The dog park was created as a safe and legal place to take your dog to so he can run free and be social with his buddies. If the humans are lucky, they can enjoy their Timmies in the company of others while their dogs run off that energy and rough it up a bit. Most parks have rules, which are actually guidelines and change randomly. Some rules may include: no aggressive dogs, no intact males, no females in heat, pick up after your dog, no children under 10, dogs should be healthy and up-to-date on vaccines – the list goes on. Generally you have a 1 – 2 acre fenced-in area (if you’re lucky) where your dog and thousands of others during the day can run free – sounds good. Generally, there’s not a lot of recourse if these guidelines aren’t followed.
My observation is that most dogs in a dog park are under 3 and most of those are under 2. That is equivalent to being under 21 and under 14 mentally if you go by 7:1 thinking. In my experience I calculate their social maturity to be a lot less, and would say 15 and less than 8 at this age. They are left to run free with fluctuating hormones while the humans sip on their beverage of choice. To me it doesn’t sound like fun anymore – it sounds like a recipe for someone getting poked in the eye.
The first issue I have is that people have very different ideas about what rules mean: what is proper social etiquette for dogs, what is aggression/reactivity/arousal, when does play become hunting (do people know that play is a form of hunting), when does the chase turn into prey drive, what vaccines do the other dogs have?
There are varying views on vaccination protocol. Minimal vaccine in Ontario is rabies, however, some areas accept titers, where others don’t. In general there’s controversy around vaccines – what is “enough”, what is too much. At the end of the day, we don’t know if the other dogs are vaccinated similarly to ours. This leaves your dog open to a variety of potential issues when in direct contact with other dogs.
Then there’s recall. Some dogs have recall in the backyard or maybe even at the end of a leash on a walk. Some dogs may have good recall in a park when all is going well. In general, pet dogs aren’t taught recall with distraction though. In a dog park that distraction is the overwhelming energy between dogs without human intervention.
What can happen in the park while you’re sipping that java and chatting up the neighbour? Your dog is left to his own devices to run amok with his buddies. Sounds like what your good intentions brought you and your dog there for, right? What if your dog doesn’t enjoy being there? Will you recognize the signs and leave? If they do seem to enjoy it, what happens when play becomes hunting? What do you do when the chase excites prey drive? Do you know what that looks like? Do you know when to leave before the dogs reach those drives? It is a sight to behold watching a pack of dogs running at full speed in a wide open fence-free area. It’s not a sight to behold when that run is confined to a fenced-in area and becomes a chase – not for those of us who have seen the chase become the hunt.
Now introduce our Northern Dogs into the picture. A lot of our dogs come down with dog: dog communication skills beyond what we’re accustomed to – innate skills developed without human intervention – no collars, no leashes, and definitely no fences. It may not always look pretty but this was their way of life – freedom. Put them in a fenced-in dog park and when the chase turns to hunt, and prey drive kicks in, the dog has two choices – “fight or flight”. They have learned to properly communicate and make those choices for survival. They can stay or go. Now they’ve been put in a fenced-in dog park; they lose the ability to choose – the fence around that dog park is confining and when play goes sideways, fight becomes the only option. Added to this, most of our urban-raised dogs do not have the dog:dog communication skills, so warning signs and drive are unclear and will be misinterpreted. It takes only one negative encounter for the dog to turn trust into doubt, to become fearful and/or reactive toward another dog because as their guardians we didn’t have their back. Just like us, not all dogs enjoy the company of all other dogs. Just like us, some days they will be more social than others. It’s our job to learn when those times happen and advocate for our dogs.
As most dogs in these parks are young, regardless of their background, they don’t have the developed social skills to properly engage and remove themselves from unwanted encounters. If they do, there’s a fence that won’t let them leave. The dogs become over-stimulated and like any young teenager, don’t know when to stop. None of us make good choices when we are totally amped up – why would we think our dogs are any different. Many bad choices have led to injured dogs and humans – people becoming frustrated with aggressive and/or reactive behaviours that are not very easy to undo.
So what do we do with our dogs to fulfill that energy and encourage positive socialization?
If you really think you have to go to the dog park, ensure you have built a strong relationship with your dog, ensure your dog has fine-tuned recall, learn your dog’s threshold, and know when to remove them before they hit that threshold. Keep moving, walk the perimeter, crisscross the park. Be attentive to what all of the dogs/owners are doing and be prepared to leave before your dog gets overwhelmed. Leave your java in the vehicle and do not leave your dog to his own devices.
I’d rather see you build a relationship with your dog and be well equipped to go for a hike in the woods together or go for an on-leash pack walk with friends. You’ll reinforce a far stronger bond with your dog doing these safe activities together.
Proper socialization comes from exposure to a lot of positive situations, not just exposure to lots of dogs. A well-balanced dog has been exposed to varying environments along with his human, has had structure and boundaries instilled. He’s learned that his human has his back, he’s has learned how to deal with varying environments and he’s been allowed to be a dog.
Certified Trainer Educator