The dog park (or leash-free area) is a great addition to our city parks. In theory. For us dog-owning city dwellers, especially those with high-energy rovers, it can be difficult to properly exercise our dogs.
Enter the dog park: a fenced area where people can let their dogs run loose. What could be better? Most dog owners I meet bring their dog(s) to the leash-free areas provided in many parks, and most seem pretty happy with this routine.As a dog trainer, I’m particularly mindful of my dogs’ wellbeing, and the dog park is a place I would never bring my dogs. Here’s why:
While most of our owned city dogs are usually vaccinated and generally healthy animals, this isn’t always the case, and there are several strains of the same pathogens, anyway. Some dog owners aren’t even aware of illness in their dog! Urine and feces are left behind, allowing the particular pathogen to spread more easily. Some animals may be infected but not showing symptoms, possibly because the pathogen is still in the incubation phase (the time between contact and symptoms).
Sure, there are feces and urine all over the city, but not in the same concentration, and while your dog is on leash, you can monitor what he’s coming into contact with more closely.
As my dogs’ guardian, I feel it is my right and duty to protect my dogs if I feel the situation warrants it. This means that if a dog is getting too rough or insistent with one of mine, I will step in and separate the dogs. I never resort to violence, obviously, and it’s really no big deal from my point of view.
Some owners seem to get more than a little offended if you dare accuse their dog of behaving inappropriately, and what started as a small disagreement between dogs, soon becomes a larger one between owners. I’m not insinuating that owners come to blows over their dogs, but it can definitely lead to an uncomfortable time.
Many owners are of the idea that dogs need to be dogs, and therefore must learn to handle themselves without human intervention. This is just plain wrong. No ifs, ands or buts. Dogs that “handle themselves” will use whatever means necessary to start, maintain or end interaction with another dog; this means that if avoidance doesn’t work, varying levels of aggression will ensue. Eventually, avoidance will be eliminated altogether, and that is when Fido becomes considered dog-aggressive or reactive. On the flip side, a dog that wants to play will escalate in intensity until he is able to force interaction, this dog is oftentimes labeled a bully. He is the dog that nips, barks at and paws at another dog until he gets a response.
As your dog’s owner, you are responsible for how he lives, and this includes how he behaves with anyone he comes into contact to, including non-human animals.
A social experiment
In the best case scenario, all the dogs introduced at any one time are similar in size, energy level and play style. Even in this (very hypothetical) scenario, it is very possible for the situation to get out of control. Now imagine if the dogs in question are all different sizes and with different temperaments. A senior dog likely doesn’t want to be pestered by an eight month old puppy, and a young puppy will likely be uncomfortable playing with an exuberant one year old dog. Just because there isn’t an all-out dog fight, it doesn’t mean that what transpires between the two is nice, safe play.
I go to the dog park to watch dogs interact with each other quite often, and more often than not, what is considered spirited play is, for lack of a better word, rude. It looks like play because there is a pushy dog and one in avoidance, so there isn’t a fight.
Dogs from all walks of life are thrown into an enclosure, so trouble can’t be far off. Shy, old, young, exuberant, big, small, neutered, intact, happy, frightened, confident, females (sometimes in heat!), males… You get the idea!
It’s insane to think that letting children from two years old to ten years old play together could be a good idea, they are simply at very different stages in their lives. It’s the same with dogs, with the added bonus that dogs vary in size from less than five pounds to well over one hundred and cannot settle disputes with words.
To put the weight ratio into perspective, how would you handle a toddler that weighs three times what you do? An adult toy Poodle and a Rottweiler puppy are more or less the same ratio.
Last but not least, when I visit families with aggressive dogs, one line I hear often is that the dog was brought to the dog park often to socialize him. These well-intentioned attempts to get a dog to like being around other dogs can exacerbate fear in an insecure or fearful dog, especially if the dogs are left to their own devices.
What scares me even more is when I hear owners with already aggressive dogs bring them to the dog park in an attempt to alter their behaviour. I have a hard time seeing this as well-intentioned because they are putting everyone around them at the time in danger. Knowing that this is an all too common dog “training” technique, I refuse to put my dogs and myself in the position of being someone’s guinea pig in their misguided experiment.
So, now what?
Socialization* and exercise are very important for a dog’s wellbeing, so how do you go about keeping your dog happy and healthy?
Reputable doggy daycare centers are an affordable option for both exercise and socialization. Dogs are allowed to run and play while being supervised by knowledgeable personnel, organized into appropriate play groups.
If socialization is your only concern, the dog doesn’t need to go to doggy daycare every single day, a couple of times a week is enough.
Long lines (30ft+) can give your dog more freedom without letting them off-lead, allowing your dog to run around a bit while still keeping him safe.
One-on-one play sessions with agreeable dogs are a viable option, as well as sessions with a trainer and their dog(s).
A word on dog toys
When dogs are playing, especially ones that don’t know each other well, it is best to keep toys and treats out of the equation. Any resource can be a source of guarding behaviour.
*It should be noted that some dogs will never be safe around other dogs, no matter what. They can be taught to not react to other dogs, but contact is a completely different story.
Is your dog dog-aggressive or reactive during walks, particularly when he sees other dogs? Check out our YouTube channel for easy tips and tricks to help solve low-grade behavioural issues