Are dog parks good for my dog?
To go, or not to go, that is the question!
Dog parks, the burgeoning daily routine of the urban dog.
Don’t get me wrong, councils providing safe spaces dedicated to dogs enjoying an off-lead romp, stretch of the legs, a good sniff and some play time is fantastic. After all, many dogs are being left home alone for longer periods, not getting out as much, and they are highly social animals. Does this mean that they want to meet their social needs through dog-dog play or spend their exercise time in the presence of other dogs?
When choosing the types of social interactions our dogs have with other dogs, there are a few things to consider.
Are we taking them to dog parks because we think they should want to go? Do we think that socialising with other dogs is what makes for a truly happy dog? Or maybe it could even be that it’s us as owners that enjoys the socialisation and sense of community with other dog owners at dog parks more than our dog enjoying the socialisation with other dogs?
Another important thing about dog parks is very often the other dogs our dogs encounter are ones they’ve never met before. That’s a lot of saying hello to a lot of strangers! As guardians to our dogs, we need to ask ourselves is our dog actually confident meeting multiple strange dogs at one time? Do they feel safe having a number of strange dogs in their personal space all at once? Does our dog want to play or engage with these unknown dogs in a situation that can become not unlike a ‘mosh pit’ for dogs at times?
“Do you know what it looks like when your dog is enjoying or not enjoying, a social interaction with another dog?”
I will use a dog park from time to time with my dog, and even client dogs as part of their training. There are however a number of considerations I make before I decide to go in.
So what are some of these important questions I want answered before I take any dog into an off-lead dog park?
What does my dog like and dislike in other dogs? Just like us, our dogs will not like every dog they meet just as we won’t get along with every person we meet. My dog is over 10 years old, she’s sore and less agile than she once was. She loves to sniff, explore, roll in some unsavoury piles of things I’d rather not know what they were, come back for some treats and possibly enjoy a small game of tug or fetch with me. She has her few doggy friends that she enjoys social outings with, but they are ones she knows well. She trusts that they know what play styles she enjoys and tolerates. She’s also confident in how they will reciprocate her invitations of play behaviour. Dogs like to play with other dogs that match their play styles, just like we become friends with other people that have similar interests and personality styles. Some enjoy a mosh pit with 100 of their new best friends, and some enjoy going to the ballet with that one special bestie! Do you know which one your dog would prefer?
What is my dog’s tolerance level of pushy social behaviour? Depending on our dog’s previous social history, they will have varying tolerance levels of the ways other dogs interact with them. They may have had negative experiences in the past in a particular setting, or with a particular breed of dog, or a particular style of play by another dog that gave them a fright or hurt them. This may leave them with a fear that this could happen again. Perhaps they haven’t met many dogs before at all so they are needing more gradual introductions to being social with other dogs that are more slow to get going. My dog’s hips are sore, so large adolescent dogs that play quite physically rough will have her waving around her walking stick before they have a chance to lay a body slam on her. Placing her near these types of dogs will therefore teach her reactive behaviours to gain space, which I certainly don’t want her learning, practicing and becoming stronger. At all times I want to know I am setting my dog up for success, safety and enjoyment. Placing our dog in situations they’re uncomfortable in will only encourage future behaviour problems such as reactivity. Matching them with the right personalities to play with is just another aspect of setting our dog up for success with their social behaviour.
Can I exit stage left when I see signs of stress? If you can’t protect your dog and get them out of stressful social interactions, this is where reactive behaviours can begin to develop. A dog’s normal initial ‘go to’ behaviour is to avoid things that make them feel threatened. If they learn that these behaviours are not effective in social interactions or they feel trapped, they will switch to more reactive behaviours instead.
What’s the arousal level like in the park at the moment? And is this something my dog can handle? Often I walk up to the gate and see young dogs chasing, barking at and/or nipping at any dog that moves. Will my dog enjoy this? Can I protect them from an experience they may find stressful? Are other owners in the park being responsible with their dogs by placing boundaries and conditions on their dog’s behaviour? If the answer is no to any of these I won’t go in.
Are there other dogs in the park that look stressed and are snapping at other dogs? Could my dog inadvertently be on the receiving end of that and therefore have a negative experience? Only recently I was in a park observing a client’s dog for their owner and another owner walked in with their dog wearing a shock collar and a muzzle. Alarm bells rang madly! Was this a safe space to give this client’s adolescent dog some of their earliest social experiences? Absolutely not!
Is my dog’s training unreliable? Does your dog ignore your cues to return to you when you ask them to? Are they negatively impacting other dogs’ enjoyment of the park? Are you ‘untraining’ all of your hard work by letting them run free around the dog park ignoring you? This is teaching your dog that you’re irrelevant when compared to the huge reinforcement levels coming from their environment. They’re also learning some bad habits not only with not coming when called, but that other dogs are exciting, fun to chase and to jump all over, to get over excited around other dogs and that they are so much more fun than you are. This association with other dogs can also turn into leash reactivity through sheer frustration when they see other dogs when they’re out on lead. This is due to a history of being able to get to all other dogs when they see them typically off lead at parks and that other dogs equal a lot of excitement and arousal. When on lead, not being able to get to other dogs when they see them can make our dogs very frustrated and begin to ‘demand’ to get closer to other dogs to say hi and they won’t let up until they do. If they learn this works, we’ve taught our dogs leash reactive behaviours to get to other dogs on lead. It can even then switch to aggression when they get there. This is very common in adolescent dogs that enjoy lots of regular rough off lead play with no breaks, structure or conditions around the play.
So maybe you’ve looked at some of these things above and thought maybe dog parks aren’t great for my dog, but I want them to enjoy some off-lead running and doggy play? What are some alternatives for my dog?
If it’s just the training reliability you’re concerned about, work more on training your dog a reliable recall cue such as ‘come’. Start teaching it around the home first and then begin gradually testing it in new environments and around more distractions. When you feel confident you can let them off lead in more varied off lead environments and still have them reliably come back to you, start taking them back into the dog parks. Check out our blog on how to train a reliable recall.
If you feel your dog isn’t happy when the park is really busy or has more boisterous dogs, try going at off peak times to let your dog have more quiet enjoyment of the space.
You’re concerned your dog doesn’t like any off lead dogs coming into their space? You can use a long training lead and enjoy some relaxed exploring on an oval or in a reserve with less risk of off lead dogs approaching. This way your dog gets to have more space to sniff and explore yet you still have them on lead and safe.
Your dog enjoys the company of familiar dogs but not strange dogs? Organise play dates in friends’ back yards with other dogs you know your dog likes. There are also great businesses that hire out spaces for play dates and private functions for dogs so that your dog and their best friends can have a good play together in a safe and controlled private setting.
If your dog is one of those dogs that would prefer to be with their humans, instead of going to environments other dogs frequent, spend that time on more healthy and mentally stimulating activities such as training, scent games, slow walks on the streets where they sniff and take in their environment, going on car trips somewhere new to explore, or spend that time on play time with you instead.
In short, some dogs like other dogs and enjoy playing with lots of them, and that’s great. Some other dogs, for whatever reasons, only like playing with some types of dog personalities, and that’s fine too. Other dogs might only like playing with dogs they know, again, that’s awesome! And then there’s another group of dogs that just aren’t that fussed with other dogs at all and would rather be with their humans, and yet again that’s perfectly fine. It’s our job to determine which of those our dog is and how to maximise their safety and enjoyment in life while respecting that side to our dogs.
If you’re concerned your dog is developing fears or reactivity towards other dogs, seek the help of a qualified positive reinforcement trainer. Even if your dog doesn’t like other dogs, it doesn’t mean they have to be reactive to them when they encounter them so engage a professional to find out how you can help your dog to feel relaxed and safe again in these situations.