Dog parks, when combined with reward-based training and proper daily care, can help prevent behavior problems associated with boredom, inadequate exercise, and lack of social, mental, and physical stimulation. Dog parks can provide your dog with opportunities for:
- Practicing and maintaining social skills: Dogs can hone their communication and play skills in a rich social environment.
- Mental stimulation: Dogs are free to explore their environment, make decisions, and solve problems.
- Intensive, full-body exercise: Dogs can run, leap, change speed and direction, and adapt their behavior in response to playmates.
BUT, not all dogs are suitable candidates for dog parks! And many dogs at dog parks should not be there.
Ideal candidates are:
- Healthy, vaccinated, and neutered
- Relatively young
- Well-socialized with other dogs and people
- Enjoy playing with other dogs
- Come when called immediately
Dogs with the following characteristics are not suitable candidates for dog park play:
- Less than 4 months old
- Tend to shy away from or snap/growl at other dogs
- Have a bite history with dogs or humans
- Are under-socialized and lack experience interacting with other dogs
- Tend to police and interrupt other dogs’ interactions (often seen in herding breeds and terriers)
- Are high-energy or intense playmates with little regard for other dogs’ social cues (tend to run over or bully other dogs)
- Have difficulty regulating their level of arousal or excitement
- Play tends to tip over into aggressive behavior or fights
At dog parks, it is up to each individual owner to help keep everyone safe by evaluating their dogs’ temperament, educating themselves about how to read dog body language, monitoring play and interrupting as needed, keeping dogs separated by size, and avoiding crowded parks. Dogs need to come when called immediately in highly distracting environments to ensure owners can call them away to head-off potential trouble with other dogs. Teaching a settle cue (dog sits or lies down and self-calms) is helpful when owners need to interrupt play.
Dog parks are frequented by dogs that should not be there. Many owners fail to supervise and interrupt inappropriate play and may resent others who attempt to intervene. When dogs play with considerably smaller dogs, play behavior can turn into predation with serious injury. Finally, all dogs have preferred ways of playing. Confident and socially adept dogs can adjust their play styles to accommodate others’, but many dogs don’t. A body-slamming retriever may frighten or annoy a sighthound that loves to chase but prefers no physical contact.
Appropriate Behavior: Signs of fun, relaxed play
- Loose, fluid, relaxed posture, muscles and movement
- Open mouth, loose tongue
- Exaggerated movements
- Frequent lateral movements (moving sideways)
- Play bows, bouncing, wiggling
- Mutual chasing and wrestling
- Low, wide tail wags
- Frequent short breaks/disengagement, then resuming play
Problem Behavior: Signs of trouble brewing
- Tense, stiff body posture; closed mouth
- Freezing with direct, hard staring
- Frequent or intense stalking behavior
- Constantly chasing other dogs
- Non-mutual play (no role exchange–dog is always chasing or pinning other dogs)
- Pinning another dog without immediately releasing it
- Excessive barking
- Snarling; deep growling; baring teeth
- Excessive mounting
When and How to Intervene
It is important to interrupt any problem behaviors early on to avoid conflict and fights. If your dog is being bullied or is interacting inappropriately with another dog, call it to you, reward and leash, and have it lie down next to you for a few minutes until relaxed. Release your dog to play, preferably in another area of the park, and closely monitor behavior. If your dog appears stressed or afraid (signs include hiding, cowering, tucked tail with flattened ears, attempting to escape, panting and drooling excessively, frequent exaggerated yawning, restless, whining, or has sudden diarrhea), or is engaging in problem behaviors, call your dog to you, leash it, and leave the dog park. If there is another dog consistently engaging in inappropriate behavior, leave the dog park. Immediately engage in a walk or other fun activity. Always leave on a high note to ensure the dog park remains a positive experience for your dog.