Dog parks may appear to be fantastic additions to the community, but they come with a host of issues - both for you and your dog. Before you decide to visit one, here's what you need to know.
Every morning, come rain or shine, pet owners gather to strike up conversations with strangers while their dogs chase, run and mingle. Dog parks have become standard amenities in the Copenhagen neighbourhoods. However, despite their popularity, I want to tell you why I, as a dog trainer, am not entirely convinced of their benefits.
The Socialisation Myth
Socialisation for dogs isn't just about interacting with other dogs; it involves exposing young puppies (between 8-16 weeks, which is their first critical period) to new experiences, helping them build confidence and adaptability.
However, the dog park is not an ideal place to socialise a young puppy, especially those under 6-12 months old. Puppies during their early months are more sensitive to experiences, and a boisterous greeting at the park could make them uncertain around all dogs. To ensure positive interactions, we recommend attending our puppy course where our main focus is teaching your how to read your own dogs body language so you can always ensure the type of socialisation your dog is receiving is healthy and beneficial to his or hers development.
Socialising older dogs is more challenging since they have already had their formative socialisation experiences. Bringing a shy dog to the park for positive interactions with other dogs can backfire, leading to overwhelming situations, dog fights, or a long-term fear of other dogs. Believe me when I say this, most reactive dogs come to Alix & the Pack for training not because they are under socialised but because they have been over socialised.
While dogs are social animals and engage in various forms of play, the artificial setup of dog parks can lead to challenges. Many dogs brought to the park are often over-aroused, displaying rude behaviour that can trigger issues between them. Just because an owner thinks their dog plays well with others doesn't mean it always does. Dog parks require trust that all owners are diligently monitoring their dogs and are good judges of whether their dogs should be there. Unlike organised neutrality groups or group classes, most dog parks are public spaces not supervised by professionals, and this lack of oversight can lead to fights and the transmission of bad habits. If we think about it for a second, expecting opportunistic predators to be placed together in a small fenced-in area right away is actually illogical. Even with horses, which are also categorised as 'pack' animals, they are gradually exposed to each other before being put in the same field to avoid potential conflicts.
Injuries and Diseases
Dog parks often lack separate play enclosures for large and small dogs, and even when they do, owners may choose to disregard those spaces. This can lead to serious injury or even death for smaller dogs involved in accidents with larger dogs. Injuries such as bite wounds, muscle strains, and sprains are common in dog park settings and can require extensive treatment and rehabilitation.
Furthermore, dog parks can pose health risks due to the spread of easily communicable diseases (in Copenhagen, Giardia, is a common disease that most dog parks are riddled with). While many parks may post signs about vaccination requirements, no proof is usually required.
Reading Canine Body Language
Most dog owners are not adept at interpreting their dog's body language beyond a wagging tail (a wagging tail also does not mean a dog is happy, it means they are ready to engage, whether that be a bad or good interaction), which often leads to ignoring signs of discomfort or agitation. Understanding canine body language is crucial for ensuring your dog's comfort and safety at the park. Signs of fear or aggression include lip licking, yawning, panting when not hot, stiff bodies, and erect tails. Even dogs that seem to be playing well together can still be at risk. Healthy play should include small breaks or pauses, and if you are uncertain about your dog's behaviour, it's essential to intervene and assess the situation.
If you are interested in learning more about canine behaviour and body language, then I strongly recommend the book, Listen To Me!: Exploring the emotional life of dogs.
Dog Park Alternatives
Dog parks may physically tire out your dog, but they do not necessarily provide the enriching mental and emotional stimulation dogs need. Many dog parks prioritise human socialisation over the dogs' well-being. Instead, consider organising meet ups with other dogs that you know are neutral or at least the owners are actively trying to instill manners. Spending quality time with your dog is far more meaningful and rewarding than the typical dog park experience. Take a look at the Instagram video below to learn how to introduce your dog to other dogs in a safer way. Ultimately, it's up to you to weigh the risks and benefits of dog parks. There's no shame in choosing alternatives that ensure your dog's safety and happiness while strengthening your bond with your beloved companion. After all, your dog wants to spend time with you, too.
Dogs, being social creatures, naturally prefer the company of familiar individuals, much like humans do. Just as we don't engage in conversations with every passerby on the street, dogs don't feel the necessity to interact with every fellow dog they encounter. Building trust and comfort between two dogs takes time, allowing them to gauge each other's intentions and decide on an appropriate reaction. However, time constraints often interfere in environments like dog parks, leading even well-meaning dogs to appear "aggressive" when confronted with new interactions. For instance, if an exuberant Labrador Retriever approaches a more reserved herding mix, the latter might react defensively, emitting snarls or air bites to establish space. This initial interaction might be misinterpreted by onlookers as aggression, causing unwarranted punishment for the herding dog. This situation results in unfavourable learning experiences for both parties: the Labrador doesn't learn to modify its greeting approach, and the herding dog becomes discouraged due to lack of support from its owner.
Dog park dynamics can inadvertently teach dogs that their owners lack control over their behaviour. We've all witnessed owners futilely calling their dogs while the animals gleefully remain just out of reach, either staring from a distance or outright ignoring the calls. This behaviour pattern develops after instances where dogs whines excessively during car rides to the park and/or drag their owners toward the dog park, and then dash away once their leashes are removed.
Dogs comprehend their owners' inability to ensure their safety when they witness their owners allowing other dogs to engage in overly aggressive play, rough body slams, or rollovers. Crucially, it's the dog's perception of safety that holds precedence, often differing from the human perspective. Owners sometimes overlook their dogs' evident fear, dismissing it as unwarranted due to their own assurance that the other dogs mean no harm. When a dog is chased or harassed by another dog and the owner doesn't intervene, not only does the dog learn to avoid interactions with other dogs, but it also loses faith in its owner's protection.
Problematic Play Styles
Diverse play styles among dogs can lead to misunderstandings or even conflicts. Dogs with vastly different play preferences might clash, amplifying specific play behaviors. Overly physical play styles can dominate interactions, especially if owners don't regulate them. Often, concerns are brushed aside with a casual "it's just play." While the dogs might indeed be playing, they are simultaneously learning, sometimes internalising lessons that owners might not intend. In cases where dominant dogs play with similar peers, the primary drawback is their failure to learn proper interaction etiquette. If they overpower weaker dogs, these weaker dogs might adopt a submissive stance, recognising that their usual communication tactics are ineffective. This unequal power dynamic instills fear in the weaker dogs, which could extend to all dogs or specific dog types. A good example of what I mean by this is, nearly all my sighthound clients can no longer attend dog parks. This is because the sighthounds ‘chase and nip‘ play style is not taken well by other breeds of dogs. When the other dogs try to run away (flight) and realise it doesn’t work (because that’s exactly what the sighthound wanted from the dog), then their next option is to fight.
Resource guarding becomes a considerable issue in dog parks where resources are limited and valuable. Certain dogs might guard their toys, while others attempt to snatch items from their counterparts. Some hold onto the items, while others engage in taunting behaviour. Conflicts often erupt over resources such as humans seated at picnic tables or benches, escalating into serious fights. I’ve even seen dogs resource guard the water bowls in the dog park.
Interestingly, leash frustration, akin to a canine tantrum, can stem from experiences at dog parks. This behaviour has several causes. One source is a dog's excessive excitement about playing, causing it to pull its owner eagerly to the park, often barking and lunging along the way. The owner's agitated response amplifies the arousal. Upon arriving at the park, the dog is primed for intense physical activity, perhaps even confrontations. Leash frustration emerges when dogs, accustomed to frequenting parks, mistakenly assume they can approach any dog they see. When thwarted, they pull on the leash, met with corresponding resistance from their owners. This escalating frustration could make the dog appear aggressive, inducing other owners to pull their dogs back in apprehension. Ultimately, this frustration can escalate to real aggression, perplexing the owners, as their dogs behave impeccably off-leash but poorly on-leash. Leash reactivity is a real thing and every day, I receive enquiries from owners who are experiencing leash reactive dogs. Check out the Instagram reel posted by @teamk9.training below:
Many dogs form strong attachments to their owners and tend to stick around them. Such dogs might exhibit growling or teeth baring if approached by other dogs, expecting their owners to intervene in case of conflict. Owners unknowingly encourage this behaviour by remaining close to their dogs, inadvertently enabling them. In a family context, multiple dogs visiting a park can lead to facilitated aggression, where they gang up on a third dog, causing distress or worse.
While numerous dogs enjoy socialising throughout their lives, a substantial subset loses interest in interactions once they reach social maturity. Such dogs gradually withdraw from socialisation and may signal their desire for space. Some become reluctant to enter dog parks due to the potential lack of control in these unstructured environments. Others might express their displeasure through snarls or snaps, indicating their boundaries.
In dog parks, some dogs struggle to calm down, falling into prolonged states of heightened arousal that lead to trouble. Dogs involved in high-excitement incidents can unexpectedly initiate further disturbances, often resulting in unwanted outcomes. I often say to my clients, ‘I want you to be those owners that don’t just take their dog out to exercise them physically but can take the dog out to run errands, attend a picnic with friends or sit at a cafe for a couple hours. I don’t want you to have that dog that you have to walk quickly, to then drop them off back at home, to then run to the picnic with friends. And if you keep taking the dog to the dog park or even taking the dog to any park where it constantly gets to greet other dogs, you are only making your dog an adrenaline junkie where it learns to constantly be switched on outside. You are quite literally giving your dog every single reason to be reactive’.
The Impact of Trauma
Traumatic events can profoundly affect young dogs, leaving an indelible mark. A puppy or adolescent that experiences an attack may display aggressive behaviours triggered by that event. Even seemingly minor incidents can traumatise young dogs, comparable to how a child might react after a distressing experience. This type of trauma can lead to a generalised fear response, even when the danger is not present.
Knowledge is Power
Owners play a pivotal role in dog park dynamics, though many fail to recognise their responsibilities. Some neglect to pay attention to their dogs, lacking understanding of proper behaviour or canine communication. Others defend their dogs despite inappropriate conduct. Instances of overreaction during regular interactions, where one dog declines another's attention, are not uncommon. Occasionally, owners treat parks as dog-sitting services, leaving their pets unattended while they engage in other activities. Unfortunately, most owners overestimate their control over their dogs.
I understand that you might have read the text and thought, "My dog has never shown signs of aggression at a dog park or during playtime. I'll never be the person who leaves their dog unattended in a dog park." Even if you're the vigilant type at the dog park, it's important to realise that you can't control other people and their dogs, no matter how hard you try.
These small fenced-in dog parks are often nestled within larger, unfenced parks. So, have you considered getting a long line or a flexi leash and spending time with your dog in an open space? If I could speak for your dog, I'm pretty sure it would prefer that.