Dogs are social creatures by nature. You can nurture this charming trait by planning playdates for them. Hanging out with other people and their pets is a terrific way for you and your dog to bond, break up your routine, and have fun.
The Friendly Pet
Devote time to socializing your dog before hitting the dog park; for a pet that's not used to playing with others, a situation like that could be overwhelming. These social skills need to be learned early (ideally when a dog's between 8 and 16 weeks old) and practiced regularly. This means teaching your dog to become comfortable with a wide range of people, animals, and situations. (A dog without these skills may become timid or aggressive.) Socialization can be done with a trainer; on your own with treats, ample praise, and toys; or in classes commonly called puppy kindergarten. "It's an important part of helping a dog become confident, compatible, and well-balanced," says Greg Kleva, trainer and the host of "It's a Dog's Life" on Martha Stewart Living Radio.
Perks of Play
Playdates provide dogs with physical and mental stimulation, plus a chance to learn boundaries. Running, chasing, and wrestling keep them fit and agile. "Another dog can do a much better job of exercising your dog than you can," says Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Organize dates with up to four dogs at a time, ideally of a similar age and size. Complementary styles are also key: Does your dog like one-on-one time or prefer group activities? Wrestling or chasing after a ball?
Playdates can take place at home, inside, or in the backyard. Dog beaches and fenced-in dog parks are also popular spots. Some doggie day cares host playdates; trained staff is a plus. Just before a playdate, introduce all dogs in a neutral location so no dog starts off having to defend its territory. Praise positive interactions. Keep initial playdates short, about 15 minutes, and build to longer sessions.
Fun and Games
Tug, fetch, flying-disk, and ball toys are all great for playdates. Always have water and small treats on hand to reward good behavior. (Snacks that require a lot of chewing break the rhythm of play, and larger pieces can lead to guarding and conflicts.) Keep an eye on how the animals interact, and end the date if one seems edgy. Gauge the dogs' body language -- a happy pant and low, wagging tails are signs that they're having a good time.
Many toys are appropriate for playdates. Just avoid favorites that dogs might be protective of, food-stuffed toys, or soft toys that can be torn apart. Here are a few winners.
Get two dogs tugging with this toy, which was made to withstand even the heaviest chomping. Orbee Tuff Tug, $20; planetdog.com.
This cute crab is great for indoor dates. Kramer the Crab, from $14; jaxandbones.com.
Fetch! Send pets running for this flying toy. Neoprene toss toy, in Blue, $9, by Martha Stewart Pets; petsmart.com.