Dogs running, frolicking and playing with one another in a safely enclosed area. A way to exercise and socialize your dog, how perfect! Or is it?
Dog parks look and sound great on paper but are quite problematic in practice.
Realities of Dog Play
Firstly, we need to have a heart-to-heart about dog play. Dogs do NOT need, nor commonly want, to play with completely random dogs, not to mention many strange dogs.
Dog play is a delicate dance between two partners who are actively threading a needle between joyfully playing together and potentially slipping into the territory of being overly aggressive, escalating the situation or overstepping a boundary. If you and I were dancing together and there was a misunderstanding, the worst possibility is a crushed toe. However, when your dog makes a misstep when playing, it could result in their canine playmate putting holes into them with their large and powerful teeth.
The point being, there is a constant and complex dialogue occurring between dogs who are interacting and playing with one another. For this dialogue to be effective, however, the dogs must understand one another. Yet, there are several "dialects" when we are talking about how dogs interact with one another or when they play. Not every dog will recognize or understand every "dialect".
Let me try to flesh out this idea a bit more for you: I have had Dobermans for several years, and they are a physical breed. Meaning when they play, there is a copious amount of body slamming, head-over-the-shoulder placing, ducking down to the grab the feet and other overbearing antics that they will do which is quite off-putting to other dogs. But wait, it gets worse. When a Doberman is not a flurry of this crazy activity, they oftentimes will stand very tall, erect and stare. This stance, when paired with their cropped and docked tails, can be quite disquieting to other dogs who are unfamiliar to this. Two Dobermans who are speaking the same "dialect" can have a grand ole time together. Yet, add another dog into the mix who may not be familiar with Doberspeak, and all this chaos may be too much for them to handle or even be downright scary.
Let me give you an even broader example: herding breeds and retrieving breeds. Labrador and Golden Retrievers tend to be wiggle worms and downright ridiculous with how they interact and play. Border Collies and German Shepherds, in a gross over-generalization, want to control movement, tend to act as the "play police" and correct what-they-perceive-to-be chaos. In essence, these dogs are all speaking a different "dialect" of play, causing crucial messages to be misconstrued, misheard or even misunderstood. This is when you have altercations and even dog fights between dogs.
Now, to further complicate matters, everything I have mentioned so far is assuming the dogs in question are stable, well-versed in speaking "dog" and will acknowledge what their fellow canines are telling them. However, this is not the reality for a large portion of the dog population who simply lack these skills. Meaning, you may very well have a dog out in a dog park right now who either does not understand, or does not respect, what other dogs are telling them, regardless of the "dialect". Whether those messages are, “Leave me alone” or “Calm down, you’re getting too riled up”, these pleas will go unheeded.
Imagine yourself in this situation: someone you do not know comes rushing up to you, right up into your face, eyes held wide, talking a mile a minute, grabbing onto you to inspect your hair and clothes, giving you WAY too familiar pats and strokes. At first, you're probably shocked, because who in their right mind would be doing this?! When your brain catches up, you try to back away, diverting your eyes with a look of puzzled disgust on your face. Anyone looking on would be able to tell, you do NOT want that person bothering you. Yet, they just keep coming. So, you up the ante. You tell them to back off or calm down, apparently to deaf ears since they just keep coming. This continues until they have backed you into a corner, towering over you. You have no idea if they are going to truly hurt you or not, you have no idea who this person is! Trapped with nowhere to go, you scream and maybe even strike out at them, desperately trying to create space. Now imagine there are 10 of those people surrounding and hounding you. Truly the stuff of nightmares.
Sadly, this is what is happening in dog parks every day.
Normal Play Doesn't Last Long
For familiar dogs who are on good terms with one another, they will play for a few minutes and then take a break, going off to do their own thing, sniff the environment or otherwise disengage from the play. This dynamic is virtually impossible at dog park. Even if a dog miraculously paired themselves up with an appropriate playmate, as soon as they stopped there is another dog waiting in the wings to bother them!
Let's put this into human terms once again: imagine swimming at a pool, having a fantastic session where you are satisfied, satiated and tired. The moment you tried to walk out of the pool, a bunch of people forcefully pushed you back in and demanded that you swim longer with them! Splashing you in the face, dragging you around by your arms. You are exhausted and do NOT want to swim anymore! Not fun, is it?! If this consistently happened for 10-minutes, 15-minutes, a half hour, an HOUR, I am guessing you would be a bit grumpy with a mighty short fuse. The same applies to your dog.
Now, I am aware people bring their dog to the dog park to tucker their dog out, not simply give them a chance to walk around and sniff. Meaning, dog owners are delighted when their dog is racing around non-stop. They are likely unaware that all their dog really wants to do is STOP and disengage, yet every time they try, they are mugged yet again. Just know that every interaction, good or bad, will affect your dog, shaping them into who they are and how they interact with the world at-large. If they think every dog is out to get them, or that EVERY dog is a playmate, you may see an increase in leash reactivity while out on your walks. I would argue the benefit of getting your dog to pant for a bit is minuscule when compared to the mental damage a bad experience can impart onto them.
For most dog parks, things run on an honor system. Meaning, the dog park is open to the general public or perhaps the residents within a given city or town. There may be signs indicating dogs must be properly vaccinated and behaviorally appropriate to attend. However, in the real-world there is little to no enforcement of these rules. Instead, everyone is expected to be on their best behavior. Sadly, these expectations deviate wildly from the reality.
It may sound hyperbolic, but all of this matters. Let us take the situation where a dog bites another dog or person at the dog park (and yes, this happens, a lot), but it is unclear what their rabies vaccination history is. This means the victim dog will be placed into quarantine and the bitten person will need to undergo the painful process of a rabies vaccination, fearing they may very well DIE if the dog was indeed infected. Sadly, this type of scenario is not rare. But if that seems too over-the-top for you, then there are those dogs who are carrying highly infectious conditions and diseases such as worms, giardia and kennel cough, sharing water bowls and toys at the park. Meaning, your dog has a good chance of catching one of these easily communicable illnesses simply by going to a dog park.
Sadly, that isn’t the end of it. We then have the behavioral aspect. There are plenty of dog owners who are desperately trying to help their dog be more "normal" or to "socialize" them and mistakenly think taking them to the dog park is the right solution. These dogs occupy a large spectrum, from being nervous about life to wanting to inflict serious damage onto other dogs. The issue with dog parks is there is no screening, no professionals assessing which dogs can attend or not and no one with the expertise and credentials to step-in when things start to go south. Instead, it is all left up to chance! You are wanting to do right by your dog by allowing them to run free with their fellow canine compatriots. However, this should NOT include putting their physical and mental health at risk.
It is fairly obvious by now that I am not a huge advocate for dog parks. However, it is not enough to merely tell you what NOT to do.
With that in mind, here are a few alternatives for you to consider:
If you are looking for a place where you can safely have your dog off-leash so they can run and stretch their legs, see if there are local farms, stables or dog training facilities that will allow you to use or rent their facilities. This can be a fenced in ring, paddock or exercise area. Always ask for permission first and if someone says, "No", thank them for their time and continue looking. Another possibility is using apps such as Sniffspot where you can rent fenced-in backyards. This way your dog has a safe place to run and play off-leash and you can use it when it works best for your schedule.
If your goal is to have your dog play with a canine friend, ask some of your dog training classmates or neighbors to see if they are interested in doing doggie play dates. Ideally, these will be limited to 2 dogs and you will do some activities beforehand to ensure it will be successful. Dogs are like people, in that not all of them will get along! How can you tell? Set-up a few times where you and your friend can have the dogs on-leash and practice some training together. Simple stuff such as a sit, down, stay and offering attention. If that goes well, see if you can go for a short walk or hike together. Again, you are looking to see if these two dogs are comfortable with one another or if they despise one another – trust me, that happens! The other benefit of this approach is you are instilling the expectation that play is secondary to paying attention and interacting with you. You want to the center of your dog’s universe.
If you and your friend are comfortable with how the dogs are interacting with one another, then you can allow them to play off-leash in a secured fenced-in area, such as a backyard. Have high-value treats and their leashes available, ready to call them off from play and do some thinking exercises (recalls, sits, downs, stays, tricks, etc.) periodically. Be attentive and watchful as your dogs are playing. This is NOT the time to dilly dally on your phone or otherwise be distracted or zoned out. Instead, be ready to call your dog to you and do some attention games and fun interactions between the two of you. Because your dog lives with and shares their life with you, not the other dog.
What if going to the dog park is the only option? You live in a city or an urban area and do not have access to other off-leash areas or backyards? Hope is not lost. If your dog has found a fun and appropriate playmate, connect with their owner so the two of you can be the guardians of your pups' fun time together while they are playing at the dog park. Meaning, you will be watching and warding off other dogs from trying to come in and rain in on their parade. Once again, this is the time to marvel at your dog, NOT be on your phone or otherwise distracted. So, if a dog park is indeed the only option available to you, you can make it work with some forethought and attention to detail.
If you are professional dog trainer, or are actively working toward becoming one, consider spending some time at the local dog park. Perhaps post when you will be there (for instance, for an hour a few times a week), noting that you would be happy to educate dog owners on what you see (dog body behavior, appropriate play v. inappropriate play, etc.) and that you can walk them through how they can safely perform call-offs and interruptions of play to ensure their dog is always keyed into them, as opposed to merely being obsessed by the other dogs. This can be a wonderful way to educate the public and promote your training services as well, whether they be group classes or private lessons. While it is true that dog parks can indeed be problematic, they may be the only option for people. As professionals who are devoted to dogs, we can help make the best of this situation if we step up and try.
Lastly, attending a dog park or another type of doggie playdate, should be something dog owners do once in a great while. Meaning, you should be finding other ways to connect with your pup one-on-one, or as Sue Sternberg says, to share joy with one another. This can include a wide array of activities, from play sessions with their favorite toy, engaging and fun training sessions, hiding some treats around the house or yard for them to scavenge for or even going on an adventure hike or trip to a dog-permitted beach. The majority of the time, your dog should be sharing their joy and having the time of their life with YOU, not other dogs. If you focus on these activities, the need for off-leash play sessions will be reduced dramatically.
After all of this, what do I recommend for my personal clients? My preference is that they focus on playing, training and having fun with their dogs one-on-one and then identifying an appropriate doggie friend they can occasionally visit for individual play dates in a safe fenced-in area, such as a backyard. That being said, there are indeed ways to make a dog park work if it is the only viable option available. The key is to be mindful of the risks, watchful of your dog, ensure the situation is safe and to step-in before things start going south.
Are you interested in learning more about dog body behavior? Be sure to check out our Learn How to Speak Dog Vol. I Webinar.
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