As dog trainers, we often get asked about dog parks. We always tell people that in general they are a not a good idea. Yes, dogs should be socialized with other dogs but only in a structured environment.
Many dogs are taken to the dog park to burn off pent up energy. The dogs at dog parks are generally out of control and in a “frenzy” type of play style. If your pet gets accustom to this kind of play, he will think it is normal and will greet all dogs he meets with this play style which could cause a fight.
If a problem does ensue, most owners are not paying attention to their dogs at dog parks as they are socializing with the other humans and rarely assess what their dogs are doing. Many people also do not know the subtle signs dogs give that signal a fight is about to ensue.
Puppies should never be socialized at dog parks. If you have a young puppy and it gets attacked or mauled by an out of control dog (or dogs) at the dog park, your puppy most likely will become dog aggressive and will never be able to trust other dogs again. All socialization for puppies should be kept positive.
Many people take their dogs to the dog park to socialize with other dogs regardless of if they are good with other dogs or not. The problem again is that at a dog park, not all socialization is good. Dogs play rough at dog parks, which often time leads to a fight. If this happens to your dog, you may be creating a dog that becomes fearful of other dogs or becomes dog aggressive. Socializing a timid or fearful dog at a dog park is never recommended. If you try to socialize a fearful or timid dog at a dog park, the chances are that the dog will become overwhelmed and become more fearful and timid.
Not all dogs at the dog park are vaccinated. Some dogs may be carrying diseases such as Parvo, Canine cough or Canine flu. When you socialize your dog at the dog park you are potentially putting him at risk for these diseases.
After viewing our posts on Facebook of our doggie daycare, many people ask us how all of the dogs seem so well-mannered regardless of size. The answer is twofold. First, we evaluate all dogs that come to our daycare to see if they are a fit for our establishment. We do not allow non socialized, aggressive or bossy dogs participate. Second, we establish ourselves as leaders of the pack from the beginning with rules, boundaries and limitations. This creates harmony within our daycare pack even though the participants change every day.
When dogs are put in a “pack” situation be it a dog park or a daycare setting, they will immediately set out to create a pack order. If dogs sense no leadership, that is when trouble ensues. In trying to establish pack order, dogs will try to mount each other, bully each other and play rough with each other, all of which will usually lead to aggression.
There are several more appropriate ways to socialize your dog than going to a dog park. Taking your dog to a daycare that has experience with dog training is one. Generally doggie daycare requires that all dogs be vaccinated which reduces the risk of possible disease transmission. When looking for a daycare you should question about the size of the groups, how they evaluate the dogs and should find out if they allow bossy or aggressive dogs in their groups. Some daycare allow and sometimes encourage rowdy play and others have more structured play groups and encourage manners. Choose one that best fits your dog.
If you have friends or family with well-mannered dogs, you can socialize your dog with them. The key is to keep it positive and not let one dog bully the other.
Obedience classes are also a great way to socialize your dog in a structured environment. Not only will you and your dog benefit from the training but the dog will also learn self-control and how to be mannerly when around other dogs. Puppy classes are a wonderful way to socialize puppies. Look for a class that allows short periods of structured play time rather than out of control play.
One instance that it would be appropriate to go to an off leash dog park is to proof your dogs training in a high distraction environment. Dog parks are not the place to train a new behavior however. All dog training starts in a non distraction environment. As the dog is trained, you increase distractions slowly until you finally work the dog in a high distraction area. This is only done after the dog has maintained his training in areas with fewer distractions. If you are training your dog to a high level of obedience or service work, then a dog park could serve as a high distraction environment.
There are some dog parks that are “leash only” dog parks in which all dogs must be kept leashed. With all dogs being leashed, the dogs do not get far from the owners and are under some form of control. The owners can decide to let their dog play with others or not. If you are set on taking your dog to a dog park, we recommend finding a “leash only” dog park or find a dog park that is not to populated. Fewer dogs equal fewer chances for problems. We also recommend giving your dog a good long walk before you go to the park to drain any pent up energy. A tired dog is less likely to get into trouble. If you take your dog to a dog park it is imperative that you control how your dog responds to other dogs and how other dogs respond to yours. By providing your dog with leadership he will always look to you for guidance and protection.