Most of us wouldn’t question the value of dog parks. They’re a place for dogs to exercise, and they’re increasingly in demand as more people choose to live in apartments and keep dogs as pets. While the benefit they offer of allowing dogs to romp and stretch their legs is undeniable, there are some risks associated with dog parks that should also be considered.
In addition to finding space for dogs to exercise, some owners view dog parks as a place for dogs to socialise, and while they certainly offer this opportunity, it’s one that could create some hazards. Some dogs behave aggressively towards other dogs, and it’s not always clear to owners how, or whether, they should address it.
Problems can arise because dog owners don’t consider the pack structure that applies to canines. When a new dog visits a park that is frequented regularly by other dogs, the new visitor can be seen as an intruder rather than a possible new pal. This can lead to aggression due to issues of dominance or fear, and if a new dog is released into a dog park without a leash, things can quickly get out of control.
In groups, dogs will instinctively establish a rank order and fights can occur as this rank is determined. Most dogs don’t want to be leaders; They’re happy with their human owner playing that role and expect their owner to protect them if there’s trouble. If their owner takes a passive approach it increases the chance that their dog will fight or take flight.
Get a feel for the park first
Before you take your dog to a dog park, check who will be there at the times you’re most likely to go. People normally follow a routine therefore the chances are that you’ll find the same people and dogs there at the same time on the same days. Keep an eye out for the following that could be signs of potential issues:
- Are the dogs off leashes?
- Are dogs hanging around in groups?
- Is there any visible aggressive behaviour?
- Are the dog owners watching their dogs, or are they too busy talking to each other?
- Are dog owners respectful of other dogs?
- Are toys such as balls and Frisbees causing tension between the dogs?
- Are there many undesexed male dogs?
- Is the park adequately fenced? Could dogs escape easily?
- Is there a secure area for puppies or small dogs?
While socialisation is important for a dog, it needs to be a positive experience. Nothing can substitute for the time they spend with you, and you will be their first choice for companionship. If taking your dog to the park leads to fights and tension with other dogs, or if the play is too rough or your dog isn’t enjoying it, then it’s time to leave.
Identifying friendly versus aggressive behaviour
How do you tell whether dogs are playing, or acting aggressively towards each other? The initial signs that dogs are acting amiably towards each other include:
- Moving towards each other calmly and slowly
- Relaxed bodies, soft ears and eyes (an approaching dog may have ears forward, while the standing dog may have ears back)
- Approaching each other from the side in a slight arc rather than head on
- Avoiding eye contact
- Sniffing each other
It’s easy to confuse play and aggression, and sometimes play can look aggressive, but it’s usually only a bit of fun when the following signs are present:
- Relaxed posture with more sideways than forward movement
- Short bursts of play
- Tail up but hackles aren’t raised
- Being both on top and on bottom when wrestling
- Playful bow with the front legs stretched out and hips raised
- A high-pitched non-aggressive growl and bark
- Mouth open, and tongue exposed
It’s important to also be able to identify the signs that things aren’t going so smoothly. Keep an eye out for these indicators of potential trouble ahead:
- Staring at the other dog
- Ears erect, tilted forward
- Tail raised and stiff
- Legs stiff
- Hackles up
- Weight forward
- Teeth bared
Maybe the park’s not the place for your pooch
There are a number of factors that will influence the quality of the time your dog spends at the park, and in spite of it being the first thing that comes to mind, aggressive behaviour is only one of several considerations. Firstly, any park that has a bunch of other dogs in it - where dogs are encouraged to play and cut loose - is going to be a place where dogs have a high level of arousal, regardless of whether it’s positive or not. Constant stimulation automatically creates an environment where tension is inevitable.
- It’s a mistake to assume that all dogs that are taken to the park by loving owners have been trained appropriately and will be well behaved. Some are simply bullies.
- You cannot make your dog like or trust another, and a dog park with lots of different dogs, people, and things going on, generally isn’t an ideal place for dogs to get to know each other anyway.
- Dogs have different styles of play, which aren’t necessarily compatible, and these different styles together with different breeds, shapes, sizes, and personalities mean that friction can occur easily.
- People take their dogs to parks and play with them constantly. These wound-up and over-stimulated dogs will be more likely to react strongly than a dog that’s been allowed to calm down. When playing with your dog, allow some relaxation between games.
- People aren’t necessarily paying attention to their dog or what’s going on in the park, therefore things can get out of hand. They can also be judgmental of other dogs’ behaviour and try to scold or discipline someone else’s dog. This is a situation that’s bound to lead to problems.
- If you’re going to take your dog’s toys to the park, you need to expect that another dog might try to take them.
- In addition to the above, there are health considerations as well as behavioural issues of which to be mindful. You won’t know whether dogs at the park are healthy or have had their vaccinations. Bites from other dogs can cause serious injury, illness, and sometimes be fatal.
Dog owners need to be able to read all the signs
If your dog hides behind you, cowers, sticks to the fence, or backs away when another dog approaches, then they’re scared. They’re trying to tell you that they don’t want to be there. Forcing them to confront their fear of another dog, or the park, is not going to help. Bad experiences can leave lasting scars.
We’re not judging dog parks one way or another, and it’s up to dog owners to decide whether the dog park is a good place for their dog to visit. If you decide to go, try to keep the stimulation of your dog to a manageable level. Break up friendly games every few minutes so that the participants don’t get overly aroused, and let them continue to play only after they’ve chilled-out a little. It’s important to make sure that playful energy doesn’t spill over into more aggressive and competitive behaviour.
If you’ve decided the dog park isn’t for you and your pooch, then that’s fine too. There are plenty of great ways to exercise your dog and get quality together time. A run on the beach, Frisbees in the back yard, or a bush walk, can provide stimulation and a workout, and avoid some of the pitfalls of the dog park.
If you have any questions about dog behaviour, or if you’d like to enrol your puppy in preschool classes, please get in touch with any of the Vets4Pets hospitals.