Dog parks are a great and necessary concept, especially as more and more apartment dwellers that don’t have a yard become dog owners. Dogs need a place to run and get exercise and its great for them to socialize with other dogs as long as its in a structured environment. But, over my years as a dog owner and dog trainer I’ve had more knowledge and experience than I would like of the negative side of dog parks. That’s yet another reason that the subject of last week’s blog, “Dog Communication; Calming signals and Dog Body Language” is so important. It’s essential if you are going to take your dog to a dog park to be able to understand what’s going on with them and the other dogs.
Another must if you are going to visit dog parks with your dog is that a dog park is a place for people to go with their dog and enjoy time with them off leash. It’s not a place to take a dog and sit on the phone or chat up friends and ignore their dog, which way too many people do. As a result, dogs can get hurt or traumatized and that trauma can be permanent. We experienced it with our own dog Margie. She was always sweet, friendly and passive, excited to see and meet other dogs, both known and unknown, welcoming and introducing herself in proper dog speak. She’d had a few scuffles with other dogs, but none that were severe or traumatic.
Then a woman came with her very ball aggressive dog to play fetch. No one realized the issue and the woman was completely irresponsible about it. A responsible owner should and would never bring a ball or toy with a dog with a ball aggressive issue like that. When Margie approached the dog to say hello, a white Lab at least twice here size, the dog exploded with no warning and attacked her. I was there in an instant and she wasn’t physically injured, but there was a very clear shift in her personality after that. She’s still sweet, and gentle, but she’s a bit more standoffish now and doesn’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior from other dogs.
Seeing a trauma based shift like that in my own dog was really heartbreaking. It’s something no dog should ever experience and so while dog parks are great and a relatively safe way to spend off-leash time with your dog on a daily basis, make sure to pay attention, have a good recall and voice control over your dog, learn dog communication, and error on the side of caution. I always encourage dog owners that if they feel or sense any issue at the park, keep your dog close and if you can’t be sure, leaving is a good option.