Exploring dog park behavior and etiquette

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Photo by donna ritchie

Dog parks are becoming increasingly popular all across the United States. Dog parks come in all different sizes and design, but all share the same purpose: to provide a place where dogs can run freely off-leash and socialize with other dogs. Although not everyone likes them, for many, dog parks can benefit both dog owners and their pets. If you are unsure of whether or not a visit to the dog park is for you, I highly recommend you go and observe a couple of them without your furry friend. You can tell a lot about the dynamics of the park just be observing.

There are many benefits to dog parks. Many behavior problems in dogs are caused by a lack of physical and mental activity. Dogs were born to lead active lives. They’ve worked alongside people for thousands of years, hunting, herding and protecting livestock, controlling vermin and guarding property. In the “old days” their days were full of hunting, scavenging, avoiding predators and complex social interaction. Most pet dogs today, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time alone at home, napping and eating food from bowls prepared by their owners. No hunting or scavenging necessary. Many become bored, lonely and overweight. They have excess energy and no real way to expend it, so it’s not surprising that they often come up with activities on their owns, like chewing furniture, digging in the trash, digging holes or gnawing on your favorite shoes.

To keep your dog happy, healthy and out of trouble, you will need to find ways to exercise both your dog’s brain and body. Some of the benefits of taking your dog to a dog park include:

Physical and mental exercise for your dogs. Your dogs can zoom around off-leash to his heart’s content, investigate new smells, wrestle with his dog friends and fetch toys until he happily collapses. Many dogs are so mentally and physically exhausted by a trip to the dog park that they snooze for hours afterwards.

Dogs are like us, highly social animals, and many enjoy spending time with their own species. At the dog park, your dog gets lots of practice reading a variety of other dogs’ body language and using his own communication skills, and he gets used to meeting unfamiliar dogs on a frequent basis. These are valuable experiences that can help guard against the development of fear and aggression problems around other dogs.

We dog owners also enjoy dog parks. It doesn’t take any effort to exercise your dog, so that allows you to socialize with other dog lovers.

As with all good things there are some downsides as well to dog parks. It is important to be aware of the risks before you decide to become a dog park devotee.

Healthy, vaccinated dogs are at a low risk of becoming ill as a result of visiting a dog park. There are health risks any time your dog interacts with other dogs, just as there are for us humans when we interact with other people. Always talk to your veterinarian about the risks and whether they recommend vaccinating for Bordatella (kennel cough). Fleas are everywhere, grass, sand, animals and even on squirrels. You may want to consider a flea control program if you find fleas are a problem.

Puppies should not use the dog park until after they have received all of their shots (16 weeks old). Puppies are extremely vulnerable to potentially deadly contagious diseases, such as parvovirus.

Un-neutered males and females in heat should not go to the dog park as well. Intact males can experience social problems due to high testosterone levels which can make him a target of harassment of aggression from other male dogs.

Undersocialized, fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs may not be good candidates for the dog park. I myself have several rescue dogs. They have various issues from their past which make them highly reactive. In my case, only one of my dogs can go to a dog park and have an enjoyable time. Many people mistakenly believe that dogs who fear or dislike other dogs just need more socialization. This is not true. Depending on their history, at times, no amount of socialization will make a difference. If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, visits to a dog park might exacerbate his behavior and put other people’s pets at risk or at the very least ruin their enjoyment of the park.

Some dogs, for a variety of reasons, may just be especially shy or may get easily overwhelmed. Visits to the dog park can be stressful. If your dog has had previously poor experiences with other dogs then you might want to reconsider the dog park.

In addition to dogs sometimes having poor dog to dog experiences, sometimes people do as well. Pet parents don’t always agree about what’s normal dog behavior, what’s acceptable during play, what kind of behavior is truly aggressive, which dog behaviors are obnoxious, whether or not one dog is bullying another or who’s at fault in an altercation. People might argue about how to respond when problems between dogs arise. Since there is rarely an authority figure present to appeal to at a dog park, disagreements can sometimes get heated and result in human behavior problems.

Many people feel that the benefits outweigh the risks. Others (like myself) decide that they are not comfortable going to dog parks. To make the best decision for you and your dog, consider the pros and cons and visit your local dog park (without your dog the first few times) just to watch and learn more about that dog park’s dynamics.

The dogs that benefit the most from dog parks are well-socialized dogs. A well socialized dog is one who loves interacting with other dogs. They are not dogs who just “tolerate” other dogs, they are not dogs who only get along with certain types of dogs or dogs who routinely fight with other dogs. In addition to well-socialized dogs, very young dogs (under the age of two) will benefit most. Young dogs need to burn off their youthful energy and gain valuable social experience with both other dogs and people.

Some dogs, because of their personalities or learning experiences, just don’t play well with others. Dogs who bully can traumatize their weaker or more timid playmates or provoke fights. If bullies are allowed to practice their behavior at the dog park, their behavior often worsens over time and bad experiences with bullies can cause aggression problems in other dogs. Many dogs don’t “bully” on purpose, they lack more refined social skills and just aren’t capable of playing politely. Despite their good intentions, they seem socially clueless. They are usually high energy dogs who enjoy play with lively wrestling, hard mouthing and crashing into other dogs. When their playmates dislike the rough treatment and try to communicate their desire to quit playing, these dogs don’t seem to understand. They can also hurt or upset people at the dog park if they jump up and mouth on hands, arms or legs. If you see your dog as one described here, he may not be a good candidate for the dog park.

When you arrive at the dog park, the other dogs often rush over to investigate. The sudden flood of attention can overwhelm newcomers. To avoid the mob scene, linger outside the park for a few minutes and let other dogs notice your dog’s presence outside the park’s enclosure. When the excitement dissipates, you can then enter the park together. After the dog has played awhile and becomes part of the group inside the park, don’t let him become a mob member. Instead, call him to you when you notice newcomers arriving.

Keep your attention on your dog at all times so that you are aware of what he is doing. If you see any signs that play is not going well, you can step in and stop the interaction before things get out of hand.

It is also important to avoid canine clumping. When a pair or group of dogs play nonstop for more than a few minutes, playmates can sometimes get overexcited and tension can arise. Instead of standing in one spot during your entire visit, move to a new area of the park every few minutes. Encourage your dog to follow you when you walk to a new spot. Praise and reward him for keeping track of your whereabouts and for coming when you call.

Most importantly, if at any point you think your dog might not be having fun, take him home. If he is playing with another dog do not hesitate to ask that dog’s owner to help you end the play session. It is far better to call it quits early so your dog still has a good experience overall.

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Kellie Welty