Spring is here (in the technical sense) and warm weather is lurking around the corner. ‘Tis the season for outdoor adventures, sunshiny walks and working off that winter weight! And most dogs love a trip to the park. A trip to the dog park is the canine version of happy hour: socializing, flirting, and overwhelming amounts of playtime! Despite this, they’re not always my favourite place to take my dog. Here’s why, and how you can change that:
“Don’t worry, my dog’s friendly…honestly!”
Lack of Attention
Without proper supervision, squabbles can break out before we can look up from the last sentence in the chapter we are reading or before Sally finished telling us about her cousin’s unlucky dating life. Although physical injuries can happen, sometimes the damage delves deeper than what appears on the surface. A few bad experiences can progress to a lifelong fear.
Think about this: how many times have you heard “don’t worry, he’s friendly”, all the while your pup has a different opinion of “friendly”. Not all dogs you’ll meet will have the proper social skills needed to interact at the park. Even if they are socially normal, squabbles still happen! So the number one rule is to always supervise. Sure, it’s nice to chat with your human friends while the dogs’ romp and roughhouse, but we all need to be aware of situations before they potentially escalate.
Also, make sure before you ever step foot in the park that your dog has perfect recall. And by perfect I mean: no matter what toys there are, no matter what conflicts break out, and no matter what overwhelming distractions there is your dog will come to you every single time you blow your whistle or call them to you. This will take a lot of practice before jumping feet first into the pandemonium of a busy dog park.
When we do stop to watch (I mean actually watch) our dogs interact, we will likely see lots of pooches with poor social skills. Unbeknownst to some owners, dogs don’t instinctively know how to behave in groups any more than children know how to act at a fancy restaurant. They learn their play and social skills through interactions as a puppy, beginning as far back as when they are still with their mom and siblings. Puppies have a sensitive socialization period between 3 and 16 weeks and this is when proper play etiquette is most ingrained. Unfortunately, many miss the early lessons and can have trouble catching up. While other dogs their age know when a look means back off, these naive newbies think everything is fair game.
Puppies at the Park
A puppy socialization class at 8-16 weeks of age will do young pups a great service. They will learn that other puppies of different sizes and breeds are nothing to fear, and they learn to pick up on social cues. For example, a stare, a lift of the lip or a growl all mean “leave me alone”.
But even with puppy classes, social skills may not be complete. Some still don’t learn the proper way to play and greet. Some outgoing puppies are overly friendly. They think that every dog is glad to see them. A forceful hello can easily be mistaken as a threat. Even a confident, mature dog who wants his off-leash walk in peace, can be unappreciative of this intrusiveness. Luckily, problems with poor greeting can also be fixed early on if your puppy class is structured well.
But when it comes to dog parks and puppies, it is best to just keep your young ones away altogether in the early stages. As eager as you may be to socialize your puppy, it’s not a good idea to take puppies to the dog park before they’re fully vaccinated as it can put them and other dogs at risk. Puppies can also be frightened by other, larger dogs. We want all social interactions to be controlled and positive to give them the confidence to become a happy, well-adjusted adult.
Fearful Dogs and the Park
For the slightly fearful dogs, all is not lost. You can teach her those good things happen to her when she’s around other dogs either by giving her treats continuously when other dogs are close or by having her perform alternate fun games where she focuses on and is rewarded by you when other dogs are near. Some fearful dogs will first have to practice just with calm, friendly dogs in a safe, quiet setting before they even get near a dog park. For others, the dog park is still okay, though you may need to choose a time of day when only a few polite, respectful dogs are sharing the park, such as early in the morning or later in the evening. Keep in mind though, some dogs may never be able to go to the dog park. Remember to always do what is best for your dog in this situation, not what is best for you.
Even if you think your dog is “perfect” (a completely unrealistic ideal), other dogs are not. Know your dog’s temperament. The dog park introduces them to a variety of breeds, temperaments, and levels of training. You can’t predict how other dogs will behave, so be sure you consider your dog’s temperament. Is she prone to barking at large dogs? Is she intimidated by crowds? Sometimes it just takes a scuffle between two dogs to cause all the dogs to join in on the excitement. In general, to help prevent problems try walking around the park instead of staying stationary. And when you notice a potential problem situation, try to keep your dog’s attention and move away. If everyone takes these precautions you’ll keep your puppy from becoming overly aroused. You’ll also help keep her from being the object of exuberant and pushy pups.
Leashes at the Park
All I have to say about this is: please don’t leash your dog at an off-leash park. It is unfair and inhibits proper body language when greeting new friends.
The Obvious Lack of Courtesies
And of course, I have to state the obvious, because I have been to dog parks, and apparently this is not as obvious as it should be. Please pick up your dog’s poop! Poop is not only an eyesore, smelly, and horrible to step in, but it also brings along potential transmission of diseases and parasites. Please stay tuned for more on parasite prevention in an upcoming post!
Also, make sure your dog is neutered or spayed before heading to the dog park. Male dogs will get along better, and in heat female dogs will be spared a dog-park frenzy. You’ll also help prevent animal overpopulation, something all those unwanted shelter pups will appreciate.
If you feel that your dog would be enriched by an outing to the dog park, ensure you have put the work into a positive, trusting relationship with your pet so that you can both enjoy the park together. If you see that your own dog is starting to behave reactively or aggressively, remove him or her from the park and seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (see February’s post: Choosing a Dog Trainer).
By: Erin Jones B.Sc., AWC, CPDT Candidate