If you take your dog to dog parks pretty regularly, you have probably made friends or at least acquaintanceships with some of the other regulars at the dog park. You may know their name or at least their dog's name, what they do for a living, and other little tidbits of information about their life and they know yours as well. After you let your dog loose, you most likely gravitate over to people you already know and are comfortable with. But did you think your dog may have the same feelings of friendship or acquaintanceships with other dogs? A study done on the relationships between dogs and their preferences for play partners just may suggest yes.
A study done in 2008 at the University of Michigan looked at the relationship between preferences in social play of dogs. One of the things this study found is that when puppies are really young, they will play with just about anyone. As these same puppies matured, they would initiate play with certain dogs and their diversity in which dogs they chose to play with decreased as they got older. Eventually with the same group of dogs every time, the dogs would develop one play partner that they typically preferred to play with. Their study also showed that dogs preferred to play in dyads, that is, with one partner one-on-one. There might be three puppies playing together, but the preferences were for dyads.
So, could this study mean dogs have "friends"? While a true friendship similar to the relationships humans have between each other would be a stretch to infer with dogs, your dog may have preferences for certain dogs. For example, when you get to the dog park and let your dog loose, if there is another dog there that your dog in the past has consistently chosen to play with, your dog will most likely go up to that same dog and try to initiate play with them. Likewise, if you go to the park and your dog has never played with the dogs there before, but is still a pretty social dog, it may take a moment for the dog to play with other dogs and eventually settle on one dog they prefer to play with for the majority of the time. You may notice as you watch dogs play properly, that they usually play with each other in those dyads, with maybe a third member trying to join in. You may also notice that when you have more than three running around together pretty close, the play may be more erratic or there may be some rougher play with potential for another dog getting bullied.
So if your dog at least has play preferences for certain dogs, what can you do to help facilitate appropriate, healthy social play? If you have been able to identify which dogs your dog has consistently preferred to play with, set up a play date with that owner and dog sometime. Your dog will enjoy the play with their "friend" and you may develop a stronger human friendship with the other dog's owner as well. If you have a social butterfly who bolts as soon as you get to the park and tries to immediately play with anyone before finally sticking with one buddy, your dog will still enjoy a set up play date with that same dog at a later time. If you have a more reserved dog, they may not immediately play and stick by you for a little bit of time before finally venturing off to try to play. Play dates would be great for this dog as they will already be comfortable with that dog and it can help to build that dog's confidence in play and learning more social cues as the dog plays more and more with the same dogs.
Where might doggy daycares fall when you look at this study? In a daycare setting with large amounts of dogs are out together, that can be very overwhelming for a dog. With a large group of dogs together it may be difficult for dogs to play in their preferred dyads with large groups of dogs put in a small area. With some of these larger daycares where there may be a variety of different dogs coming in each time, it may be difficult to drop your dog off on a day when their preferred partner is also dropped off. In smaller, structured daycares where the same dogs seem to come every day or week when your dog goes and the dog enjoys this type of social interaction, this may be a great experience for your dog. Some dogs do seem to do fine when in a large daycare, but it may be best to choose a small, structured daycare so your dog can play with the same playmates most of the time.
Have you noticed dogs that your dog prefers to play with? What have you done to encourage these "friendships" with your dog?
University of Michigan study found here: