Top Dog! Dog Parks - A Good Choice for Your Dog? Part 1 By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP and Lisa Kerley, KPA-CTP
For many people, going to the dog park is part of the fun of having a dog. It’s an opportunity for their dogs to socialize, play, exercise and burn off some steam without a lot of effort. It seems like a win-win situation. Dog parks, in concept, are a nice idea. In practice, however, they often create more problems than they are worth.
ost people with young pups know to stay clear of dog parks until early vaccinations have been completed. From a health perspective, parks aren’t safe until a proper level of protection is in place. The risks go far beyond health issues however, and it’s not just puppies that you need to worry about. The atmosphere at a dog park can present social and behavioural risks as well. For young or immature dogs, “social immunity” needs to be carefully developed through pleasant and appropriate experiences. As youngsters, dogs, like humans, need role models to teach them good lessons and help develop good skills. For this to happen, appropriate play opportunities have to be set up with proper supervision by a knowledgeable human. Without this, inexperienced or insecure dogs will learn that other dogs can be scary and it may result in them becoming reactive as a means to protect themselves. Without the proper choice of playmates and adequate supervision, young dogs can also learn that being rough and ignoring other dogs’ signals to back off is okay. This is how bullies get created. During adolescence, increased size, confidence and hormones can often lead to rough and inappropriate play. To discourage these behaviours from being reinforced and becoming a habit, it is important that your young dog has play time with dogs that have great play and social skills. Just as with puppies, it is vital that they have good role models and appropriate supervision. Even adult dogs can be at risk at the park. Dogs often group themselves and multiple dogs can “gang up” on one dog. Small dogs are often placed in danger when they mix with bigger dogs in an uncontrolled setting. Aroused play can quickly turn into something dangerous. Park guidelines (if there even are any) usually indicate that dogs must be “well36 • Saddle Up • May 2015
behaved” to be allowed. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as most dog owners don’t know what inappropriate behaviour looks like. Many don’t think there’s a problem unless a dog is obviously aggressive or one is traumatized to an extreme extent. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the only way you realize that any particular dog should not be present is after there has been a problem and some poor dog gets injured or traumatized. Unfortunately, most parks have no supervision, leaving no one regulating the dogs that are allowed to be there. Additionally, dogs at parks are typically left to play for too long. Skilled play involves lots of breaks. They may not be long - just time enough for a shake off, sniff, a piddle or drink of water, but they allow for one or both of the dogs to calm down or recover and keep the play at an appropriate level. Dogs that just keep going until they drop are not learning the subtleties of good social interaction. Over time, these dogs will often ignore their playmates’ signals to ease up, only paying attention when the other dog finally has to lose his temper to get a break. Remember, socializing and play isn’t a benefit in your young dog’s life unless it is done well. Even if you are well-schooled in understanding body language and the nuances of dog interactions, that still doesn’t mean your dog will be safe. It’s common practice for dogs to be unsupervised while at the park, with parents collected somewhere in the distance, busy chit-chatting or having a latte. Many parks are too big to allow parents to stay near their dogs and be ready to step in,
if necessary. We’ve even seen parents let their dogs out of their vehicle at one end of a park, then drive to the other end and wait to pick the dog up. Some dogs are let out of the vehicle to run free and out of sight while the parent stays in the vehicle. This lack of supervision may leave you having to step in unassisted to split up a tussle with another dog to keep yours safe or comfortable. Are you confident that you can manage unfamiliar dogs that are aroused or aggressing? You might have the impression that we’re not big fans of dog parks. There are safer, more appropriate ways to socialize and exercise dogs, so we don’t recommend them to clients. It’s interesting that most professional dog people don’t go near dog parks with their own dogs. Considerations for health and safety, HCBC 2010 Business of tHe Year
Published on May 1, 2015