With the imminent arrival of the newest 'dog park' in the Port Hedland area I thought it was a great time to dive in and talk about the good, the bad, the ugly of dog parks and provide some tips on how to ensure you, your dog and others enjoy the experience.
Social time! Like us our dogs benefit enormously from social contact with their own species, the opportunity to play and interact with other dogs allows our dogs to engage in normal doggy play antics that may not be suitable or appropriate with us. Additionally social time has positive effects on our dogs brain chemistry. Play at the park also provides much needed physical and mental enrichment, running around with other dogs burns energy, while sniffing all of the interesting smells provides excellent mental stimulation, both critical components to having a happy, well behaved companion dog.
Diseases! There is no way for you to tell if all the dogs using the park are kept up to date on vaccinations and worming and/or whether any of those dogs have recently been unwell. Dog parks are a great way for your dog to pick up kennel cough, parvo, ringworm etc.
One of the most common issues I see with dog park play time is a drop in focus and reliable obedience from our canine friends. We tend to forget that every moment with our dog is a training moment and so when we inadvertently reinforce our dog for poor behaviour like pulling or lunging on the leash, whining, barking, and ignoring us by giving them access to other dogs/the dog park we are essentially training our dogs to engage in these behaviours. So it is no wonder that very quickly when our dogs spot other dogs or realise they are on their way to the dog park they stop focusing on us and start focusing solely on the other dogs. For many dog owners their initial response to this is 'oh he is SOO excited to see his friends!' but when that behaviour bleeds over into their everyday walks / whenever their dog spots another dog it quickly becomes a problem and often leads to dogs who never get walked because it becomes embarrassing and stressful to walk the dog. Leash reactivity is the number one problem behaviour I get calls for help with. Closely followed by recall issues, which are also exacerbated by free for all dog park play. Why would your dog want to come to you when a) you are often the end of fun b) they are having SO much fun with their dog friends and c) you don't make it reinforcing for them to return to you.
Unfortunately inappropriate play is all to common at dog parks, there are many dogs who have never learnt proper social skills with other dogs for various reasons and this can often lead to poor play behaviour from them including body slamming, chinning over, humping, excessive barking, excessive mouthing, pinning and other behaviours that may be scary or annoying to other dogs. It isn't uncommon to encounter dog owners who are aware of their dogs poor social skills at the dog park because to them it can seem like a great place to take their dog so they can 'learn' better social skills, sadly this is not the case and it puts the other dogs at the park in a terrible position.There are a fair few dogs out there who are no longer suitable for doggy social situations due to poor experiences in a dog park. In addition to this, very few dog owners truly have a solid understanding of dog body language which means they aren't aware that their dog may have poor social skills or they cannot tell if their dog is having fun or whether they are fearful, whether their dog is playing appropriately or inappropriately. This means that when dogs should be interrupted or removed from the park they are not and this can eventually lead to the ugly side of the dog park.
Dog fights are not as uncommon as many people think. Scuffles and fights are almost guaranteed in a dog park situation, especially if the park happens to be enclosed. The small space, coupled with a group of dogs who are unknown to each other, heightened arousal levels and dogs with poor or no social skills makes for a kettle ready to boil over and all it takes is one dog becoming uncomfortable/stressed and then responding badly to another dog for things to quickly take a turn for the worst. Fights in dog parks are often more dangerous and more difficult to break up purely due to the number of dogs.
It is easy for us to think that 'it will never happen to me/my dog' but unfortunately if you are a consistent park user the odds are very high that at some stage your dog will be involved in a fight. What was supposed to be beneficial to your dog can quickly turn into your worst nightmare and can have long lasting negative physical and behavioural effects for both you and your dog.
So what do I do?
What does this mean for you and your dog? Does it mean you should avoid dog parks altogether? If I was being honest, my answer would be yes. I personally do not use dog parks and the vast majority of professional dog trainers I know do not either. We are aware of the risks associated and have made an informed decision to instead exercise our dogs elsewhere (or outside the park as its a great way to practice focus around other dogs!). This doesn't mean our dogs are starved of doggy
social contact! Far from it. The truth is most dogs don't enjoy play with random strange dogs, or in large groups, they are much more likely to enjoy one on one or small group play time with their doggy friends (this is also how the vast majority of adult humans prefer to socialise!)
But I am a realist and I know that the general dog owning public are going to utilise dog parks. So below I have outlined some steps you can take to ensure that you, your dog and others enjoy the time at the park.
DO NOT take your dog to the dog park if they have no or poor social skills with other dogs or they are nervous/fearful/worried in the presence of other dogs. It is not the right place to try and 'socialise' your dog to other dogs.
Do NOT take your puppy to the dog park, young dogs are often picked on and one bad experience during their formative period can lead to long term issues.
Choose to go at times of the day when it is quieter and when you can meet up with the same few dogs (keep an eye out for our upcoming blog on how to do proper meet and greets with dogs!)
Do your homework! Learn about dog body language and how to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate play!
Never leave it up to the dogs to 'sort it out', just like you wouldn't allow children to 'sort it out' if one was bullying another on the play ground.
Leave the park if you are uncomfortable with how your dog or another dog is behaving/playing, even if you have only been there a few minutes - this is especially important if your dog/another dog becomes uncomfortable. The behavioural and physical health of all the dogs in the park should always be #1 priority.
Do not expect every dog to get along! Just like not all humans click and get along, not all dogs are going to like each other. This is NORMAL.
Do not allow your dog to take another dogs toy! And if your dog tends to resource guard toys - leave the toys at home.
Ensure dogs are taking adequate play breaks, free for all play that lasts more than 10 minutes is not healthy and often leads to frantic, over the top play. (If you have spent time learning the difference between good/bad play then you will recognise when it is time to interrupt).
Have your dog under adequate control at all times, this means you need to ensure they have reliable cues such as recall/leave it and practice these during park play time especially when others are coming and going. There is nothing worse than trying to get into or out of a dog park and being mobbed by all of the other dogs in the park. It is also risky as confined spaces coupled with the level of arousal present when new dogs are arriving can trigger a fight.
I have also included below links to some of our favourite resources on this topic:-
Our recent article on dog/dog play in our newsletter.
This article on dog park etiquette from Dr Sophia Yin.
This video guide to dog body language.
This video guide to dog play behaviour.
The Dog Decoder app for your phone.
These infographics and posters from Lili Chin.
Woofs from the DogTag Team!