Dog Parks; what to know before you go
Miranda Wimbush, Volunteer, Mother to a little boy and three four-legged kids, who worked as an Animal Health Technician for many years and is now using her many years of experience in training dogs using positive reinforcement.
Check out her website: https://mindfulcanine.ca/
Dog parks can be a welcome outlet for a city dog to stretch their legs and socialize. Many people do not have a fenced in yard and so dog parks are the only option for their dog to run freely. However, due to their free form nature dog parks are not always the best idea for the physical and behavioural health of your dog. In this article I will discuss the pros and cons of dog parks and help you make the most informed decision about their usage for your canine companion.
There is also no temperament test requirement for dogs to enter dog parks. Dogs may appear friendly, but you often have no idea of their behaviour or past history. In addition, dogs may start off friendly but if stressed by a negative interaction with another dog become more aggressive in an effort to defend themselves. The small space and high population of dogs in most parks can also elicit competition over resources such as space, food and toys. It’s important to look at your dog and decide for yourself if he is enjoying the experience. What you want to look for is appropriate play and interaction between the dogs and a lack of tension, hiding or running away.
Appropriate Dog Park interactions
In good play all participants consent to the activity and are enjoying themselves. It can involve chasing, pinning, wrestling, mounting, play fighting and barking. So how do you determine play from a more serious interaction? Play has some landmarks such as play body language (play bow, goofy expression, loose body), frequently starts and stops, role reversal (taking turns being the chaser or the one being chased) and self-handicapping ( a big dog will often lie down to play with a smaller one). If you see these behaviours it’s safe to say that your dog is enjoying the interaction. If you are ever not sure try separating the dogs briefly and watch if they go right back to each other to play once released. If you notice an absence of these play signals, or note body tension on greetings, or if your dog is hiding or avoidant remove him from the park and consider alternate activities.
It’s important to understand that there is not health requirement to visit a dog park. Therefore, you have no idea if the dog your dog is interacting with is free from communicable disease or parasites. Diseases are spread through contact with other dog’s fecal remnants and by direct contact, and the high traffic nature of dog parks can make them a disease risk. If you do visit dog parks make sure your dog is up to date on all recommended vaccinations and is regularly dewormed.
Who should not use dog parks?
In short, puppies, elderly dogs, and any dog that has shown tension or aggression towards other dogs are not good candidates for the dog park. If you have a puppy less than 6 months old I highly discourage bringing him to a dog park. This is not the ideal socialization environment as the number of dogs will be overwhelming and it and will likely create a fear response. In addition to this, puppies’ immune systems are immature and the high traffic nature of the dog park is not ideal for their health. A better option is a puppy class, where all the puppies are vaccinated and puppies are separated into play groups based on size and play style or meet and greets with social adult dogs. Older dogs prefer quieter activities like slow walks and the intense environment of the dog park will stress them. In addition to this if your dog has ever shown any aggression towards others such as growling, snarling, snapping or fighting the dog park is not an ideal environment. Often well intentioned people bring their dog that has had issues with other dogs to the park in an effort to “socialize” him. While it is possible to help change the response of a dog who displays aggression to others; the dog park is not the place for this. He will likely only learn to be more defensive in an environment with many other dogs where he feels overwhelmed and the issue will get worse. If this is your dog, avoid the dog park and opt for play sessions with you, long walks or trick training to tire him out and consider working with a qualified professional to reduce his stress around other dogs.
Who should use dog parks?
If you have a dog that is friendly, healthy and very social the dog park might be a good fit. If your dog enjoys it and you find a good park it can be an excellent outlet for their energy. If you are considering taking your dog to a park ask around to find out the parks in your area and which are recommended, not all dog parks are created equal. You can also do a drive by of parks before you bring your dog; look for large parks that have an area for shelter and a separate area for large and small dogs. Then the first time you go try to go on off hours (avoid weekends and evenings) to give your dog a chance to check it out at a less busy time.
In summary, it’s good to be aware of the benefits and risk of using dog parks. If your dog is highly social and up to date on vaccines a dog park could be a great fit for you! If however you have a puppy, older dog or dog who is a bit reactive to other dogs then opt for other enriching activities. It’s all about knowing your dog, paying attention to his body language cues and doing what is in his best interest.