Dog Parks are like most ideologies. They make perfect sense in theory, but in reality they tend to miss the mark. In theory, dogs parks are a safe fenced-in area that provide dogs with exercise and the opportunity to be socialized. Dog owners get an opportunity to meet other dog lovers, and they feel as though they’re giving their fur-babies the freedom they desperately need.
1st thing about dog parks…
First, you need to have some understanding of dog play styles. Certain dogs just play rough. They crash into each other, slamming their open mouths against ears and shoulders. Some dogs will even bite the other dog’s necks, backs and legs during play. Other dogs prefer the chase. They like to run after their playmates, and chase them for hours on end. Regardless of the style, healthy dog play involves constant role reversal. If you’re not seeing that, you need to stop the game.
In addition to play style, all dog owners should have some basic understanding of dog body language. Playful gestures include being bouncy, wiggling bodies, open and relaxed mouths, play bows, and spinning. Anxious gestures include tucked back ears, tucked tails, arched backs with head down, stiff bodies, hackles up, tightly closed mouthes, and hiding behind objects or people. Some dominant gestures that require intervention will be, tail high and curved, slow wagging, stiff posture, fixed gazes, snarling, repeatedly putting their paw or their head on the other dog’s back or neck, and mounting. There are others, but these are some of the most common. For more information on understanding dog body language, check out this chart by the ASPCA.
2nd thing about dog parks…
Supervision… most of the time people are too busy talking to other owners or fiddling with their phones to pay attention to their own dogs. I’ve seen owners walk out the gate and sit in their car because it’s cold. I’ve known of dog walkers who would take a group of dogs to one dog park then leave them, and go get another group of dogs; and drop the second group off at a different dog park. Who is watching these dogs? Owners need to be aware of the potential for things to go wrong, but in order to recognize the precursors they need to be paying close attention to their dog’s encounters. Things happen very fast in the dog world, so often when people say there were no signs… they’ve just missed all the signs.
Keep in mind that a single bad experience at the dog park can cause severe setbacks for your dog’s behavior and well-being. Also, it doesn’t matter whether your dog is the one being bullied, or if he is being the bully. The behavioral issues that arise from these interactions can take months, or even years to fix.
3rd thing about dog parks…
The majority, if not all, of the dogs at the dog park are untrained. They may do a couple behaviors at home, but nothing with any duration, distance or distractions. The nature of the dog park makes it a highly arousing environment, so dogs who have been cooped up in the house all day lose it at the thought of running around with their fellow fur buddies.
The thing is… the more you rehearse a script that reads “other dogs = no controls,” the more rewarding it becomes because other dogs always represent excitement. The more you dog gets excited, the harder it becomes to control him. It’s a vicious cycle. If he only gets to be around other dogs playing with no rules at the dog park, then whenever he sees another dog outside of the dog park, it will be really hard for him to stay calm and well behaved.
An untrained dog at the dog park is a powder keg, and considering the fact that most of the dogs at the park are untrained, you are definitely putting your dog in a bad position whether he is trained or not.
4th thing about dog parks…
Aside from the potential dog fights, and lack of overall supervision, dog parks just aren’t clean. Infection and disease can be spread through direct contact between dogs, shared bowls, equipment, contaminated water, fecies, insects, etc… People who interact with dogs or contaminated areas can also get infected. Some of the diseases can be spread from animals to people.
The more your dog interacts with other dogs, the more likely he is to contract things like kennel cough, or fleas. The bacteria in the water they all drink out of and play in can carry things like Giardia and Parvo. Unfortunately, vaccines won’t protect your dog from all of the strands.
Now that I’ve told you all these terrible things about dog parks, how are you supposed to exercise and socialize your dog??
- You can TRY private dog parks. They have a fee, and are generally supervised by people who understand dog play. In addition, they tend to have temperament test and only allow dogs that are generally friendly. In addition, they are all vaccinated. I’m still not a big fan of these because I think dogs need to be properly introduced and very well trained before playing freely with multiple dogs off leash.
- Group classes. Attending group classes is a great way to exercise your dog’s body and brain. In addition, they are around many other dogs that are under control. Another benefit to group classes is that you get to meet other responsible owners. Through that network, you guys can set up controlled play dates for your dogs. This is the best method in my opinion.
- Find secluded areas in regular parks to throw the ball around. However, make sure your dog has a bullet proof recall.
These are definitely some things to think about before heading to the dog park… Some of you are probably thinking I’ve never had an issue at the dog park, and if so you’re lucky. The thing is… if you’ve never had an issue, keep on going and I promise you will. Better safe than sorry.