Dog parks can be great fun but they can also be trouble if not handled correctly. Personally, I’m not one to take risks when it comes to the safety and learning outcomes of my dog, and I don’t think it’s fair to compromise others by not having a dog under complete control around theirs.
If you’re unsure, here are 7 tips to help you decide if your dog is ready or suitable for a dog park.
Is your dog under your control and do I have a solid relationship of respect and trust? If your dog pulls on the lead, has bad recall, selective listening, or has existing behavioural challenges such as aggression, anxiety, dominance or hyperactivity, sort this out first.
Are you willing and able to step in to either defend or correct your dog if a situation arises?
As a guardian you need to be ready to intervene if necessary or you can quickly dissolve trust. If you don’t know how to or don’t feel you could, get some professional instruction. Even if you’re sure you dog won’t bite, overly dominant play should be corrected. Other dogs and owners have the right to not feel threatened or overwhelmed by your dog’s behaviour and you need to be able to step in and have enough influence to calm your dog down if needed, or to correct them if they are reacting to the same in another dog. If you don’t think your dog will listen to you or may intimidate other dogs, you shouldn’t be in there.
You may need to accept that if you have a dog with a very dominant temperament or a very high prey drive, keeping them calm around other excited dogs in this environment may not be realistic. Further obedience training can do only so much, it cannot change a dog’s natural temperament. The most effective way to have influence over a dog’s drive level and instinct is to create a relationship where you are perceived and accepted as the pack leader and your dog respects you enough to allow you to over-ride their decisions.
Unfortunately, many dogs are not matched with owners that are able to provide this leadership, either physically or emotionally, even with the best of intentions.
Are the dogs here suitable matched?
Use your common sense here. If you have a small fluffy white dog or a young puppy, there are not going to have a great time with a strong Rottweilers or an older cattle dog who wants to play hard. Same if you have an energetic Labrador and the park is full of small, softer natured dogs – it wouldn’t be fair or responsible to let your dog run in and bowl them all over, even if it is with happiness. Some dog parks have a small dog section and a large dog section, if so, utilise this option, or join in when there is an appropriate group. There is a reason we separate the primary school and high school playgrounds for our kids.
Is there anything that your dog may perceive as worth competing for?
There is a good reason that kindy and preschool teachers ask parents not to allow their child to bring their own toys along! Food and toys have no place in a dog park. Even if your dog doesn’t get possessive it is possible someone else’s dog will. What was neutral territory suddenly isn’t when there is something to compete for.
Another thing to watch is giving affection to your dog or other dogs. If you show affection to your own dog, this can create the perception that you are submitting to them around other dogs and cause them to become cocky and protective. On the flip side, showing affection to other dogs is an easy way to create jealousy. Be mindful of this and be tuned into your dog’s energy and dynamics. Many owners are totally unaware how much their own behaviour is influencing the dynamics around them.
Is the dog park being used as the dog’s sole or main exercise source to simply tire the dog out or because it is too hard to walk them on lead?
I see this often, when the owners find it exhausting or near impossible to handle their dog (s) on lead so they are “released” into the dog park in an attempt to tire them out. This is usually well intentioned but all too often results in undisciplined and unruly dogs that are very physically fit but have no self control or respect. Make sure you strike a balance between “birthday party” (dog park) days and “school days” (following you calmly on lead) so you exercise both mind and body.
Does my dog have a solid positive association with other dogs already?
If a dog already has a solid, well established positive association with other dogs and has an bad incident, it is far more likely that the dog will process this as a ‘one off’ type of situation. If however, your dog is not too sure about dogs already and has a bad incident, this can be extremely difficult to fix and may be all the confirmation they need that dogs are negative. Survival instinct and memory is understandably very powerful. Don’t take the risk of socialising your dog in an uncontrolled environment if you are still building this association. I would advise you do further work on lead and with one on one visits or a group of dogs who know and trust one another.
Is my dog up to date with vaccinations and healthy?
Thisis an obvious one.If you are going to expose your dog to potentially unvaccinated or unhealthy dogs, make sure they are covered.
Hope these tips help. Remember we are here to help if you need us!
Author: Emma Tucker
Emma has a deep understanding and passion for dog and human psychology and the way these relationships reflect each other. Her knowledge of dog behaviour is 2nd to none.