Play is the best way to learn. By definition, play is something enjoyable that you participate in willingly. Never assume that your dog can learn everything from you, they can’t. Much of their learning takes place through interacting with their environment. If you restrict your dog’s ability to do this they will develop social deficits and will be harder to train. If you allow your dog lots of opportunities to play and interact with their environment, they will learn. The more varied experiences you can expose your dog to in their first three years the more intelligent they will become. This is a neurological fact.
Dogs that are able to engage freely with other dogs usually develop wonderfully advanced social skills. They learn how to read other dogs, and learn how to control the force of their bite. Dogs primarily play with their mouths and can teach each other an awful lot about the ‘rules’ of mock combat. If one dog bites another too hard the play is stopped, you will notice this in lots of play between young dogs and puppies.
A dog that has many opportunities to interact with other dogs freely, is also releasing pressure during this time. Often dogs that are restricted, either by always being on lead, or never being able to interact with other dogs, develop behaviour that is often described as ‘hyperactive’ or ‘full-on’. It is understandable if they are not able to socialise, the frustration will build up, making them unmanageable when you do finally allow them to interact with other dogs.
If you want to develop your dog’s attention span for training, allowing them to play before, after and during your training session will go a long way to teaching them obedience skills. This is particularly important for young dogs and puppies. Take frequent breaks in training to release some of the pressure build-ups and your dog will be much more open to learning from you.
Puppy school, while beneficial, is not enough if you want your dog to have great social skills. It would be like expecting a child just out of kinder to sit through a fine dining five-course meal and make thoughtful conversation. We don’t expect it of our children, so we should not expect it of our dogs. The good news is that it does not take your dog as long to learn social graces as it does humans. Continue your dog’s socialisation for their first three years, and you will end up with a well-rounded adult dog for the next ten.