Not too long ago a story came across my social media account regarding a dog badly hurt at a dog park in Prince William County.
Several years ago I had a client dog severely maul a goofy pup at a dog park in Fairfax County. The person walking the dog midday was given explicit instructions to avoid dog parks with this dog. The dog walker felt she knew best and ignored the client’s instructions. This dog was very fearful of other dogs. Though we got her to the point where she could calmly walk in areas where there were other, controlled, behaved dogs, this dog was never going to be dog park material. She only allowed a couple dogs that she grew up with to approach her. The dog walker felt that calm behaviors on walks when other dogs were around now meant she was safe for dog parks.
Though many dog owners think dog parks are the best thing out there, many dogs brought to dog parks should have alternative methods of exercising used. I would like to look at dogs that should not be at dog parks.
- Never take a newly adopted dog to a dog park – No matter when the rescue group or person you acquired the dog states, you do not have enough information about this dog. They may stated he was OK with other dogs but this may be certain dogs he lived with. This does not mean he will like all dogs or even tolerate the stuff all dogs will do. A dog can be quiet friendly and at ease with a core group of other dogs. The same dog may not want other dogs near him. It takes time to get to know a dog and determine if the dog is one to try a dog park with or not.
- Dogs who are in need of socializing and social skills – Dog parks are the worst place to socialize a puppy or adult dog. There is not enough control of the situation. A dog can easily develop fears of other dogs based on actions at the dog park. If he is giving signals he does not want to play and other dogs keep harassing him, instead of becoming social, your dog can quickly determine all dogs need to be kept far away.
- A dog with any behaviors deemed aggressive towards animals or humans, does not care for other dogs, etc – Behaviors that are things we would deem risky towards others are completely unsuited for dog parks. They increase the risk of an incident.
- A dog who is fearful and hides, works to avoid things, etc – See (2) and (3). Fearful dogs will not get over their fears if they see other dogs playing and having fun. Our dogs determine what is fun or not, not us. Just because we think our dogs will get over it if exposed to lots of dogs having fun does not mean it will happen. More likely your dog’s fears will worsen.
- Dogs who resource guard (toys, water/food bowls, humans, etc) – If a dog does not want other dogs or people near his things is a greater risk of causing a scuffle. I have watched dogs hover over water bowls and dog parks and drive other dogs away. I have watched dogs attack others over balls and toys brought to parks.
- Dogs who cannot walk away from a possible challenge or fly into a scuffle like a drunk at a bar brawl – Scuffs will happen at dog parks. If your dog cannot ignore them and has to get in the middle, this is not a good thing. The more dogs that engage in a scuffle, the riskier it becomes.
- Dogs who repeatedly slam other dogs to the ground, rolls, pin, body check other dogs and/or intensely chases other dogs down – Rude play is risky play. All it takes is one rudely playing dog for another dog or human to become injured. I have been injured by rudely playing client dogs. I have had clients bitten by dogs who rudely demand play. Also these dogs are more likely to cause a scuffle to happen as other dogs begin to try tostop his actions.
- Dogs who do not respond to signals from other dogs to stop – This is very concerning to me. Too many times I have seen dogs giving clear signals to leave him alone. Other dogs were ignoring the signals. The targeted dog began increasing his responses. This is a short step to a fight. If your dog ignores other dogs’ language, he is being a problem.
- Dogs who will not call away from intense chases or fights happening near them – Stuff will happen at dog parks. Dogs who will not return when called during high stress situations are at risk or become a risk.
- Dogs who are not feeling well or who are seniors with aches – Dogs who are off their game are more likely to have lower tolerances. Lower tolerance may make them quicker to respond in ways humans do not like.
- Younger puppies in need of good associations – Dog parks are high stress environments no matter what we do to try and make them fun. All it takes is one bad experience for a puppy to end up with long lasting negative effects. A carefully chosen puppy socializing class is a far better choice. I like these and trainer organized play groups because there are professionals on hand to intervene and teach the owners what is going on. Tossing a puppy in to a park full of dogs and expecting him to have fun is not fair. It is also setting puppy up for failure.
- Client dogs if you are a dog walker or other dog professional – The liability is too high. Dog parks are not the place to exercise client dogs. Above I mentioned a client dog who had a dog walker do this. The dog ended up paying with his life. The dog was not one who was comfortable at dog parks nor comfortable in the presence of other dogs outside a few in the neighborhood they did play sessions with. Dog parks are not the safest places to proof training at either. Again they are too high stress. It is not fair to your client dog or to your client to do this. If a problem happens, the liability is on you. Are you willing to risk a lawsuit to pay for damage your client dog does? Are you willing to explain to a client why your actions resulted in her dog being deemed dangerous after a fight occurs? If you use a dog walker or trainer who comes to your house when you are not home, insist they do not take your dogs to dog parks. Put it in writing.
How many of these types of dogs do we see at dog parks? Well I have seen all of them over the years.
Dog parks are high stress areas, even if we think they should be fun. We must remember it is not what we want that is important but what the dog feels. I used to go to dog parks. I had dogs at the time that were well suited for them. However, I was always watching them for signs they were not happy or if they were getting too riled up and losing self-control in play. It happens, they are dogs. Some days were not dog park days if they were having an off day. When this happened, we left. If we saw dogs behaving in ways that were concerning, we left before it could negatively impact my dogs.
I stopped using dog parks because I was seeing too many dogs that did not belong in situations with that level of stress. Dog parks were becoming stressing for my dogs. I remember being at one park where a dog walker came with four client dogs and told people to be careful so her client dogs did not get hurt. I was at one when a person annouced loudly she was coming in with a dog who just came out of the shelter. She wanted to see how he acted with other dogs. (He was not happy and highly stressed). I watched a trainer using highly punitive training methods with client dogs at dog parks. I was watching too many fearful dogs and bully dogs at dog parks. I no longer felt comfortable with my easy-going dogs at dog parks. Why? I did not want my dogs to stop becoming easy going. I needed them to be safe.
With my current dogs, I avoid dog parks unless we are the only ones there. Why? I have put too much work into my dogs over the years to have that work set back. Also some of my dogs are not suited for dog parks. Yes, I will state that. Two do not tolerate rude dogs, one is low confidence and one I do not want to risk her social skills being affected as she is my demo dog when I do dog safety things. My dogs do not need a dog park to be happy or to have needs met.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.