Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP
For many people, going to the dog park is part of the fun of having a dog. It’s an opportunity for their dog to socialize, play, exercise and burn off some steam without a lot of effort. It seems like a win-win situation. Dog parks in concept, are a nice idea. In practice, however, they often create more problems than they are worth.
Most people know to stay clear of dog parks until their pup has completed early vaccinations. From a health perspective, parks aren’t safe and until a pup has a proper level of protection from illness, parks are not an appropriate place to be. The risks go far beyond health issues however, and its not just puppies that you need to worry about.
The atmosphere at a dog park can present social and behavioural risks as well. For young or immature dogs, ‘social immunity’ needs to be carefully developed through pleasant and appropriate experiences. As youngsters, dogs, like humans, need role models to teach them good lessons and help develop good skills. For this to happen, appropriate play opportunities have to be set up with proper supervision by an knowledgeable human. Without this, inexperienced or insecure dogs will learn that other dogs can be scary and may result in them becoming reactive as a means to protect themselves.
Without the proper choice of playmates and adequate supervision, young dogs can learn that being rough and ignoring other dogs’ signals to back off, is OK. This is how bullies get created. During adolescence, increased size, confidence and hormones can often lead to rough and inappropriate play. To discourage these behaviours from being reinforced and becoming a habit, it is important that your young dog has play time with dogs that have great play and social skills. Just as with puppies, it is vital that they have good role models and appropriate supervision.
Even adult dogs can be at risk at the park. Dogs often group themselves and multiple dogs can ‘gang up’ on one dog. Small dogs are often placed in danger when they mix with bigger dogs in an uncontrolled setting. Aroused play can quickly turn into something dangerous.
Park guidelines (if there even are any) usually indicate that dogs must be “well-behaved” to be allowed. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as most dog owners don’t know what inappropriate behaviour looks like. Many don’t think there’s a problem unless a dog is obviously aggressive or one is traumatized to an extreme extent. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the only way you realize that any particular dog should not be present is after there has been a problem and some poor dog gets injured or traumatized. Unfortunately, most parks have no supervision, leaving no one regulating the dogs that are allowed to be there.
Additionally, dogs at parks are typically left to play for too long. Skilled play involves lots of breaks. They may not be long – just time enough for a shake off, sniff, a piddle or drink of water, but they allow for one or both of the dogs to calm down or recover and keep the play at an appropriate level. Dogs that just keep going until they drop, are not learning the subtleties of good social interaction. Over time these dogs will often ignore their playmates signals to ease up, only paying attention when the other dog finally has to lose his temper to get a break.
Remember, socializing and play aren’t a benefit unless they are done well in your young dog’s life.
Even if you are well-schooled in understanding body language and the nuances of dog interactions, that still doesn’t mean your dog will be safe. It’s common practice for dogs to be unsupervised while at the park, with parents collected somewhere in the distance, busy chit-chatting or having a latte. Many parks are too big to allow parents to stay near their dogs and be ready to step in, if necessary. We’ve even seen dogs being let out of their vehicle at one end of a park, the parent driving to the other end and waiting to pick the dog up. Others are let out of the vehicle to run free and out of sight while the parent stays in the vehicle. This lack of supervision may leave you having to step in unassisted to split up a tussle with another dog to keep yours safe or comfortable. Are you confident that you can manage unfamiliar dogs that are aroused or aggressing?
If you are not convinced and choose to take your dog to a dog park, there are some things to keep in mind that can help to lower the risks.
- Educate yourself.
Do you know how to do a “consent check” to ensure the dogs want to continue playing together?
Do you know 3 ways that dogs show they don’t want to interact or need a break (other than growling or snapping)?
Can you recognize more than 5 body language signals that indicate stress?
If you answered ‘no’ to any of these, then you would benefit from the advice of a skilled positive trainer before supervising your young dog’s playtimes on your own.
A informed handler understands what good play looks like and allows interactions only with dogs that are skilled and appropriate with their dog. They recognize signs of stress, and can identify when a dog is unsure or uncomfortable, and step in to help out. They are aware of signs of aroused, asocial or inappropriate behaviour and keep their dog safe by avoiding these dogs. Dogs need frequent breaks to keep play appropriate and establish good play habits. A skilled handler will regularly interrupt play to help keep play at an acceptable level and prevent interactions from getting out of hand.
What does good play look like?
Observing and supervising play is a big part of my day job. After 15 years, you get pretty good at recognizing the subtleties of canine body language, interaction and play. Dogs that frequent dog parks are pretty easy to pick out at my facility. Their play is rough or intense; they get stuck on a certain behavior, such as chasing or playing on top of other dogs; they don’t acknowledge signals from other dogs to stop or slow down; and often get upset when another dog finally resorts to a more intense request to take a break. Unskilled dogs usually have an agenda and their own set of rules. Good play is more like a dance. It may be intense at times, but both of the dogs involved are active participants. One dog is not just doing stuff to the other.
A skilled player:
- adjusts his play to accommodate the skill, style and confidence of his play partner.
- uses lots of body language to reassure the other dog that his antics are all in fun.
- offers a variety of play behavior versus just doing the same thing over and over.
- is happy to give and take. This means that even though he may LOVE to chase and does it frequently, he is able to accept being chased as well. Another example is being on top or on the bottom in play.
- initiates breaks and is happy to accept requests for breaks from other dogs.
- Be choosy
Many people choose a particular park based solely on convenience or proximity to home. There are more important considerations that should factor into the ones you choose.
Parks get reputations, just like other kinds of hangouts can. A particular park in our area is known as the ‘gangsta park’. There are more dogs roaming around that apparently have no parent present; more rough, unsocial dogs; and a higher incidence of fights. Although many have frequented the park without a problem, why take the risk? Remember that a traumatizing social interaction in a young dog’s life can have a serious impact on future socializing and confidence.
You should also be selective about the physical setup of the park itself. Ideally, a dog park should be completely fenced and have a double-gate for security. If not, it should be located away from roads or other local dangers. Every spring there are a number of dogs in our area that are swept away in the fast-moving waters at one local park! If the ground is mucky or has a lot of standing water you might be exposing your dog to giardia or various other pathogens. Parks that are heavily used by large volumes of dogs will build up residual fecal matter – also a health risk.
There should be separate areas where small dogs, more timid dogs and younger dogs can play safely away from the more intense activity. Is the area small enough that you can stay near your dog as they move about? If you can’t stay close at hand, you won’t be able to supervise them properly or help them if they are in trouble. The park should not be over-crowded. As the volume of dogs at any one time goes up, so does the chance for problems.
- Be involved
Remember what makes for great play? Good playmates and an involved, skilled handler. Ensure your dog is having a good experience by:
- choosing an area of the park where there are only a few dogs.
- checking that all dogs are accounted for. Do they have a guardian with them who can advocate for them when they need a hand or step in when they are being inappropriate?
- choosing appropriate playmates for your dog. Pick confident but calm playmates if you have a rowdy dog. This will discourage him from bullying and help him learn to control his excitement during playtime. Choose gentle, careful playmates for a shy dog. This will allow him to develop confidence.
- monitoring your dog and watching for signs of stress, or alternatively, for signs of arousal.
- ensuring he has regular breaks throughout the play.
- keeping an eye on what’s happening around you. Stay clear of over-aroused, rough play, or bigger groupings of dogs. If something is developing, get your dog, secure him and move to another area.
- finding other parents who are interested in creating good play opportunities with proper supervision (and with an appropriate dog!) This is invaluable and if you come across them, take advantage and set up more play times together.
Being involved in your dog’s interactions will have an additional benefit beyond safety and creating a socially-skilled dog. Typically, once parents let their dogs off-leash, they don’t interact until it’s time to go. The dog is having a good time on his own, when suddenly the parent appears and the fun ends. Not really the association we want! By staying involved, you can harness the power of play as a meaningful reinforcer. You will also help your dog to learn how to work with you around a big distraction.
You might have the impression that I’m not a big fan of dog parks. There are safer, more appropriate ways to socialize and exercise dogs, so I don’t recommend them to my clients. It’s interesting that most professional dog people don’t go near dog parks with their own dogs. Considerations for health and safety, along with social and behavioural well-being (for dogs of all ages) are typically compromised there. I hope that this information will help you and your dog stay safe and have great experiences.
For more valuable information on keeping your dog safe at the dog park, check out these 2 videos from Sue Sternberg:
At the Dog Park – The Importance of Participating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Az6K1wZGb8
At the Dog Park – Red Alert Behavior Series