Training: Dog Parks and Socialization

Story by Jeremy Brown, The Complete Canine

In theory, the dog park can be a great place to bring our canine friends for many reasons, such as socialization and exercise. In fact, in larger cities it is the only time that some dogs get off the leash, chase a ball, and see other dogs. However, dog parks can also be a stressful environment that may bring out negative behaviors. When speaking to clients about this topic, I often say we need to make sure your dog is a “dog park dog” and take a few steps to set them up for success. As handlers, we need to: understand our dog’s type and level of play, understand what types of play are not conducive to a good time and watch our pet’s body language and interpret it correctly.

Assess the Situation
Before entering the dog park, I consider the following factors: What is the layout like and does the entrance cause my dog more stress that could lead to negative behavior? Are there any stressors that could lead to negative behavior, such as an adjacent bicycle path or is the small dog side directly connected to the large dog side? Taking a dog with high energy into the dog park can also lead to confrontations as they enter, so I try to release some of that energy by walking around beforehand or utilizing controlling commands at the gate. One helpful hint is to practice desirable behaviors and commands at the dog park when others are not there to ensure the distraction and excitement doesn’t get the better of them later. However, treats and food at the dog park can cause other issues, so training is done with no others for safety. I also like to watch the dogs in the dog park and make sure I am entering a situation that will set my dog up for optimum success. From using the right equipment for your dog on-leash while entering the dog park, as well as being a proficient handler in commands, will help ensure that your dog is successful from the moment they enter. My goal is to be an advocate for the animal in every situation I put them in and try to lead them into a positive interaction.

Survey the Area
Another important factor to consider before entering the dog park is the size and number of dogs in the area. One study showed that 3-4 dogs do well together on about an acre of land, but many of our parks are smaller than that. Many of us don’t realize the impact that a high population in a small amount of space will do to a dog’s stress levels. This kind of stress will turn a positive social experience into the opposite for some. Dog parks are ideal for socialized dogs, not dogs that are learning to be social. It is also imperative that handlers watch their canine friends while at the park and not use it as a social hour for themselves. While we can meet pretty amazing dog people at the park, I constantly hear that a client was talking to another handler and they didn’t realize that their dog was getting into trouble. Safety is vital, as bad situations at the dog park can lead to injury, psychological damage and training to “fix” what happened at the dog park. As handlers, we need to be vigilant in unpredictable situations, such as socializing in a dog park and help meet the needs of our canine friends.

Take into Consideration the Canine’s Needs
Understanding what is best for the animal at each stage of their life is key. Behavior can change and if your dog is not ready for the dog park at their current stage, they may be ready later on in life. I want all of my dogs to be as social as possible, but the wrong situation could lead to a negative behavior even with the best dogs. Not all dogs are dog park dogs and this is not a bad thing. Due to controlled breeding and mixed breeding, the levels and types of play that some dogs exhibit could stress out other canines. Dog parks are not bad places, but we need to consider what the canine’s needs and wants truly are!

Things to Consider About Your Canine at the Dog Park:
Would dogs rushing the gate as they enter or barking dogs cause negative behavior?
How well does the canine listen when distractions are high?
Is this a safe place to help reach social goals?
Who wants to be at the dog park more, the dog or the human?
What type of play does my dog exhibit and is this safe in the dog park?
How well can you read your dog and other dog’s behavior?

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