Dog parks are a staple in North America’s canine culture and serve as the go-to destination for many canines and their human companions. These doggie-designated zones, which are usually enclosed, have many benefits for well-balanced pups, including the freedom to run and explore as well as play, socialize and interact with other dogs and people.
But though many dogs thrive at dog parks, not all canines are ideal candidates for off-leash playgrounds. Some dogs become stressed, conflicted, fearful or out of control with excitement. As a result, negative interactions, including dog fights, may occur. Not only do such situations present the potential for physical harm to those involved, but a dog may be damaged emotionally and behaviorally by the experience.
In this article we will give you some things to consider before taking your dog to a dog park. By paying some attention to these you may be able to prevent a fun day at the park from turning ugly.
Not All Dogs Want to Play
I get many emails from pet parents telling me that they get frustrated and upset with their dog’s behavior at the dog park. Some dogs may be reluctant to play and interact and only tolerate the experience, which can frustrate people who want their dogs to be social. Others have concerns over behavior from their dogs such as fear-based reactions, overly aroused pushiness or unpredictable interactions that sometimes end in aggressive encounters.
Just remember that just because a dog isn’t right for the dog park doesn’t mean the dog is a bad dog. What this does mean, however, is that the dog would most likely fare better in other situations more fitting for him. For instance, some dogs are social only with select playmates, and playdates with known friends may be best. Or, for dogs who are fearful or avoidant of other canines or escalate into aggression, activities with people only, such as training sessions or scent work, is preferable.
Another area of importance that many pet parents don't think about is that not every dog is savvy with social situations. Especially one as varied and unpredictable as the dog park. Many pet parents have the unrealistic expectation that all dogs love the dog park. This is like expecting your son or daughter will also enjoy the same sports or activities that you did as a child. Pushing your dog into something that’s not the right fit for his personality and desires can cause tremendous stress to your pet.
Just like people, dogs have personalities and motivations that make them either good fits for dog parks or not. And those differences are OK.
Making Behavior Worse
Many pet parents believe that all dogs should go to the dog park. And when their dog does not fit into this social group often causes guilt and shame. If your dog doesn't want to go to the park don't force him. And don't use a dog park as a fix for social issues. Doing so will make the animal's behavior worse.
I have often seen situations in which a dog is pushed into to enter the dog park. This is a really bad idea as your dog will suddenly become overwhelmed. This is a recipe for failure and disaster.
Compatibility for the park also changes for dogs as they age. Energetic dogs in adolescence, from about 6 months into early adulthood at 2 to 4 years, are the prime park candidates. After reaching social maturity, energy levels and the desire for play often begin to decrease. Those factors also work in combination with greater selectivity in playmates. So though early adolescence and adulthood are prime times for park-going, a dog may show less social behavior and compatibility at the park as he ages.
Another aspect that’s important to weigh in deciding whether to take a dog to the bark park is the high cost that may be incurred if a negative situation escalates.
Remember that dog parks are public property governed under the local laws of the area. Thus, if a dog bites another dog or person and the bite is reported, the incident goes on the dog’s record. In some counties, all it takes is one bite for an animal to be labeled a dangerous dog. In other counties, the dog’s record is labeled with the one-bite warning that’s given just before the dangerous dog designation that would happen on bite two.
The bad news for a dog is that even if a bite happens in self-defense, such as when protecting himself against a bullying dog, the one who bites is responsible. The same holds true if a person is bitten. The person may even have put himself in harm’s way, such as by attempting to break up a fight between dogs. But if he is bitten, even inadvertently, the biting dog is held accountable.
Repercussions for the Owner
Repercussions that may occur for the owner of a dog who has bitten include responsibility for legal and medical bills, being dropped from insurance or an increase in rates, lawsuits and monetary settlements, and the possibility of ordered euthanasia. The cost of a bite is high, making it all the more important to discern whether a dog is ready for the heightened risks and stimulation that come with a dog park.
Even though dog parks are the icon of a dog’s ultimate day out and provide a great outlet for many dogs, they must be approached with caution, as not every pooch is right for a park. If there is any doubt about a dog’s comfort level at the park or ambiguity in his behavior, it’s best to seek professional help from a veterinary behaviorist or veterinarian working in combination with a positive reinforcement trainer to ensure that your experience at the dog park will be a positive one.