I love the idea of dog parks. Dogs can run at top speed, play ball with abandon and socialize with other dogs and humans. However, dog parks can also be dangerous or scary places for dogs. As someone who studies dog behavior and body language, I can never relax at a dog park. I am constantly watching my own dogs and watching everyone else’s dog too. You don’t want your dog to be a victim or a bully so supervision and management is necessary for a positive dog park experience. Proper play and socialization can make the difference between a dog that is well-adjusted and friendly with other dogs and one who is fearful, anxious or even aggressive.
Your dog may be friendly and outgoing with others, but there are many dogs at dog parks who are overbearing, rude bullies. Dogs who body-slam, mouth, mount or incessantly bark at others can create stress for other dogs. Ambushing and stalking are predatory behaviors which are provocative and may be threatening to another dog. Many dog parents are quick to say “Oh, he’s friendly, that’s just how he plays”. This may be true, but that doesn’t mean your dog has to tolerate this type of play. Watch your dog’s reactions to this “play” and be prepared to call your dog to another part of the park or even leave if your dog doesn’t enjoy it. How to tell? If your dog goes back for more, or the play seems mutual, he is probably having fun. If the play is one-sided or the other dog will not let your dog leave, this is not fun. Watch for goofy, exaggerated movements in contrast to stiff, focused movement. If your dog likes to play rough, watch how other dogs respond and be ready to step in to prevent your dog from harassing others.
Be aware that not all dogs share well with others. If you take Spike’s favorite toy with you, be alert to any guarding (or possessive) behaviors your dog may display or other dogs may show towards your dog. Avoid taking treats or toys to help avoid potential conflict or competition between space and toys. Also be aware that the dynamic of every dog park will change every day with every new dog present. Your dog may play great with a group of dogs one day and may not enjoy their antics the next. We all have “off” days where we are less tolerant of annoying behavior.
Other potential dangers at a dog park are lurking parasites and other communicable diseases. There are always risks when coming into contact with feces or standing water. If you frequent dog parks, let your vet know so they can make any special recommendations for vaccinations or preventatives. Puppies under 4 months are not ready for dog park play as they are not fully immunized and at a higher risk for contracting diseases. They are also vulnerable to being traumatized by inappropriate behavior from other dogs.
How to ensure your dog will have a wonderful time at the dog park? You can’t. But you can be proactive and minimize any risks and maximize your dog’s fun. Try watching the crowd for a few minutes before entering the park and look for dogs who are bullies or play too rough. Know your dog’s preferences, behaviors and stressors so you can step in before anything gets out of hand. If your dog is being bullied, talk to the owner and politely explain what their dog is doing that your dog doesn’t like. Or apologize for your dog’s behavior if necessary. Go during off-peak hours when there are not as many dogs present. Stay relevant to your dog so he knows where to find you if he needs help. Be prepared to leave if necessary. If you have to leave after a few minutes, that’s okay. Just treat your dog to an extra long walk or an extended game of fetch at home-he’ll understand and be grateful you’re watching his back!