I’m going to let you in on a little secret…dog parks are a great way to let your dog off leash for some exercise, but they’re not a great place to socialize your pup.
Are you a little confused by this?
You might be thinking…“Doggy Dan, the dog park is the ONLY place where my dog can interact and play with other dogs. Why do I need to be cautious?”
Let me be clear…I’m not saying that dog parks are bad. What I am saying is that a dog park isn’t the best environment for ALL dogs. Even further, it’s definitely not the best environment for your own dog if you haven’t taken the time to really work on socialization training.
Because one poorly socialized pup can create a bad experience (or even a dangerous experience) for everyone.
I want the dog park to be a place you can go to let loose and watch your dog run around happily and freely. But it’s SO important to understand that your dog might not be ready now (or ever) for a dog park environment, AND it’s vital to pay close attention to other people’s dogs as they might not be ready either!
This is why I recommend that you exercise caution while you’re exercising your pup.
Think about it this way…
Dogs are, by nature, both social and wild beings. They resemble wolves in how they gravitate toward packs and form hierarchies. That’s why I talk so much about the importance of becoming the pack leader to your pup…because dogs operate within hierarchies.
At the dog park, you see all types of dogs from all over the area thrown together. This is very unnatural for dogs, who behave better when they interact with members of their “pack,” or close doggy friends, consistently.
So, properly socializing your dog doesn’t mean exposing them to many different strangers, which is what many dog owners misunderstand.
“So what exactly is socialization?” Let me explain…
Socialization Training Doesn’t Happen by Simply Exposing Your Dog to Other Dogs
Having a properly socialized dog doesn’t mean that they greet anyone and everyone that crosses their path.
Quite the opposite actually.
It means that they’re comfortable around other dogs and people, so much so that they DON’T need to say hello, sniff, or jump on everybody they see. It means that your dog is happy to just be around others, mingling and wandering through a crowd without needing to interact with anyone (unless they are invited to do so).
Being well socialized also means that your dog is comfortable in many different places, whether that be a busy street, a large crowd, or different walking surfaces like gravel or uneven hiking trails….
…and being well socialized does not happen by throwing your dog to as many strangers as possible and seeing how they interact.
Think about it in human terms…
When you put a toddler in a room with other toddlers they haven’t met, they’re going to cling to their parents and be wary of all these new people. It’s not natural to put them into a situation where they’re forced to play with people they don’t yet know.
Instead, parents organize playdates with the same children and, over time, those children form bonds and become friends.
The same goes for dogs.
They thrive in a pack environment, where they spend their time playing with trusted companions with whom they’ve built relationships.
It takes time.
So throwing them to the wolves, so to speak, at the dog park is not the best way to socialize your pups. And I’m only talking about how awkward it might make your dog feel. You also have to consider the other dogs you might encounter there…
It’s Not Just Your Dog You Have to Worry About
You may have an easygoing dog who is well-socialized and can thrive in any situation. When you take them to the dog park, they seem to have positive interactions with other dogs and you have no concerns about their behavior with other dogs they haven’t met.
That’s great, but you also don’t know what you’re walking into at the dog park.
There are so many dogs running around. Can you trust them all?
It only takes one poorly socialized dog to ruin your day at the park.
And from my experience, it’s the poorly socialized dogs that are the ones running up to random dogs and trying to play. Those dogs are invading others’ personal spaces and making all the other dogs feel uncomfortable.
That rude behaviour can lead to doggy arguments, just like it can among humans.
Going to the dog park means that you’re putting a lot of trust in all the other doggy parents that, first, they are monitoring their dog and, second, that they understand their dog’s behaviour and have put some serious time into socialization training for their pup.
Just like on playgrounds, there can be a bully that intimidates all the other dogs at the dog park.
You don’t want these bad characters to make your dog feel stressed or anxious. Soon your dog won’t enjoy coming to the dog park and might start to avoid all dogs in general.
Also, your dog could potentially pick up some bad habits from other dogs at the dog park.
So even though you might have a well-socialized dog who is comfortable playing with you and running around freely at the dog park doesn’t mean that all the dogs there will be the same.
Be on the lookout for poorly socialized dogs and be prepared to leave if you encounter one.
Find the Right Environment for Your Dog (Hint: It May Not Be the Dog Park)
As a dog parent, it’s your responsibility to do the work to ensure your dog is safe.
If your dog is normally shy and sensitive, you’ll want to try to avoid overcrowded and overstimulating places like the dog park. This will just make him nervous and uncomfortable, and he can actually develop a fear of other dogs.
You have to accept the fact that other dog owners might not be as skilled as you at reading their dog’s body language.
If you follow me, you know that I often talk about the importance of communicating with your dog in a language that they can understand (this is the entire concept behind my Dog Calming Code™ Program).
Your dog will let you know when they’re uncomfortable. An erect tail, a stiff body, lip licking, or panting when it’s not hot are all signs of fear or discomfort. If you notice this in another dog, keep your pup away because that dog could lash out aggressively if she becomes too fearful of the situation.
Make sure that your dog is able to comfortably play with another dog but then is able to walk away to take a break every now and then. That shows that the dogs are properly socialized and respect each other’s space.
If dogs are running all around and playing rough with one another, this might not be the right environment for your pup.
Luckily, there are many alternatives to the dog park.
First, if you notice that your dog takes a liking to another pup at the dog park, set up a playdate with the other doggy parent. That way your dog can get to know the other dog in a calmer environment, like going on a walk together or visiting a local park.
Many times, your dog just wants to socialize with you, so find some activities that you can do together. Play frisbee in the yard or go hiking on a local trail together. These are great things that increase your bonding, build your relationship and give your dog much-needed exercise.
I want to say one more time…I do not think dog parks are bad…I just want you to know that they may not always be the best place to take your dog, depending on his personality and how much time you’ve invested into socialization training.
At the end of the day, it’s all about understanding what your dog wants and needs and putting them in situations where they will flourish.
Oh, and hey! If you love the park and you think your dog truly would too, start socialization training now to keep things safe and happy and fun for everyone!
You can get started in my program, The Dog Calming Code!
~ Doggy Dan