When I got a dog I dreamed of taking my dog to the dog park every day. He would be able to play with all the other dogs there. Sometimes we would play fetch. I’d bring a ChuckIt Launcher and we’d play ball until he was ready to take a break. While he was taking his break, I would sit on a bench and chat with other dog owners. They would tell me how well behaved my dog was, and I’d say theirs was just as well behaved. The sun would start to set, I would recall my dog, he’d come to me, I’d put on his leash, and we’d walk off to the car and head home.
THE REALITY: The dog park was nothing like that. Instead of being an idyllic paradise, the dog park was a hellish nightmare.
- First of all, dog parks are poorly regulated. Dog parks are large open spaces, and there are minimal requirements--as long as your dog is fixed (and sometimes they don’t even have to be!) you can bring the dog in. So if a dog is untrained and does not understand social cues--it doesn’t matter, they are allowed in the dog park. If a dog is anxious and has dog reactivity, believe it or not, some people can--and will--bring them to a dog park to try to “fix” their reactivity. Having all different types of personalities in a confined space, with nobody watching, can eventually result in fights.
- Because dog parks are poorly regulated, accidents can happen and can cause consequential behavioral issues in your dog. For example, I took my first dog to a dog park to hang and play with other dogs. He was running around until he was approached by another dog. My dog was about ten feet away from this dog, so I didn’t notice that the other dog was fixated on him. The other dog ran towards my dog, pinned him, and bit him repeatedly on the neck. Eventually the aggressor dog’s owner was able to pull him off my dog, and we left the park. My dog and I were shaken by the experience, but I brushed it off. However, the next day on our walk, my dog lunged and bit an older dog that tried to sniff him. I was horrified at this new behavior, and from there it quickly escalated into dog reactivity. Be very careful at dog parks--even if your dog is great with other dogs, you do not know if the other dogs there are, and this can cause new behavioral issues to arise.
- Dog parks are generally very spacious, and have tons of open areas for dogs to run around. However when there are too many dogs, when one dog starts running then the others start running in a pack and try to establish a pecking order. There is such a variety of personalities at dog parks, and in order to establish dominance some dogs will bite. If two dominant dogs try to establish a pecking order, it can result in a fight. Most dog owners assume just because two dogs are playing, they will gladly welcome a third dog to play. This is not true, the “issue of rank has already been settled with the other dogs” and the new dog may not necessarily know these rules.
- Dog parks are unsanitary. Think about it--an open space with tons of dogs. These dogs will be pooping and peeing all over the place. Not only that some people may bring in unvaccinated dogs. These dogs all share the same drinking fountain, and if your dog is a poop eater or loves to lick pee, diseases can be passed on to your dog through bodily fluids. Dogs can get parvo, canine distemper, canine influenza, and get fleas from going to dog parks.
So if your dog is a dog that struggles with confidence, is reactive, or is an overly dominant dog, dog parks are not the best choice. To be perfectly clear--I do not blame the dogs at the dog park. It is the owners who need to be more aware of their dog’s body language and know what proper socialization is. If your dog needs socialization or you’d like for your dog to interact with other dogs, here are a few suggestions:
- Plan a doggy playdate with a trusted friend. If you have a friend who owns a dog who is stable and properly socialized, plan a dog playdate with them! That way, your dog and their dog can play in an environment that they’re comfortable in and there won’t be a lot of other dogs with different temperaments throwing a wrench in the game.
- Find a trainer or a training center that offers supervised play groups or socials. These training centers or trainers will usually max out the number of dogs, and when any behaviors get out of hand, they will correct that behavior. This way your dog can make friends and learn how to properly interact with other dogs.
- Learn to read dog body language. When a dog is about to bite or get aggressive, their body language tends to be stiff. They will attempt to make themselves larger. Their tails will often be held high in the air and stiff. Their eyes will usually be fixated on the target, and sometimes (not always!) hackles will be raised. When you see this, it is time to remove your dog from the situation, or tell the aggressor dog’s owner to get it under control.
Even with my Labrador, who is extremely calm and friendly, I still stay away from dog parks. The energy in dog parks tends to be high and frantic, and I do not want my dogs to be in any dangerous situations. There are too many irresponsible owners and their dogs in the dog park, which makes going to the dog park a huge risk. I would avoid dog parks, and instead go on small play sessions with other dogs you know, and work on properly socializing your dogs. If you are comfortable going to dog parks and feel it is the right choice for your dogs, make sure to bring citronella spray or a can of air, just in case you need to break up a dog fight!