Leash-laws have greatly limited the freedom dogs can enjoy when out in public. Dog parks are becoming common in communities in an attempt to provide a place that dogs can be off-leash and enjoy a level of freedom. The concept of having a designated place for dogs to run free and exercise is a great goal. The caveat is that all off-leash areas are not the same. A common problem with many dog “parks” is that the “park” would be more appropriately call a dog “pen”. What often is called a “dog park” is really nothing more than a large confinement pen. Many “dog parks” are often just a small section of a community park that was fenced off to provide an “off-leash” area for dogs. Dog parks with inadequate space create conditions for conflict between dogs. That should not be a surprise since the same conditions for humans can foster conflict.
There are exceptions to the common confinement pen “dog parks”. There are places like Central Park in New York City where dogs are permitted off-leash in a large part of the park from 6:00 am to 9:00 am each morning and from 9:00 pm to 1:00 am each evening. The advantage of large open areas is that it provides dogs’ opportunities to run and the ability to place more distance between themselves and other dogs if they choose. The large open off-leash areas also provide a place for directed activities such as a game of fetch between the dog’s and owners.
Dog parks may be okay for dogs that are easy going, polite, and have appropriate canine social skills but that requires that all the dogs in the park fit the same profile. At established dog parks the dogs that visit on the same days and times can develop their own park culture. These dogs can be well socialized as a group, but a new dog entering the dog park can be looked upon as an outsider which can be a source of conflict. Some people bring overly assertive, pushy, rude, or simply unruly dogs to the dog park without regard for the other dogs that find such behavior offensive. Dogs that are timid, fearful or easily overwhelmed are more likely to be harassed by other more confident dogs. Unruly dogs are not the only problem encountered at the dog park. The humans bring with them their own views and beliefs of what is appropriate behavior for dogs in regards to play, and what constitutes bullying, or rude behavior by dogs. Another point of contention is when a dog appropriately corrects another dog’s rude behavior too often the humans blame the dog who addressed the dog with the rude behavior, and not the dog exhibiting the rude behavior. Because the humans did not address and stop the rude behavior, a dog dealt with the issue. In these cases the humans neglected their responsibilities and the truly innocent dog often gets the blame.
Some people have the misguided belief that a dog park is a place to socialize a dog by giving a dog the opportunity to be around and play with other dogs. If this is your understanding or what others have told you, please don’t take your dog to a dog park for “socialization”. Please read the “Socialization” page. Taking a dog to daycare or the dog park for socialization can result in unintended consequences; if your dog is confident you can produce a dog that is overly aroused and out of control around other dogs. If you have a shy dog, they are more likely to be bullied, and you have possibly laid the foundation for fear aggression to develop. The humans often have the unrealistic expectations that all the dogs will get along. This is not a realistic expectation of humans but many expect it of dogs.
Dog parks are expected to accommodate all types of dogs and play styles and levels of maturity. Dogs like humans have differing personalities and likes and dislikes, not to mention play styles. Some dogs welcome the opportunity to take in all the scents they find in the environment. Others enjoy retrieving a ball or toy, some a game of tug with another dog, and still others just want to run or engage in chase games. Serious problems can arise when we mix dogs that like to play “tag” with dogs that like to play “tackle”. If you prefer to just throw free throws with a basketball, you do not appreciate being tackled.
When recreation activities are organized for humans, they set up activities and match the participants according to their abilities, age, weight, and preferences. We have designated areas for no contact sports such as golf, or running, and designated areas for limited contact sports like baseball, basketball, and flag football. And still other areas for contact sports like soccer or tackle football. When we invite people to get together we base it on compatibilities and we should do the same for our dogs. Just having large and small dog park areas are not sufficient. So many dog parks are just small gathering places and not a realistic place for running, playing, or exploring.
Dogs that pull on leash, strain, and whine to get to another dog “just to say hi” should not be going to a dog park to play with other dogs. Many times we have unintentionally created this behavior because our dogs were never taught how to be appropriately social around other dogs. What a puppy or adult dog needs to learn is how to interact with, and be around other dogs and people in an appropriate social manner that is not play. If a dog's life experience around other dogs is excited over-arousal play with other dogs it is much easier to create frustration in the dog when we place them on a leash. This can be a problem with many dogs in daycare/boarding, dog parks, etc… Too many times the lesson dogs learn is that when you see another dog, run to the other dog to play. Another way this can be created with a young dog is in a group training class. Many classes like to teach a meet and greet with dogs on leash. This can create the same problem. The dog may have learned that it is okay to actively search out other dogs when they are in public. Each class they learn to approach another dog on leash and then we take them out at home and they see another dog and can become frustrated when they are not permitted to go greet or play with the other dog.
We should not place our dogs in situations where they are allowed to play rough with one another and bite. I find most dogs that are highly excitable/aroused consistently pull on the leash when walking to; get to other dogs, get to the park, enter daycare, etc… Patterns create habits which can lead to inappropriate behavior. Many times people have unintentionally taught their dogs to be out of control.
So like with any other behavior I’m looking to change the first place I start is removing the opportunities for the dog to practice the wrong behavior. Meaning no dog parks, no day care dog play, no playing with other dogs in the home. Since I have worked for years with reactive and aggressive dogs the number one rule is that I never permit dogs to put their mouths on another dog even in “play”. They are not permitted to do anything with dogs they know that would be inappropriate if the ran up to another dog they did not know. e.g. jumping on another dog, biting even in play, etc… I want dogs to put their teeth on a toy and not another dog or human. Dogs can play fetch together, or tug games with a toy, chase, etc… as long as no roughhousing is involved.
The goal in these cases is to make the owners more desirable and fun. I want to see dogs that would leave another dog for the chance to return and play a game with their owners. So if a dog plays with another dog 40min each day, now the owners need to fulfill the play needs of their dog. Sometimes it can be that simple. The goal is to have our dogs be appropriately social with other dogs, so we do not have them reacting or struggling against the leash to get to every dog they see. My goal is to teach self-control in the presence of other dogs and people.
Dogs need exercise and freedom and the ability to run, but they must always be under our control. The challenge for many dog owners is finding a place they can legally and safely let their dog off leash. Sadly many dogs never get to enjoy this freedom.
“What about a system that will allow an owner access to a local recreation area with their dog only if they pass an annual test? Maybe instead of thinking of more ways that dogs can be eliminated from areas and owners who allow their dogs to misbehave punished, we should use a system of rewarding the best and most responsible owners who have taken the time and trouble to train their dogs.” The Dog Vinci Code by John Rogerson