I am asked by clients regularly whether they should be taking their dogs to a dog park to socialise them. In my opinion, the answer depends on several factors, and every dog and owner is different. I’m not against dog parks, they can be wonderful. But it is important to handle them with care. Also, remember that you are your dog’s guardian.
As much as you need and want to provide opportunities for play and fun, you also need to make sure these playtimes are safe and beneficial both to yourselves and others. Much of it comes down to the owner’s relationship with their dog, and their ability and willingness to manage their dog effectively, but there are many variables to consider.
Some dogs thrive in this environment, while others, in our opinion, should not be in this environment at all. Some breeds and temperaments are definitely more suited to structured, purpose orientated activities and having a controlled environment where they play and have freedom around other dogs well-matched in size, temperament and energy levels.
If you are unsure, it makes a lot of sense and is very worthwhile getting help from a professional dog trainer or behaviourist to coach you on how to successfully manage your dog in high energy situations and to assess the dog’s suitability for this kind of environment.
If you do decide to take your dog to a dog park, especially when there are new or strange dogs present, I encourage you to observe it for a few minutes from the outside before entering, and make sure you feel comfortable with the energy and dynamics underway. If you were sending your child into a playground for example, and there were older, bigger, rougher or very energetic kids already in there, if the atmosphere was ‘charged’ or you could see that there was little or no adult supervision, you would instinctively know that this was not a good idea.
If you do decide that the situation is positive and owners and dogs seem mentally relaxed, by all means, go in and have a good romp. Sniffing, exploring and playing with other dogs is fantastic and something you cannot provide in the same way that other dogs can. However, if you’re unsure or can feel that there is a bad vibe, trust your gut feeling and hold off. Take each day as it comes, some will be appropriate, others not. Some dog parks seem to have a regular, stable group depending on the time of day and others are a random lottery of who may be there. If you can find and integrate with a regular responsible group this usually works well.
An interesting question to consider is “Do I want my dog to learn that they can be more stimulated and will have more fun away from me and without me?” In our opinion, this is one of the most easily avoidable and potentially troublesome training mistakes we see in regards to off lead work. If you want your dog to have a solid recall and see you as a point of reference and safety, it is counterproductive to consistently encourage them to run off and have fun “out there”. You, the pack leader, should be centre of your dog’s world and your pack should provide enough fulfilment, fun and stimulation that they aren’t seeking and getting it somewhere else. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t allow this at all, but at least establish yourself first and foremost and then allow freedom on your terms in a healthy balance. Something to think about if you use the dog park on a regular basis.
Consider also whether your dog actually enjoys the dog park!Some dogs are introverts, just like us! Don’t think that because your dog seems shy or nervous (this can also manifest as aggression) around strange or new dogs that taking them into a similar situation over and over again will fix it! With some dogs it can actually make the issue worse. Often we find that they need support or help making decisions and if you aren’t aware of what they need from you, and you don’t change your behaviour, it can’t or won’t improve.
It is not uncommon for dogs that have not seemed to cope around other dogs (even for years) to change considerably, if not completely, when the owners were aware of where the issue was stemming from. Then there are the dogs who prefer the company of one on one, or a group of dogs they know and trust, and also the minority who just will never enjoy being around any other dogs. This is sometimes surprising and disappointing for the owner if they are a highly social person themselves and love the social vibe of the dog park.
So, yes the dog park can be a great place to use for socialisation, exercise and fun, but please be responsible and remember that it’s not for every dog, and to keep it balanced with structured, calm activities (such as on lead walks) so you avoid developing hyperactivity and attitude.
For those who are still a bit unsure I have written a related article with some dog training tips to act as a checklist to help you decide if your dog is ready for the dog park.