Canine personalities vary just as human ones do. There are the natural networkers—the super gregarious dogs for whom to meet a dog is to make an instant new BFF. The most talented among these know just how to match their intensity, greeting style, and play style to any fellow canine they encounter. On the other end of the spectrum are our anti-networking wallflowers, the canine equivalent of those of us who prefer to spend the evening with a good book for company. And of course, dogs come in all personality shapes and sizes in between. Most dogs, like most people, have opinions about what kind of fellow traveler they prefer to spend time with, and what kind they’d just as soon keep at polite arm’s length.
With all this variation, group walks are by nature a complicated endeavor. Not only do group walkers have more dogs to attend to, manage, and keep safe, they also have the complexity of canine social relationships to oversee. A good group dynamic increases safety for the dogs, makes your job easier, and makes the whole outing more fun for dogs and walker.
Here are 4 keys to ensuring positive dog-dog relationships in your group walks:
1. Choose well
Careful screening and good group composition choices are the first step toward peaceful, easy, incident-free walks. While it can be tempting at times to take a dog due to route convenience or the need to fill a spot, group walkers are best served by being very picky in their screening process. The point isn’t to fill a spot, it’s to fill a spot with a perfect fit. Will a dog you’re considering be a good personality match for the dogs you’re already walking? Does the dog’s energy level and temperament seem to line up in a way that will result in either a love fest or mutual comfortable disinterest? (Not all dogs are big players or social butterflies, particularly as they age. That’s okay, as long as they’re all in comfortable agreement.) If the answer is no, take a pass. It doesn’t serve you, the client, the dog, or the dogs you already care for to say yes when you should say no. You’ll be much happier, and so will the dogs, if you take the time and care to build truly compatible groups.
2. Make a good introduction
It’s hard to recover from a poor first impression, for both people and dogs. Getting off on the right paw from the start increases the chances of a good fit. It’s worth the extra time and effort to take the introduction phase slow, particularly if you have any reservations about the new dog’s suitability for your group, or if you’re introducing a more reserved or shy dog. You can help the new dog by first taking her for one or more walks with just one other dog, chosen for his or her strong social skills. Think about how much more comfortable it is to attend a large party when you know at least one other person there. You can provide that comfort by helping the new dog make a friend before introducing her to the whole group.
Here are some more tips for successful group introductions.
3. Maintain group consistency
Most of us would agree that a regular coffee date with an old friend is a much more comfortable social scene than attending a cocktail party every night. While the latter may be a bit more exciting, it’s also potentially anxiety-inducing, exhausting, and fraught with potential for both positive and negative social interactions. Asking dogs to walk with a constantly changing set of fellow canines is akin to attending a daily cocktail party where you never know who’s going to show up. For dogs, not only can this cause social anxiety, but the constantly shifting group dynamic increases the chances of a conflict or incident. It also makes the job of managing the walk harder for you, as you never benefit from the dogs falling into a comfortable, easy rhythm with each other.
For the dogs’ safety and your peace of mind, use your policies to ensure consistent groups of dogs you know work well together.
4. Adjust as necessary
This is a hard one. But it’s so important. When you know a group isn’t working well together, it’s imperative to assess the cause and take action. This may be a matter of moving a dog from one group into another to improve the social dynamics. Perhaps, for example, you’ve got a group of adult dogs who are growing frustrated with a younger dog’s persistent requests to play, despite clear body language turning him down. You might make everyone happier by moving him into your afternoon group where you’ve got another energetic dog who loves a good romp.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the only clear recourse is to let a dog go. This can be a challenging decision, particularly if you’ve formed an attachment to the dog and/or the dog’s people. But it’s never wise to sacrifice group dynamics and positive dog relationships. If it’s not a fit, the best thing you can do is make the hard call. Here are some tips on how to know when it’s time to fire a dog, and some advice about how to do it.
Dog bodies and dog personalities come in all shapes and sizes. Creating the right matches, both in size and temperament, makes for safer, more enjoyable walks for dogs and dog walkers alike.
Looking to build your group management skills? Check out The Dog Walking Academy.