross all paws.)
TIME OUTS As mentioned, I learned to call Skip to me as soon as I thought he was about to smash into Maggie. At first I reinforced it, obviously to reinforce the recall, but as time went on I simply kept him close to me, perhaps on “Wait” or “Stand,” which allowed him to cool off a little bit and think again before letting his adrenaline take over.
RESOURCES I’m lucky in that I’ve had years of experience of watching dogs play, both appropriately and not, so the signs of problematic play were easy for me to see. Here are some resources if you haven’t had that same opportunity. I did a half-day seminar on play that is full of videos of different types of play, titled, creatively, Dog Play. (It’s a DVD but I think I can get it live streamed if there is interest.) Dr. Sophia Yin’s site has some good videos on different styles of dog play and how to tell if it’s appropriate. I have written several posts about dog play and even have an entire section in my website’s Learning Center on play.
There are lots of resources out there, please add your favorites to the conversation. But what I’ve found is lots of resources on discerning healthy play from problematic play, but little on what to do about it. You? I know this is an issue that is relevant to lots of people, we’d all love to hear about your experiences with this issue.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I promised to not neglect the cats this week, and luckily Nellie left the warm kitty safe house in the garage to hang out in the sun, despite the frigid weather. I had a heck of a time getting her far enough away from me to get a photo, but she finally accommodated me by, uh, showing off her butt?
She then took me into the garage onto their feeding station and in front of the empty bowls. Caption from you all required:
Did I mention it’s cold? It was about 8 below Farenheit when I took this next shot, which is me in the house with a snowshoe on. One doesn’t normally wear one’s snowshoes in the house, in part because the cleats on the bottom are killer on one’s flooring. But when it’s that frigid the straps are so cold that they can’t be undone until you come into the house to warm them up.
We have another week at least of this cold weather, with high in the single digits. We’re still walking the dogs but a bit briefer than usual, because their paws begin to burn and watching a dog trying to raise two paws up into the air at the same time might be amusing to some, but when your own front paws are that cold too it’s hard not to sympathize.
The weather makes the flowers in the house especially welcome, like this Amaryllis that makes me happy multiple times a day:
Nothing like this weather plus the pandemic to get a person cleaning stuff out. This weekend it was the dog’s toy bins. Here’s what they contained before I sorted them out:
Does Skip actually look a bit overwhelmed? I’ve thrown away a bunch and have a huge bag to donate to the local humane society and the dogs, believe me, are none the worse for wear.
Skip and Maggie would like you to know that they are just fine, thank you, playing outside. Skip is, as usual, using his massive bear paw to get the toy away from Maggie, who will, yet again, foil him by leaping out of the way. Brains over brawn, go you girl!
I hope you are safe and warm somewhere, and look forward to hearing about your experience with dogs whose play deserves the nickname that we have given Mr. Skip. (See above)