That is the question I am asked in every class. That the question even has to be asked is somewhat comforting. Dog owners everywhere seem to have an inherent mistrust of the idea that a bunch of dogs they don’t know will be racing around untethered by leash or human. Can they be trusted?
The consensus among dog trainers is surprising. While most will tell their clients to proceed with caution, most professionals will not take their dogs to off leash parks. The reasons are varied, but they come down to two main things; first, that the trainer is spending enough time exercising and mentally stimulating his or her dogs to make dog parks unnecessary and second, dog parks can be dangerous. The second idea is the focus of this article.
Until recently, I was a “let them work it out” dog trainer. I was taught, many years ago, that in a stable environment, dogs will set their own hierarchy and we should not get involved. I still believe this holds true in some situations. However, a dog park is not a stable environment. Far from it. Dog park hierarchy is so changeable as to be completely irrelevant. And new research is being done all the time on what healthy canine interactions look like and what they absolutely do not look like. My views have accordingly changed with the latest research.
To answer the question of whether the dog park is safe for your dog, I’ve broken the question down into what we know about off leash environments and what we don’t.
What we know – we absolutely know that the environment will change, sometimes continuously while we are at the park. Dogs will come and leave. Dogs will run by. Some will have toys, and some owners will be carrying treats. We also know that the dogs will be off leash, which means we might have a hard time controlling them.
What we can’t know – we won’t know the education level of either the dogs at the park or, more importantly, their owners. Have they been through an obedience class? We also cannot know how two dogs will get along until they do – or don’t.
Because of what we can’t know, my answer is that I do not recommend dog parks for socialization purposes anymore. I think that the risks, more often than not, outweigh the gains.
Having said that, I know that for a many owners dog parks are the only way their dogs get exercise. Off-leash parks are convenient and easy, and people are still going to use them. So with that in mind, here’s my best advice for going to a dog park.
- Go with someone else. If your dog has a ready-made “pack” and good friend along, it’s a bit more unlikely that he/she would be bullied. But with a friend or without, it’s extremely important to;
- Keep Moving. Dog parks are not places to sit around on lawn chairs and talk to your friends while your dog roams the park alone. They are meant for owners and dogs to interact, which is why almost all of them have paths clearly marked. Don’t congregate in the middle of the park, giving your dog (or someone else’s) something to guard (a spot, a toy, a stick, you). Keep moving – your dog will likely stay with you.
- “Thin the herd.” Visit the dog park outside of peak times. Try to visit early in the morning or later in the evenings, avoiding Saturdays and Sundays in the middle of the day. And finally;
- Watch for and interrupt:
- Two or more dogs chasing another – when one dog is chasing another, then they come back with roles reversed, this is healthy play.
- Two or more against one – the same rules that apply to chase apply to wrestling. There should be give and take.
- Pinning – this is not willing submission. If a puppy rolls on its back to show submission, that’s a choice. If that same puppy is being held down by a larger dog, it is bullying.
- Rolling – this is often seen during chase, if two dogs are chasing one. But it can also happen in unhealthy play with only two dogs involved.
- Yelping – pay special attention here if the dog being yelped at does not respond to this signal. One yelp with the bully backing off is very different than prolonged and repeated yelping with no response from the bully.
- Hiding or hovering – tables, chairs, your legs, wherever they can. If you see this behavior consistently, your dog is likely over their threshold for tolerating the park at this time.
- Tail tucked – this is a submissive and fearful response. If your dog is displaying this with every dog he/she meets, the dog park may not be for you right now
If you are unsure whether something is healthy play between dogs, feel free to take your dog and leave the park. Erring on the side of caution is never wrong. For more information on the body language of dogs and on healthy play, Sue Sternberg is an excellent resource. Her video on Dog Park Behavior can be accessed through YouTube.
Christi Blaskowski, CPDT-KA
Unleashed Behavior and Training Services