We’ve all been to a dog park and witnessed it.
One minute the dogs are running around, having the time of their lives. The owners are in a group talking, texting, petting other dogs, not paying much attention to their canines as they run around, play and release a little energy, so they can relax and be content back at home.
Then, as if out of nowhere, there’s an aggressive bark and a fight breaks out. The other dogs run towards the commotion, the fighters are oblivious to their surroundings and it’s as though everyone has lost control at the same time. The owners then intervene and blame gets thrown around.
Whether or not either dog actually causes any damage, a dog fight is stressful for everybody. No one wants to believe that their pet is the cause, but even the most well trained dog can get into a scrap if the wrong circumstances present themselves. Dog parks (and even dog daycares) are like medicines: they have the best intentions but can actually come along with some harsh side effects.
Good Intentions at Dog Parks
The idea of a dog park is great. It provides an off-leash setting for your dog to safely run around, release excess energy, and play with other dogs. You can use it as a training ground, and it’s even beneficial for dog owners wanting to meet one another. For some, this can be the ideal environment.
Daycares mostly offer similar advantages as the fenced-in parks, with the added “babysitter” like benefits, prolonged exposure to other dogs and the relief that your pet is not home alone. Finding a good one can make owning a dog much easier.
The Side Effects
In our experience, more dog fights occur in these two places than anywhere else. What is meant to be a good time can quickly turn into a nightmare.
The problem with dog parks is the lack of coordination and regulation. They’re like a football game where no one can agree on what position they’re playing and there are no referees to enforce a consistent set of rules.
You rarely find truly dog-aggressive canines in these places. It’s the overly-excited, pushy ones with poor social skills that ruin it for the others. You’ll know the kind of dog we’re talking about from your own visits. The trouble usually starts before he even enters the gate. As soon as he can see the park, the dog is dragging his human closer and closer, maybe even barking enthusiastically. The owner makes no effort to calm him down before joining the others; the dog is making all the decisions. Then the owner releases this over-stimulated pup (unintentionally nurturing the very behavior that the owner is likely annoyed with) and chaos ensues.
You’ll also see a dog that is a little nervous but wants to meet other dogs. When this whirlwind of excitement charges and jumps on him, he may tolerate it for a time while displaying stressed out social cues. His owners don’t help him out and the perpetrator continues to nag and nag, ignoring all his distress signals and cut off cues. The victimized dog will instinctively resort to showing his teeth or snapping at the other one in hopes that the other dog gets the message and backs off. Unfortunately that isn’t always the way that the message is conveyed to the dog or owner, and it sometimes results in a dog altercation. If this happens enough times, the dog eventually learns that the only way out is through confrontation, which is why we often hear that a dog park actually made a client’s dog more aggressive rather than improving his social skills.
When you have a mixture of dogs that want to go all out and dogs that want to chill out, there needs to be a referee laying down rules. In an ideal world, every owner would be on the same page, focusing on their dog the whole time, providing guidance, direction/corrections along with advocating for dogs when needed. However, the dog park is usually a free-for-all where everyone has a different opinion and training method. How can there be harmony when not even the humans can agree on how to go about it?
What if your dog was being humped by another dog? You make a move to get the culprit off, but encounter resistance from someone who says, “Just let the dogs be dogs.” And the hardest being to correct is another human.
THE AVERAGE DOG DAYCARE
We’ve added the qualifier “average” because there are some great dog daycares out there that have done their homework and make every effort to ensure each dog has a positive experience. Unfortunately, they’re more the exception than the rule.
Most dog daycares provide the same atmosphere as the dog park. The difference is that they’re usually smaller and the dog is there all day. Since dogs of differing personalities and social skills are thrown together in a cramped area most of them don’t cope well with daycare environments. The ideal daycare dog can accept all other dogs and isn’t bothered by anything. But no matter how tolerant your dog may seem, he most likely will not be happy in your typical daycare situation. .
If the staff is not knowledgeable about body language and good manners in dogs, the nervous dogs don’t get the advocacy they need, the ones who want to relax never can, and the canine jerks win. Many daycares are teeming with pushy dogs that never get corrected for bothering other dogs. Regardless of their social skills, those who don’t want to play, and say “No” when a dog is jumping all over them, are typically deemed not to be daycare material because that’s supposedly just what happens when you put dogs together.
WHERE DO ALL THESE PUSHY, HIGH ENERGY DOGS COME FROM?
As with most behaviors, the fault does not lie solely with the dog. These dogs have simply not learned the right way to interact with their own kind. It starts with owners who wants their pets to mix with others but don’t know the right way to go about it. They excitedly take their dogs up to every dog they see and constantly encourage them to play at the dog park. Despite the best intentions, their pets only interact in one mode and quickly come to believe that every encounter requires high energy play. Whenever they see another dog, their engine revs up to full speed.
When you put a dog like this into a dog park environment, all he knows is high energy running and playing around his own kind until his body is tired. This is actually the ideal time for him to learn how to simply exist around other dogs, but the mind is never given a chance to relax because the owner thinks this is a cue to take him home. This not only creates an animal that bothers other dogs, but also leads to an anxious one, primarily because the dog was never taught how to be around dogs any other way than in high drive mode.
When you have dogs with this mindset, it becomes impossible to take them to any average real-world situation where they need to be calm, such as family functions or meetings with your friends. If you’re in this situation, it’s not irreversible, and we have all sorts of free content to help you on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Periscope.
HOW CAN YOU ACTUALLY BENEFIT FROM A DOG PARK?
The dog park can be a huge asset and testing ground for your training. While going into it doesn’t help most dogs going through rehabilitation, you can still benefit by working outside of it. The hardest part of training is dealing with distractions, and they come in three forms: distractions of the nose, eyes, or ears. All three of which can be found at the dog park. If your dog can listen to you amid all those diversions, you’re on your way to a great partnership.
Blake rarely takes his dog, Soco, but when he does, it’s to proof his recall. If you spend enough time at the dog park, you’ll inevitably see a fight, and Blake uses this as a chance to call Soco away, put him in a down-stay, and have him maintain it while he goes to help, if necessary. This way he can make sure his dog is safe while also reinforcing his impulse control.
AVOIDING THE PROBLEMS
Make sure your dog has some basic skills before going to the dog park. If you don’t have a reliable recall, you shouldn’t allow your dog off leash because of the dangers it presents. Set your dog up for success by teaching him how to behave calmly around other dogs. If you can see a dog in there that will cause problems for yours, it’s best to leave and come back another time - maybe go for a walk instead. You’re the one who needs to determine whether it’s a positive situation because you lose a lot of control simply by going in.
As we mentioned before, there are some great dog daycares out there. It’s up to you to find the right one for your dog. Make sure they have some sort of vetting process where they evaluate potential clients based on their history. If they have live feeds, watch them! Ask the staff about their experience with dogs and the normal happenings on an average day. Ask clients their opinions. Remember that the most convenient and inexpensive option may not be the best one. Most importantly, look out for your dog because he’s looking up to you.
If you want to socialize your dog, and you’re wondering whether there is a legitimate alternative to the craziness found at the dog park, the answer is: YES!
Dogs thrive under the right guidance. As mentioned before, they need someone who knows what they’re doing to correct and advocate for them when necessary. It doesn’t matter whether you have a dog who is fearful, aggressive, or happy-go-lucky, he or she can only learn through receiving feedback. Because you can’t rely on everyone agreeing on the right way to tackle this task at a dog park or daycare, we have developed pack socialization classes where both dogs and their owners can feel safe in a controlled environment while also learning the proper ways to interact. They provide a dog park type of environment but include the structure required to help dogs reach their full potential.
These classes work because they utilize the principles necessary to increase owners’ relevance to their dogs. They teach the dogs to rely on and trust their owners when in tricky situations. This is so important. A fearful dog who can depend on his owner to handle any nuisance behavior from others is more likely to come out of his shell and take a risk on relaxing and having fun; and an aggressive dog who has learned from her owner not to escalate her excitement into fights can play without anxiety. Confidence increases from both sides, and the dog-owner bond gets stronger.
These classes are available for any of our clients who have used our services in the past or continue to use them. Search for our structured socialization on any of our social media outlets, and you’ll see that it’s extremely important in any dog’s rehabilitation or training program.
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