Dog parks seem like a great way to exercise and socialize your dog, and they can be, but there are also a lot of risks with dog parks. First, there is no screening process. Anyone can bring a dog to the dog park, regardless of temperament or health status. Not all dog owners understand their dog’s behavior, so dogs that are especially aggressive or anxious might be allowed in. Dogs that are not neutered or spayed, or dogs with untreated infectious diseases can be allowed in. The next problem is with overall dog behavior. Dog parks are used as unstructured playtime and things can get chaotic, especially if owners are not experts on dog behavior or if they are distracted and not monitoring their dog. Dogs tend to learn bad behaviors from their friends, rather than the good behaviors, so dog parks can cause dogs to learn all types of inappropriate behaviors and can make it difficult to introduce them to other dogs in the future. The final thing to keep in mind is that one bad experience at the dog park can be traumatic, causing a dog to become fearful and reactive towards other dogs. So the next time you bring your dog to a dog park, here are a few things to think about:
Obedience. Make sure your dog is highly reliable with basic commands before going to a dog park. It might be a good idea to practice these commands in distracting environments before going to a dog park, and to practice in the dog park. Being able to call your dog to you and keep them under your control can keep your dog out of dangerous situations. For example, if a fight breaks out you can call your dog to you and keep them out of it. It’s a good idea to regularly practice these commands in the dog park as well. Set your dog up for success, start with simple commands they know well. At TGDS, we regularly practice basic obedience with the dogs during playtime. It helps maintain arousal at a manageable level.
Play Style. Prepare yourself for the dog park by understanding what good dog play looks like, what bad dog play looks like, and understanding aggressive behaviors. Many breeds have signature play styles. For example, labs and goldens tend to have very rough and tumble play styles that other dogs do not enjoy, but labs and goldens LOVE playing with each other for that reason. Many herding breeds love chasing play. Boxers like to “box” other dogs with their front paws. Know your dog! Monitor which play style your dog has, which dogs they enjoy playing with, and which ones they don’t. Identify the patterns and set them up for success.
- Signs of good play: loose body language, play bows, light barks or growls, back and forth play between both dogs, loose mouth while biting, dogs start and stop on their own, giving themselves breaks.
- Signs of bad play: one-sided play (one dog keeps pinning the other down, not giving them a chance to get back up), hard bites or nips to the heels or back of the neck, grabbing and shaking the scruff of other dogs, lots of high-pitched yips from the receiving dog, the receiving dog is trying to get away but can’t, bullying of one dog by multiple dogs, staring, standing over other dogs in a “T” position.
Arousal. Dogs can become highly aroused at a dog park, it’s a very high-energy environment with lots of smells, sights, sounds, and other dogs. Dogs who are highly aroused can become tired and crabby (think toddlers!), and are more likely to get into fights. Dogs need to take regular breaks during playtime in order to maintain a manageable arousal level. That is why we practice regular obedience at TGDS, and why the dogs get naptime during the day. Some dogs can play great with each other and give themselves proper breaks and rest time and never need a human to interfere. But most dogs need you to interfere. If your dog is playing, interfere every couple minutes to keep arousal low. Call them to you, practice some basic obedience, or take them out of the park for a few minutes to calm down. Continue to do this to reduce the chance of a fight breaking out. Dogs who are becoming over-aroused tend to start getting louder during play, their movements become faster, their bites become faster and harder.
If you and your dog are not cut out for the dog park (no shame in that!), there are plenty of other options for exercise and socialization. If you know your dog gets along with certain dogs really well, make friends with those owners and have play dates. If your dog doesn’t necessarily like playing with other dogs, but seems to enjoy company, you can have structured activities like group hikes with other dog owners or attend obedience classes. As always, feel free to ask us questions! If your dog is a regular here, we are going to be very familiar with their play style and are more than happy to help you understand it too. We can tell you what kind of dogs they tend to get along with. We can try to connect you with other pet parents who are looking for further socialization outside of TGDS. And if you know of great dog parks that are safe and fun, feel free to share that information with us so we can pass it along.
Looking for more information on how to keep your dog safe and happy at the dog park? Get the Dog Park Assistant iPhone App created by respected dog behaviorist Sue Sternberg.