Imagine this – It is a beautiful Saturday morning. The sun is cascading over the grass as a light breeze dances though the trees. You and your pup are looking for a fun, outdoor activity to share together. For some, this scenario screams “TIME FOR THE DOG PARK!” For others, not so much. Depending on who you talk to, dog parks can be the ultimate weekend hang out for you and your pup or a tragic accident waiting to happen. It can be the optimal choice for socializing your young pup or a recipe for reactivity, guarding, and aggression. Why do dog parks have such mixed reviews? Well, there are so many variables that will change one’s experience at a dog park. If you are able to recognize healthy dog behavior, and others around you are able to as well, a dog park can be a truly lovely experience for you and your furry family member. All it takes is understanding dog park etiquette. Knowing when to intervene, when to take a time out, and when to leave are crucial to a pleasant park experience.
Here are a few components that are frequently overlooked when one thinks of a dog park.
“Oh, don’t worry! They are just playing!”
Every dog has their own preferences and style when it comes to playing. I like to reference kids on a playground when I talk to folks about play style in dog parks. Some kids like to run with their friends, some want to grab some chalk and unwind with a select few, and some like to wrestle until the other kid yells “mercy!” Dogs are the exact same way. Some are easy-going and can play with just about any friendly face. Others are only interested in a very specific kind of play, or may even just want to be left alone so they can play with their owners. This is a very important thing to remember when placing your dog in a new environment with unfamiliar dogs. If your dog is one to rush to the nearest dog in sight, just remember that this can easily spook the other dog and lead them to fear based aggression. Your friendly little wiggle worm could potentially be running right into harm’s way, and that is the last thing anyone wants. Proper training on healthy interactions could be your saving grace. Practice nice and slow interactions, giving the other dog plenty of room to maneuver away if needed.
Not all dogs are dog park dogs.. yet.
Think of it this way – Not all humans like music festivals. Some people avoid public events as much as humanly possible because they are simply too stressful to enjoy. Dogs are very much the same. Dog parks are like a giant party. There are a lot of strangers around, unfamiliar scent in the air, loud noises, and plenty of distractions. This kind of stimulation can easily become overwhelming for your dog, and unless you know what to look for you may not even notice. They can’t tell you that they are scared/stressed and want to leave, but they can show you. Look for common signs of stress in your pup- a tucked tail, raised fur on the upper back, stiff body language, cowering, raising lip to show teeth, chasing off another dog that approaches their “area” etc. If you see that your dog is having a hard time gaining confidence and/or getting comfortable in this setting, try leashing them up and removing them from the action for a light walk around the property. This gives them the opportunity to shake off any stress they may have felt while in the park while also building trust in your relationship. If you do happen to go back into the park and this behavior is exhibited again, it may be time to go home. Try to understand what your dog is telling you.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have the dogs that are ready to paw-rty…. See what I did there? Anyways, these are your hyper-social, never meets a stranger, slightly overbearing dogs that just want to play, play, play. The ability to be comfortable and social in a new environment is fantastic, but only if the dog is still able to adhere to their manners. With dog parks being such a mixed environment of young vs old, shy vs outgoing, and socialized vs otherwise, it is best to approach new friends slowly and politely. Not all dogs are looking to romp around with the other pooches. Some just want to enjoy a game of fetch with their owner in an off-leash setting. Finding the right play partner for your dog can be great for your dogs socialization, but can also keep them out of harm’s way. For more tips on how to work your high energy pup outside of the dog park, check out this helpful post: 7 Tips for Harnessing The High Energy Dog
Potential signs of danger in The Dog Park
Now the examples above are VERY different. For the pups that are somewhere in-between, being able to recognize healthy body language is important. For me and my Australian Cattle Dog, Eli, our park visits are never the same. Sometimes he only wants to play fetch and couldn’t care less about the dogs around him. Other times, I am invisible and he wants to strut his stuff with some of the other pups on the lawn. With Eli being a young, high drive dog, I am constantly watching his body language with other dogs. He is very well behaved when I have his attention or we are at the house, but in a new place with new dogs I have to understand that he is not going to necessarily like every dog he meets. Here are a few signs to look out for when your dog is meeting and/or playing with a new dog:
Fear: cowering, tucked tail, snapping at dogs or people, hiding, curling lip to show teeth
Guarding: chasing dogs away from their area then quickly returning to keep other “intruders” away, curling upper lip to show teeth, low growling as dogs/humans approach their area, toy, or owner
Aggression: lunging, uncontrollable barking/snapping at new dogs or people
If your dog displays these signs of stress in the park, I recommend removing them from the park immediately. They are no longer having fun, and it is only a matter of time until they act on that discomfort. For the safety of you, your dog, and everyone around you, listen to your dog when they show signs like this.
If you have always had a nice experience in the dog park, congratulations! Here are a few tips that will help keep your visits to the dog park happy and successful.
- Always be on the look out for your dog’s safety. If they look uncomfortable or begin showing signs of aggression, it is time to leave the park.
- Keep food and snacks out of any off-leash area as it can spark up food fighting. Some dogs do great with other dogs and humans until food is involved, and believe me when I say the PB&J in your bag is not worth an injured pup.
- Spay or neuter your dogs before taking them to dog parks. The hormones released by an unaltered dog will be picked up by any dog around them. They will be a huge target in the park- for admiration and attack. Play safe out there!
- And lastly, scoop the poop!! Not only do we all hate stepping in it, but is a serious health risk as several viruses are carried in the feces.
Keep this information in mind when visiting dog parks. A safe visit to the park is a happy visit!