Monday, September 28, 2015

Dog Play: Dog Parks

Oh Dog Parks. Still a controversial subject with passionate people on both sides of the fence :). Before I delve into my spiel, I do want to say that I do not frequent our local dog park. I just won't take the chance with my dogs since you never know what other dogs will be there.

But lots of people love going to dog parks and their dogs do just fine. I'm not judging :), there are good and bad things from both sides.

Dog parks are safe, fully fenced places, where people can exercise their dogs. Hey it's a place where dogs are actually welcome! :) And they can be an excellent resource for asshole adolescent dogs that have too much energy and no place to put it. Dog parks also facilitate socialization with a variety of breeds and play styles. Many also function as socialization centers for dog owners themselves!

Many people already know the advantages - that's why they use dog parks and love them! But there are many disadvantages that can cause behavioral problems that many people don't realize are related to their dog park visits. I'm going to delve into a few here in a minute, but I don't want it to seem like I minimized the advantages. There are two sides of the coin and for every dog and situation it's different. I'm just going to focus on the disadvantages here because many owners don't realize how dog parks are unintentionally reinforcing behaviors they are trying to get rid of.

I read a great article by Trish King and Terry Long <Dog Parks: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 2004> describing the following disadvantages (and many more that I am not going to cover). Here is my summarization!

Dog parks can cause both short-term and long-term behavioral problems. And often, dog owners unknowingly contribute to the problems because they don't interpret correctly what their dogs are actually doing and learning. Here are several issues I have seen crop up from dog park usage...

Frustration Aggression
Ah, the canine temper tantrum :). Leash frustration can be an offshoot problem from the dog park for several reasons. It often begins when a dog is so excited at the prospect of playing that they pull their owner all the way to the park, lunging and barking (sometimes even in the car for blocks on their way to the park). The upset owner pulls back and yells at the dog (thus increasing arousal). By the time the dog gets to the park, they are all fired up for something physical - like a fight - and often dogs (and their people!) are gathered by the entrance to 'welcome' new dogs.

Leash frustration also occurs out on regular neighborhood walks, usually because dogs that frequent dog parks mistakenly believe that they can meet any other dog they see. Once again, they tend to pull on the leash and the owner yanks back, building frustration. The dog appears aggressive, so other owners pull their dogs back in fear and it turns into a vicious cycle. Eventually, leash frustration can lead to real aggression. Owners in this situation are generally very confused because their dogs are so good off leash and so bad on leash.

Learned Disobedience
When owners are not careful, dog parks quickly teach a dog that the owner has no control over them. I'm sure we've all seen that owner following their dog, calling frantically as the animal stays just out of reach, looks at them from afar, or just totally ignores them. And this is after the dog has learned to bark hysterically in the car all the way to the dog park, then pulled the owner through the parking lot, and finally bolted away from them as soon as the leash is off. :) I don't know about you, but that's not really what I want my dog to learn!

Owner Helplessness
When I think about this, it always makes me sad. When owners allow other dogs to play overly rough (body slamming, rolling them, etc.), their dog learns that their owner cannot keep them safe from harm. Remember the dog's perception of safety matters, not the owners. This can be difficult for owners, who dismiss their dog's fear since they 'know' the other dog(s) mean no harm. A dog that is chased or bullied by another dog is not only learning to avoid other dogs, they are also learning that their owner is completely ineffective. This can have a serious impact on the human-dog relationship.

This is the disadvantage that most everyone has been cautioned about. A traumatic experience can leave a lasting impact on a young dog. A puppy or adolescent who is attacked could very well show aggressive behaviors after the incident. Sometimes a young dog can be traumatized by situations the owners think are minor or are not even aware happened. This is always a risk you run when frequenting dog parks.

The Take-Away
Owners play an important in how their dog's dog park experiences go and sadly, many don't accept the responsibility they should. I've seen lots of owners not paying attention to their dogs and many have no idea what proper behavior actually is, or what a dog may be signaling to another dog. Some defend their dogs when the animal exhibits inappropriate behavior, while others overreact to a normal interaction where one dog discourages the attention of another. And as I've already mentioned, most owners have far less control over their dogs than they believe.

So what can you do? These are things I would do and recommend:
  1. Educate yourself on appropriate dog-dog interactions
  2. Always, always, always pay attention to your dog :)
  3. Stick up for your dog
  4. Instill training for impulse control and attention (for on the way to the park, entering the park, while you are enjoying the park, and exiting the park)
Here is a great list of Do's and Don'ts from Trish King and Terry Long:

*Check out the entrance before entering to make sure dogs aren't congregating there
*Pay close attention to your dog's play style, interrupting play if necessary to calm your dog down
*move around the park so that your dog will need to keep an eye on you
*remove your dog if the dog appears afraid
*remove your dog if it is bullying others
*respect your dog's wish to leave
*leave special toys at home to avoid resource guarding problems

*allow your dog to enter the park if there is a 'gang' right next to the entrance
*believe that dogs can 'work it out' if you just let them do so
*congregate at a picnic table or other area and chat with dog owners who are not watching their dogs
*let your frightened dog remain in the park and hope things get better
*listen to other attendees in the park who may not understand your dog's needs
*assume a dog is aggressive when it is only trying to communicate its discomfort

Snoopy's Dog Blog


  1. We only go to dog parks when they're empty or just about. We've had a couple of bad experiences and Mr. N is tiny.

    1. That would be the perfect to go! Hopefully the bad experiences weren't too traumatic for Mr. N!!

  2. Good advice. We do go to dog parks, but usually only very early in the morning when we often have them to all ourselves or maybe only one or two other dogs. Several times I have packed up my dogs and left either because they appeared stressed or because other dogs arrived and either the dog or their person displayed behaviors I didn't feel comfortable about.

    1. That's awesome that you know your dogs and protected them! And followed through with your intuition :). That can be the hardest thing to do most times.

  3. I am frightened by dog parks. Can't seem to shake the fear of the unknown, and for that reason I just don't go.

    1. I hear ya! I have dogs that don't get second chances and it terrifies me that another could start something and my dog would be blamed just because of the breed. It's just easier (and less stressful!) to find other outlets for energy and socialization.

  4. I miss going to the dog park with our dogs. I remember when we first went, Rodrigo would have so much fun. He'd play for hours and then come home and sleep for hours. It was so fun to meet people and talk about dogs. I learned a lot. We can no longer go now that we have 4 dogs. I could take one or two of our dogs (and keep and eye on them), but not all four.

    I'm mostly worried about other dog owners.