Should you go to the dog park?
It’s a great benefit to have a dog park in your city if you’re fortunate to have one or more than one. If you’re lucky, you may also have a variety of mountain trails to take your dogs to like I do in my town.
A fenced dog park is a bonus, though, especially for visitors who may not be familiar with or confident on any local trails or know the area very well.
What you need to know.
- They are not appropriate places “to socialize” a dog.
- They are not for every dog. Many dogs aren’t comfortable being in groups of unfamiliar dogs.
- Even if it’s fenced, dogs still need to have some basic training before partaking.
Socializing and Social Skills
Meeting other dogs and learning how to interact appropriately needs to be taught with care. Dog owners should be involved in shaping their dog’s social skills rather than leaving the job to random dogs of unknown skill. Contrary to popular opinion, dogs don’t always “work it out”. We need to help them, and dog parks aren’t the best place to do this.
Dog parks tend to be small areas with little else for dogs to focus on except other dogs. Encountering multiple dogs all focused on you can be overwhelming and frightening for an unskilled dog, especially a young one. It’s not actually “normal” for dogs to interact with each other for long periods of time.
It’s much more natural for dogs to interact for short periods and then do things cooperatively with each other like chase a squirrel, check out an interesting smell, hang out and relax on the deck, go check out or bark at someone walking by their fence or house, etc.
If your dog isn’t socially skilled or mature, letting them run free in a dog park could lead to behaviour problems. Your dog could be intimidated or bullied by other dogs or your dog, unsure how to respond, could start acting defensively or bullying other dogs, too.
There are some dogs who are generally poor candidates for a dog park:
- fearful or shy
- under the age of 2
- females in heat
- easily over-aroused (barkers and “humpers”)
- dog “selective”
- resource guarders
- fence runners (or jumpers)
- prone to barrier frustration like “fence fighting”
- any with a bite history (unless appropriately muzzled*)
Any dog who fits the description on the above list are likely to be anxious, frustrated, defensive or hyper-vigilant in a dog park. They won’t enjoy the experience and, depending on how they’re managed, they can negatively impact other users’ experiences.
Many dogs who aren’t comfortable in a dog park can still successfully interact with dogs out on trails where people and their dogs are moving through the area purposefully and not hanging out for long periods of time.
Some Basic Training is Required
To prepare for dog park adventures, your dog should have a reasonably good recall away from other dogs and people, understand the social skill of polite greetings and know how to defuse the energy of another dog.
Dogs should be able to greet and come away from other dogs quickly without chasing, sniffing for too long (3 seconds is plenty!), or physically bombarding another dog without permission.
As the human end of the equation, be aware of what your dog is doing. Frequently call them to you to check-in, leave fetch toys at home, keep any treats tucked away and wait for quiet moments to enter and exit.
Having access to a dog park is a privilege. A dog park is a shared space, and everyone should learn how best to share it so it’s a positive experience for everyone. We need to be responsible for our dog’s behaviour and invest in some training. With a little bit of planning, some skilled help from a positive trainer, and community cooperation, all our dog areas can be a safe and fun experience!
*A Note About Muzzles
A muzzle is not an excuse to put a dog in a position that would normally cause them to want to bite.
Muzzles are for management and safety. Dogs need to be positively trained to wear one comfortably. Once a dog is muzzle trained, the muzzle should be used in conjunction with a behaviour modification program to help the dog in question learn to be more comfortable, choose alternate behaviours and hopefully work toward the muzzle not being needed at all or nearly as much.