Before I got a dog I assumed that dog parks were canine utopias.
Now that I have a dog and especially now that I’m a dog trainer I know that although they can be that, the reality is that they are more often volatile environments where anything can happen.
Given the right mix of dogs and people the dog park can be a lot of fun for both you and your dog. However, one bad dog or one irresponsible person ruins the whole environment for everyone.
The big problem with dog parks is that they are uncontrollable. You really can’t manage what happens there and everyone coming in (dog and human) has different behavior patterns, triggers, and comfort zones. What might be appropriate for one dog, may mean a fight to another.
When groups get large the energy becomes contagious and what starts off as play can escalate rapidly to a multi-dog pile on.
I know I’m paining a pretty bleak image here and I’m not saying that dog parks are always like this, I just want to let you know the risks. The reality is that when it’s good, it’s a blast; but when things go South it becomes a scary place.
An expert’s viewpoint
I recently sat down with dog behavior expert Sue Sternberg, who has spent a lot of time researching dog park interactions, and discussed the good, the bad and the ugly of dog parks. Here are some of Sue’s tips:
GOOD – one dog chasing another dog
BAD – one dog getting chased by multiple dogs
GOOD – role reversals (one dog the aggressor, then the other)
BAD – one dog always the aggressor
GOOD – familiar dogs playing together
BAD – unfamiliar dogs playing together
There are some things that you can do to help make the environment safe:
1. Stay standing
2. Stay close to your dog
3. Interrupt interactions often
4. Encourage your dog to check in
Sue’s Red Alert Behaviors
Here are 5 behaviors to watch out for that can mean trouble:
1. Tail tucked – under between the legs
2. Pinning – one or more than one dog on top of another dog and not letting them up
3. Rolling – knocked over/flipped from impact of another dog
4. Yelping – the dog is frightened and can trigger other dogs
5. Group chase – 2 or more dogs chasing one
If you witness any of these behaviors it’s best to break up the dogs and let them settle a bit.
Yes dog parks can be great places to exercise and socialize but there are risks involved. Personally, I think that dog parks are a roll of the dice and you just need to decide how much of a gambler you are.
My advice is to spend 5 minutes or so outside the dog park before you go in and watch the action. What’s the energy like? Are the people attentive? Do you feel comfortable? And if once inside, you get a bad feeling in your gut, leave.
I like dog daycares better because they are smaller environments with dogs that are usually familiar with each other and you have one impartial person monitoring the action making sure everyone is playing by the rules.
Just use your best judgement, be responsible and don’t put your dog into a situation that you are not comfortable with. If we all work together, we can make dog parks much safer places.