Taking our dogs to a dog park to run free and play with other dogs off-leash seems to be an ideal way to help enrich our dog’s lives so they can be their happiest. After all, dogs are social animals that love to play, and they have lots of energy they need to burn which many of us don’t have the space to satisfy. A trip to the dog park should be a perfect solution, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There is much more to consider when contemplating a trip to the dog park, and for many dogs, the risks outweigh the benefits. So, what are the downsides to dog parks?
First, many people allow their dogs to run loose at dog parks with no supervision whatsoever, which is a recipe for disaster. Dogs, like people, have many different personalities. Dogs do not just naturally get along with every other dog they meet, nor should they be expected to. Some dogs are naturally timid and shy, while others are very confident and brash. It would be unfair to expect a shy and timid dog to enjoy being set free with a group of strange dogs that play rough.
Second, it is not uncommon for dogs to lack proper socialization as a puppy, and as a result, they have not learned how to read the body language of other dogs properly to know when they should stop or tone it down a little. These dogs can be bothersome to other dogs during play, making their interactions less than enjoyable for dogs with more subdued play styles, or that may simply not be in the mood to play with them at that time. If the owner is not properly supervising the play session, things can go bad quickly, and it only takes one bad experience for your dog to go from loving other dogs to being reactive to other dogs.
Many dogs that have had a bad experience at a dog park do not enjoy them because they have learned it is a stressful place where they are constantly on edge, fending off dogs that are rude. You are always taking a risk that there could be one or more under-socialized dogs there that have not learned how to play fairly with other dogs, that do not understand how to read another dog’s cut-off signal when it has had enough and wants to take a break from playing. Unfortunately, many people incorrectly interpret rude dog interactions as normal and fun play. If your dog experiences an uncomfortable interaction with another dog and you do not come to its rescue, you are running the risk of betraying the relationship you have with your dog, as it will learn that it cannot count on you to be its protector. It is your job to be your dog’s advocate and protect its confidence, ensuring that it is safe in all circumstances. Likewise, it is your job to help your dog learn how to play fairly and nicely with other dogs.
These are just a few of the things that are problematic about dog parks. In reality, there is a lot that can go wrong at a dog park even for the most well socialized dogs. Here is a great article that explains in great detail what to look out for: https://apdt.com/resource-center/dog-parks-good-bad-ugly/
What is Fair Play?
When two or more dogs are playing together appropriately, there is a back-and-forth jockeying of “tag” – one dog chases and then the other chases back. If you see one dog doing all the chasing while another dog does all the running, that is a sign that the dog being chased is not having fun and is not interested in playing with the dog that is chasing. If this happens to your dog, you should come to your dog’s rescue and help break up that one-sided game. Your dog is likely saying “mom or dad, help me!” It is not your place to correct or reprimand the “bully” dog, only to rescue your dog from being bullied. By rescuing your dog from being relentlessly pursued in a one-sided chase game, you will increase your bond with your dog, as it will learn that it can count on mom or dad to come to its rescue as needed. This knowledge will also enhance your dog’s confidence, which is something we are always wanting to grow.
Ideally every dog that goes to a dog park are being watched carefully by responsible owners who know how to properly step in when necessary if an interaction between their dog and your dog is on the verge of going bad. Dog parks are a great opportunity to help teach your dog social skills, but you must be attentive to your dog the entire time it’s there. It is your responsibility to be your dog’s advocate and ensure that all interactions your dog has with other dogs are positive ones. While dogs are social animals, they are very much like people in that they don’t necessarily want or need to have lots of different friends. Think about how stressful it is for a naturally shy or unconfident dog to have to interpret whether each new dog it meets is friendly or knows how to play fairly. It would be one thing if each time your dog goes to the dog park, the same playmates it is already familiar with is there to interact with. However, the likelihood that strange dogs that your dog does not know are there could change the experience for your dog, perhaps not in a good way.
So be your dog’s advocate by being aware that not every dog owner will be as diligent as you to keep their eyes on their dog’s behavior while at the dog park. Understand that some dogs will behave inappropriately with very little supervision. Be diligent in ensuring that your dog’s time at the dog park is a positive one and be ready to come to its rescue as needed. And, if you have a dog that does not enjoy going to the dog park, accept that running free with lots of other dogs is not something that your dog needs to be happy. Rather, what your dog values most is quality time playing with you for it to have the life of its dreams!