Can we talk about dog parks?
Dog parks seem to be on almost every owner's Bucket List for their dog. Visions of their pooch running free with other dogs, and then coming home exhausted are very appealing. It's true that there aren't many other activities that tire your dog out as quickly as dog-dog play. And if your dog is "high energy," getting them drained is usually a top concern.
Families are also anxious to make sure their dogs are socialized. They fear aggression so they prioritize dog park visits to prevent their dog from turning into a snarling, barking, lunging Kujo when he sees another dog.
Wanting a tired dog who is comfortable around other dogs is not unusual or wrong. Unfortunately, though, most professional trainers will tell you--and I agree-- that dogs parks are not as dreamy as they appear, and they don't often help you achieve your goals. There are two main concerns:
1. Unknown Physical Health. 2 years ago a young dog and his family were enjoying one of our city's most popular parks that includes an off-leash, dog-park type area. The dog later tested positive for Rabies. Scores of people and their dogs were unknowingly exposed.
Rabies isn't the only concern. Your dog can contract Kennel Cough, Distemper, Parvovirus, and any number of parasites at the dog park. There is simply no way to know if all the other dogs your pup is frolicking with are healthy. And lest you think your fully vaccinated dog is immune, it's not true. They can still get sick. Sure a little runny nose and cough may not be the end of the world, but Rabies is nothing to mess around with.
2. Unknown Behavioral Health. Dog communication is very complex. Even professionals who are skilled in the field can't always provide an accurate interpretation. It is incredibly easy for dogs to be bullied (or to be bullies) and for us humans to completely miss it until a fight erupts. For some dogs, visiting the dog park can actually make their overall behavior worse.
Dogs do not have to play at the dog park to live happy, satisfied lives. Some dogs don't have to play with any dogs to live happy, satisfied lives! Aggressive or reactive dogs do need help learning to live peacefully in a neighborhood and city full of dogs, but sending them out into the dog park to "sort it out" isn't going to help. You and your dog are much better off hiring a reward-based professional trainer to coach you to success.
If your dog is social, but you don't want to take the physical or behavioral risks of a dog park, plan play dates with friends' dogs who you know are healthy and suited to playing with your dog.
To learn more about dog body language and communication, check out the following resources: