By Kimberly Archer
Dog Behavior Technician
As a dog parent you just want the best for your pup, and as such most of us want to provide our dog with a rich social life. The easy way to do this is to regularly take your dog to the dog park… or is it? Though dog parks are technically designed for this purpose, dogs having amazing experiences at the dog park before coming home to happily sleep on the couch is more fantasy than reality. Unfortunately, dog parks actually present lots of problems for dogs and their parents, ranging from behavioral repercussions to health dangers. Fortunately, there are better options.
Potential Behavioral Issues
The types of experiences your dog will have at a dog park are completely unknown making it impossible to carefully create positive socialization experiences.
It may be strange to hear a dog professional mention dog parks as a potential behavioral nightmare, as we constantly tell you that continued socialization is imperative for every dog. However, when socialization isn’t carefully controlled and crafted out of happy and stress-free experiences, it leads to the opposite of the desired effect: traumatic experiences causing your dog to lose confidence rather than build it. A dog park is incredibly unpredictable, and the types of experiences your dog will have there are completely unknown, making it impossible to carefully create positive socialization experiences. To make it worse, you have no idea what experiences the other dogs there have had. You may enter a dog park seeing that all of the dogs in there look to be happy and friendly without realizing that one of the dogs actually has a serious fear of golden retrievers, the breed which you are currently bringing in. In a matter of seconds a playgroup can go from happily playing to completely stressed out and dangerous, leaving you without much time to intervene to protect your dog. Furthermore, most parents just aren’t familiar with dog behavior, and even if their dog was giving off signs that it was stressed they likely wouldn’t notice these signs until the stress has developed too far to appropriately redirect.
Even if every dog is friendly and well socialized to the point where they typically do well in group environments, dogs playing have many different playstyles, arousal levels, likes, and dislikes. Your herding dog may love to run circles around the other dogs, whereas the boxer there hates being herded and would prefer to run up and paw at your dog. There are many different appropriate playstyles between dogs, but they are not all compatible with each other.
These are especially important points to consider for working dogs as they need to only have positive experiences. This is to ensure the working dog is never concerned and is always perfectly confident and happy to do their job. As Courteous Canine’s head dog behavior consultant, Angelica Steinker takes on the most challenging behavior cases. These especially challenging behavior cases tend to have one or many distinct dog park experiences which have led to their issues. She goes on to say that service dogs are generally never allowed at dog parks due to the high incidence of people mistakenly taking dogs with issues to dog parks for socialization – it only takes a single event to cause life-altering trauma, and service dog owners know better than to take that risk. In Angie’s words, “all dog owners must practice defensive dog parenting, just like service dog users, and avoid the use of unregulated and unmanaged dog parks.”
Another thing to consider is your dog’s specific personality. Some dogs may be incredibly extroverted and love playing with new dogs. But for the most part, it can be a lot of work and potentially stress to figure out the playstyle of each new dog, and many dogs are happier making specific friends and sticking with them. Just as humans make friends and mainly socialize with them, if you already know a few dogs that yours loves to play with, then why roll the dice with strangers?
Moving past all of the behavioral challenges that dog parks pose, health dangers may also present themselves. Even if everyone immediately picked up their dogs’ potentially-infected feces (which they don’t), the dogs may not be up to date on their vaccinations. Even when vaccinated they could still be carrying one of those diseases without knowing, or a number of other diseases. Frequently interacting with dogs that are not in your regular play group greatly increases the chances that you’ll come into contact with a sick dog, especially considering the other dogs at the dog park are likely regular attendees who also frequently come into contact with other random potentially-sick dogs.
Though reading this information may leave you feeling sad that your dog will never be able to play with another dog again, that’s not the case! There are many safe ways to allow your dog to socialize with other dogs and get their necessary exercise.
Great options are forming a playgroup or joining a daycare – ensure to carefully assess daycares first.
A great option to consider is forming a playgroup for your dog. Talk to some friends and neighbors about their dogs’ breeds, playstyles, and health history in order to find other dogs that would make good candidates as new dog friends. If your dog has never met one of these dogs before, be sure to introduce them slowly and don’t force them into anything. If they seem to get along, then great, you found a new friend! If not, there’s no need to coerce a friendship, just move on to the next candidate.
Once you have a few dog friends you’ll need a place for the dogs to play. If someone has a large fenced yard then that is a perfect place. If not, you can go to the dog park when it is empty so that you’re just using the space rather than meeting new dogs. If this seems like a lot of work, consider a doggy daycare! You’ll want to carefully assess daycares and find one that keeps mostly the same dogs in playgroups, employs small playgroups, gives them lots of space, has a knowledgeable human ensuring appropriate play, requires vaccinations, and uses lots of toys and force-free methods to redirect any uneasiness. Here at Courteous Canine, we have an excellent playgroup which is constantly monitored and adjusted to ensure all dogs are happy and enjoying play with their friends.
Or maybe your dog is not very social, so you have been using the dog park mainly for exercise. If this is the case, consider an option that doesn’t include other dogs. Even if you don’t have access to a fenced area you can use a long line (a very long leash) to still play sports like frisbee with your dog. You could also consider jogging or running with your dog, and even dogs without much obedience training often stay close to their human and have a great time running beside them. Your dog may also enjoy a dog sport like agility or dock diving which are both excellent ways to keep your dog fit. And just as the more social dog playgroups may do, you could always just take your dog and some toys to the dog park when it’s empty.
When deciding where and how to play, ensure that you keep your dog’s personality and well-being at the forefront of your mind. You also want to carefully observe potential play areas for any safety concerns such as obstructions, feces, toxic plants, anthills and nearby dangers. Parks equipped for positive experiences would typically have shade, a sturdy fence, lots of space, poop bags, small pools, and access to fresh water. The dog park in my personal neighborhood actually has metal agility equipment “designed for dogs,” but I would never encourage a dog to jump over or through a heavy metal object for fear of hurting their leg if they don’t jump perfectly! Keep little things like this in mind when you’re choosing what’s right for your dog.