As many of you know, I'm not a big fan of dog parks. Really, it's not that I don't like dog parks, or the idea of them. What I don't like is how dog parks are misused and can create a hazard for you and your dogs.
So let's look at it: The good, the bad, and the ugly of the dog park scene.
The Good - exercise, exercise, exercise
Many dog owners today live in apartments, condominiums, or town homes and their dogs don't have a large yard to run loose and play in. These dogs need exercise as much the next dog. Having a fenced enclosure with lots of room to run is a great idea place to get that much-needed exercise taken care of.
Even folks who have a large yard know that most dogs get bored in their own backyards, and would love to explore a new space once in awhile.
As a way to meet physical exercise requirements, dog parks meet a very real need.
The Bad - all muscle, no brains
While it is indisputable that all dogs need physical exercise, that is often the ONLY kind of exercise the dogs at the dog park get. If owners are taking their dogs to the dog park every day - just to tire the dog out physically - and offering no form of mental exercise (training, agility, even mental games), those owners are actually doing more harm than good.
If an owner is only building a dog's physical muscles, that owner is actually physically conditioning the dog to need more and more physical exercise to actually tire the dog out!
Just like humans, dogs need mental exercise as much as they need physical exercise. Dogs who engage in both physical AND mental exercise daily will benefit more and are calmer, more manageable dogs.
The Ugly - socialization issues
The biggest problem encountered at dog parks is related to canine socialization. Not all dogs are equal. Not all dogs like other dogs. Not all dogs ‘play nice.’
Worse yet, very few owners know what ‘good’ dog play looks like.
In fact, many of the behaviors that owners label ‘play’ is not play at all. Extremely rough wrestling, mounting behaviors, relentless chase games with one dog being a target for other dogs – NONE of this is ‘play.’
As puppies, dogs engage in many of the above behaviors and should learn the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable, and what is over-blown dominance. Unfortunately, most owners don’t know the difference, and don’t teach young dogs when enough is enough. So, we have a bunch of adult dogs at the dog park behaving like young puppies. That is socially weird.
It’s like you or I going to a McDonald’s Play Place and all the people running around on the slides and playing in the tunnels and ballpits are your own age…but they are still behaving like small children – that’s a little freaky, right? Same thing can happen for your dog at the dog park.
In a well-socialized dog pack, play – even rough play – does happen. But the rough play and/or dominance episodes are very short. By encouraging extended rough play sessions, owners are encouraging their dogs to practice dominant ANTI-SOCIAL behaviors.
Then these dogs get to the dog park and impose those anti-social behaviors on other dogs. At best, this leads to a cycle of multiple dogs playing inappropriately. At worst, it leads to fights, injuries, or in some cases - death. Yes, dogs do occasionally suffer fatal injuries at the dog park.
Basically, too many owners use the dog park as their dogs’ socialization playground – not understanding that not every dog plays nicely. And when you go to the dog park, you have NO control over what type of dogs your dog will encounter.
How do you avoid these problems? If you must use the dog park, follow some simple guidelines.
1. Before entering the park, watch the dogs who are already there. Are they hanging out with their owners, playing some fetch, wandering about happily sniffing and occasionally saying a nice polite ‘Hi’ to the other dogs around them? - OR – Are they packing up in groups, menacing each new dog that comes into the park? Are you hearing & seeing lots of ‘snarky’ incidents of one or more dogs mounting or playing too rough and other dogs snarling? Yes, vocalizing is normal canine stuff – snarling can be in play. But if you keep hearing little ‘eruptions’ – especially in relation to one or two specific dogs, watch out.
2. Take stock of the people in the park. Are the owners in the park actively engaged with their dogs? - OR – are they mentally checked out? Are they talking on the cell phone, socializing with each other, or reading a book - oblivious to what their dogs are doing?
Remember, the dog park is a place for exercise and bonding with your dog. It’s not the responsibility of the dogs at the dog park to socialize each other, or keep each other in check. It’s THE OWNERS’ responsibility to keep dogs safe. If the owners aren’t alert, bad things can happen.
3. Do a quick head count. How many dogs are there? Just like with people, the more there are in a small area, the more social pressure there is. If the dog park seems over-crowded, you might want to skip it.
4. Last but not least, trust your gut. If you have a funky feeling about any of the dogs (including your own) or people in the dog park, go do something else. Your dog will always benefit from taking an extended walk with you as much as he benefits from a romp in the dog park. And if taking that walk instead of going into an over-crowded, rough-playing dog park prevents him from being injured, it’s WORTH IT.
It only takes one really bad fight to ruin a dog socially, and any dog at any time can start a fight or be the victim of one!
Don't just take our word for it, check out these articles from highly respected trainers in the U.S. and Canada on how they see dog parks:
That’s it from this end of the leash.
Jennifer Hime is the owner of Front Range K9 Academy. She can be reached at http://www.k9counselor.com