Trainers hear/read this as often as not when a client contacts us. And sometimes building a dogs ability to play with and interact with other dogs is a GREAT idea we are thrilled to help with. But more often than not, while we are still as if not more thrilled to help, your goal is missing the mark.
As someone who's passion (verging on a singular focused obsession) and 20 years of intensive experience is in canine social behavior, I can share with you how to think about your growly girl's behavior and what to do about it.
Why do you want to get your dog used to other dogs?
If your answer is: They are a puppy.
GREAT. This is the perfect reason and going to a well run daycare or training class is typically the best way to do this.
However, if that is not your answer, you are not alone. In fact, you are in the overwhelming majority. If your dog is uncomfortable around other dogs the questions to ask yourself are:
Why are they uncomfortable?
What response you would like instead?
Why do you want to change this situation?
In the overwhelming majority of cases there are 3 reasons people want the situation to change.
In these situations typically the dog is at social maturity (9-24 mos) and the very dedicated family has been meeting their exercise and enrichment needs with daycare or the dog park. And now, the dog is beginning to act out in these environments. It is understandable that the family wants to keep a good thing going.
Getting large breed dogs enough exercise and enrichment is a time, energy, and resource consuming task. These dogs evolved working hard outdoors with their humans the majority of the day. So their brains and bodies need more outdoor running and working than a 21st century urban life easily offers. So if your dog will do daycare or the dog park that helps a TON. And it can be hard to imagine how you will do it without it.
However, dogs "aging out" of high intensity social environments is as normal as you or I aging out of keggers and mash pits. (If you haven't yet, and think you won't, I have some bad news).
This doesn't mean your dog isn't sociable. It just means they like a different kind of social experience. Quieter, smaller, lower key. As humans we just stop going to the events we no longer like. But your dog depends on you, their leader. And if you continue to put them in the "kegger" they may begin to dislike dogs all together.
This makes total sense to most people. But it doesn't answer the critical question of what to do instead. Your dog still needs off leash running and outdoor enrichment.
Usually nature walks on a long line or with an e-collar are your best replacement. They love drinking in all the smells and being outdoors with you. They still get to open up and run, fully extending their stride. Giving their muscles and lungs and brain what it craves and needs. You can also consider taking up a hobby like scent work or training for your Canine Good Citizen test now that she is older and more mature. Maybe that therapy dog work you've always thought about.
Your dog may still enjoy the quiet company of your friend and family's dogs, provided they don't jump in her face or try to party too hard.
2. Human Sociability
Many people want their dogs to be able to function socially with other dogs at social events at the lake or backyard barbeques. This is typically doable with some level of management and the right introductions. What it often requires however, is some serious reframing of what is good and fair social behavior. Luckily it is similar to human social behavior.
To make it fair and hence harmonious, here are the facts:
A. No dog has to get jumped on
This can be the hardest one because it is usually a playful, friendly dog doing the jumping. And the one that doesn't like to get jumped on might be a notorious grouch. So people tend to see the grouch as the problem. But they are not.
My own adorable, spritely toy poodle got bit by my cousin's huskey Wolfie (a known grouch within the family) at a 4th of July party. It is easy to identify with my sweet little poodle. But the truth is, the dog who jumps on the other dog is the one who needs training. Not the one who doesn't like it. And in every case, it is ultimately the human's responsibility to keep dogs from jumping on those that don't like it. Similarly you would not let a rambunctious 6 year old jump on an aging family member with osteoporosis. If the dog or human is not yet ready to have the impulse control and training, then an adult needs to supervise and manage the spunky youngster.
B. Introductions are EVERYTHING when it comes to canine social behavior.
If the initial meeting of two dogs goes badly, they can be tense and pre-emptively aggressive towards each other for the rest of their lives. If the initial introduction goes well, it usually stays that way. So, it is strongly recommended to involve a professional in the initial introductions to have the best chance of long term harmony. Expect the process to take several hours and several visits. Anything less is a bonus.
C. Expect some level of management
Management means using tools such as gates, crates, or leashes to control the situation vs training or natural harmony. Boundaries such as not allowing dogs near the grill or in the kitchen are commonly needed. And, depending on the mix of dogs, some crate and rotate protocols may be necessary. The odds that you and your friends can relax and drink the afternoon away without a thought to the dogs is small. But the odds the other extreme, that there is no possibility of having the dogs together is also small.
D. Expect dogs to have different brands of fun
At the 4th of July party I was mentioning, quite a bit of different socializing was happening amongst the humans. Some were boisterously playing in the lake, jumping from the dock, and laughing with delight as they pushed each other off floaties. Some were sitting quietly in the shade chatting. Others played cards or took a break alone away from the action. Uncle Ray even napped on the couch. And because we are humans, no one thought anything of this. In fact, we could all agree it was a lovely party and a good time was had by all. Dogs are no different. Some will want to rough house, some hang quietly. Some take a nap alone. Be prepared to understand and honor your dogs brand of fun and respect others, just as we do with humans.
3. Leash Behavior
The last and probably the most common reason people want their dogs more used to other dogs is because the dog is reactive on leash.
If your dog is fine on leash unless another dog tries to greet them, then your job is to not allow other dogs to greet them. They don't have to say "hi" to everyone on walks any more than you do. And they feel more vulnerable on a leash because they can't get away if the interaction goes bad. Also a dog with good leash behavior unless directly greeted is a rare gem. Be proud and grateful.
Just stand in front of your dog to block the other dog and nicely explain she doesn't like to say "hi". You can still chat with the other human. Just keep the dogs a bit apart as you do. If the other dog goes crazy wanting to say "hi" so you can't chat, then it isn't your dog who needs training. And I say that with no judgement whatsoever. I have one dog who loves to jump in every dogs face and one who believes minding ones own business is a virtue and one who's fine either way. All attitudes are normal and OK. You hit the jackpot when the other dog feels the same as yours. But that isn't always the case.
If your dog reacts to dogs further than 6 feet away from another dog, doing some leash training is a great idea. This is the most common reason people seek training. So the Twin Cities has hundreds of trainers who can help you with this. However, if you have the option to just get them exercise without leashed walks that is usually the best bet.