Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why many dog owners shy away from bringing their dog to a dog park is because they know that their dog is likely to behave badly or they are afraid of their dog being attacked by another dog. These are very real concerns for dog owners and people need to understand that just because you have a dog you may not be welcome in a dog park, especially in an off-leash area. Dogs that are aggressive, non-compliant to their owners or dogs that are behaving badly for any reason should not be taken to a dog park until they are fully trained and able to act appropriately.
Dog parks are really user beware areas where individual dog owners are expected to supervise and control their dogs to avoid any fights or injuries to or with any other pets or people in the park. Unfortunately in some parks or in some areas individual owners may choose to not follow through on their responsibilities, making the park an unwelcome place for many people and their canine companions. Some of the larger dog parks may be patrolled by volunteers or even law enforcement or animal control officials, but typically the users themselves are the only people within the dog park.
The first step to getting your dog socialized for a trip to a dog park is to make sure they are comfortable and non-aggressive with other dogs. The best way to do this is to start when they are very young and make sure that as puppies they have lots of positive, non-threatening interactions with all types of dogs. This means getting your puppy out of the house or yard and taking them on outings and walks. Even walking through the neighborhood and allowing them time to stop and interact with other dogs along the walk will help them see other dogs as friends rather than foe.
Early socialization is key in any breed and with any puppy. Isolating dogs when they are puppies will typically lead to higher levels of dog aggression as they are unfamiliar with interacting with other dogs. Isolated dogs or dogs raised without socialization are also much more likely to be highly territorial, which may include their “pack” or their family. Often territorial dogs are less problematic when off-leash in a dog area that is neutral to them, however they may become aggressive when on the leash or when other dogs approach their owner.
Since owners that are nervous about bringing their dog to a dog park are going to transfer that sense of unease to the dog, even a mildly protective dog may be keenly alert to danger when they sense the owner’s tension. Starting out with leash work outside of a dog park where you can control the interaction with other dogs is a great option. Try walking your dog with a friend that has a very calm and non-aggressive dog for a start. Gradually work up to meeting new dogs as your confidence increases and you learn to read your dog’s body language. Remember some posturing, stiff walking, high tail carrying and of course sniffing is part of how dog’s get to know each other. If the behavior moves into growling or more definite signs of aggression step away with your dog and allow both dogs to calm down, then slowly allow them to approach again.
Once your dog is comfortable with meeting dogs on the leash it is time to start working on meeting dogs off the leash. In order to ensure this is successful the dog has to respond to you as the owner when they are off-leash. Working in your backyard is a good start but it doesn’t duplicate all the distractions of the dog park. You may want to recruit a friend or two that have dogs that return on command and start working with your dog with these pets. Typically a dog will return with his or her companions and will not be prone to running off under these conditions.
Working in an obedience class can also help with off-leash behaviors as well as socialization. Professional dog trainers will assist the owner in understanding the dog’s body language. Trainers will also teach owners how to cue the dog to your upcoming command as well as train them to respond even in the most interesting of dog parks and activities.
Of course all this takes time and practice. Starting puppies out in the dog park off-leash and leash areas as soon as they are fully vaccinated and old enough to head out for those walks is the best option. A pocket full of doggy treats is also an essential as rewards for returning to you have to be bigger than staying and chasing that squirrel or playing with that other puppy.
While you can control your dog and ensure that he or she is well behaved and non-aggressive it is impossible to control other people and their dogs. As a dog owner be sure to look around the park or off-leash areas and choose locations that are free from irresponsible owners and aggressive or territorial dogs. Don’t assume that a dog is friendly just because of his or her breed, after all there are aggressive Bassett Hounds just like there are very friendly German Shepherd Dogs, so before approaching another owner and dog don’t be afraid to ask if the dog is friendly. Most owners will be responsible and will shorten the leash on a dog-aggressive canine and move well to the side to avoid any problems. In turn you will need to shorten up your dog’s leash and move to the side as well to prevent any possible contact.
Many dog owners that frequent off-leash areas and dog parks will form informal groups to meet and walk their dogs. This is a great way to socialize your dog plus not have to worry about them interacting with a bunch of dogs that you aren’t familiar with. Make sure you always supervise your dog, even in off-leash areas, and be prepared to intervene if there are any signs of aggression or territoriality between your dog and others in the area.
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