A: Finally! It is nice outside. The weather in the northeast has been brutal this winter and many of us, including our dogs, were starting to get cabin fever. Now that the extreme cold has broken, many of us are eager to enjoy the outdoors with our dogs. There are many activities that you can enjoy with your four-legged friend, such as playing ball in the yard, taking a ride in the car, and of course, going to a dog park. However, are dog parks for everyone?
It seems to be difficult to answer this question with a resounding yes. Certainly, it is easy to understand what the benefits are; physical exercise, socialization with other dogs, different smells in the environment, meeting new and different people (dogs have owners), etc. But, there are many things that happen at dog parks that can result in a negative experience for you and your dog. For example, just because dogs do not hurt each other does not mean that they are having a good time. If we took this approach with children playing at the playground, it would be like saying "no one got a bloody nose, therefore it went great!" Dogs can bully each other just like children can. It is really important for the owner to actually know their dog well, and to listen to their dog by reading their body language and determining whether or not the dog is having a pleasant experience.
Much of this depends on the dog park as well. How do we know what makes a good dog park? There are some conflicting opinions on this, but the general consensus is that dog parks are only as good as the owners are attentive and engaged. You want to look for dog parks that include interactive owners who give feedback to their dogs. You usually can see this immediately before you enter the park. If you see many owners sitting together, not paying attention to their dogs, on their cell phones, etc. while their dogs are pinning each other down, bullying one or two specific dogs, then you may want to consider going to a different park or going at a different time (many groups meet at the same time so their dogs will have a consistent playgroup that they can trust). A good sign at a dog park is when you see most people standing up, walking around, talking to their dogs and giving consistent feedback.
If your dog has never gone to a dog park before, there are a few things that you may want to consider. Try to go at an off time (usually a weekday afternoon) when there are fewer dogs there. This will give your dog the ability to get accustomed to the environment at a lower stimulating time. If there are a few dogs in the park, first walk your dog around the outside of the park (not too close to the fence as you do not want to encourage threatening or aggressive fence behavior), and work on doing basic commands such as "sit", "down" or "come" to make sure you have some ability to get the attention of your dog. What you are trying to avoid is having no control over your dog once he is eventually in the park. Wait until your dog seems to be calm, and less stimulated before entering the run. If he seems ok, and you are able to bring him to the gate, then it may be time to let him in. It is not a bad idea to talk to some of the owners who are already in the park with their dogs (without your dog with you) first so you can get a feeling as to how the owners communicate with each other. After all, if a dog fight does break out, communication is essential.
Finally, if all goes well and your dog seems to be safe in the run, make sure you do a "check in" with your dog every few minutes or so. Certainly, this may prove to be difficult in the beginning. Your dog is having a good time, running with another dog, so he may be very distracted. Do not give up if your dog does not come right away. Keep calling him, and when he finally comes to you give him some verbal praise, pet him lavishly and then let him "go play" with the dogs again. Eventually your dog will realize that when you call him it is not to always leave, but to just "check in" with you. When dealing with the uncertainty that a dog park can bring, having a good recall with your dog is vital.
Always remember to listen to your gut feeling. If you feel that your dog is getting bullied by another dog (the other dog will not leave your dog alone despite your dog giving warnings, your dog is looking scared, shaking, not engaging in any play, etc.) then it may be time to call it a day and leave. This does not mean that your dog is not cut out for dog parks; it may just mean that he needs short intervals at the park to become more comfortable or you may need to go at a time when there are less dogs. Hopefully your dog will slowly become more comfortable and develop some positive relationships with other dogs, but this is not always the case.
Only time, experience, and training will tell if the dog park is right for your dog. If you are not sure if your dog is good with other dogs, it may be worth considering hiring a professional dog trainer or set up an appointment with Bideawee’s training staff to help you figure this out.