Dog parks- entertainment or dismay?
Have you ever thought of your local dog park as an mayhem and a place where the dog conflicts are created? Or do you see it as a place of enjoyment and fun? Either or, for most of us dog parks are perceived as a place to socialise and exercise our dogs. We also see them as a great way to catch up with our local community and learn all about the current local affairs.
Dogs, on the other hand, may not necessary share the same view as us. Why? There are a lot of components to answer this theoretically simple question.
There are also two sides to each story like every stick has two ends. So… let me take you through all the aspects of a typical dog park.
On one hand, the place can be defined as dangerous and a havoc. Dog conflicts go unsupervised; threatening behaviours go unnoticed and ‘play fights’ that most think of as cute and funny may be a reason of fear and frustration in some dogs. Remember that off-leash parks are public areas that are not supervised by trained staff in a controlled environment.
Timid and shy dogs may feel threatened and intimidated entering a dog park. Imagine, going to a loud and busy nightclub. As soon as you enter everyone stops what they are doing and starts charging at you to say hi and introduce themselves. Have a think of how that would make you feel. A similar situation is happening at the dog park- very often every newcomer is greeted by all the dogs that are already in the park.
Further, some dogs lack social skills and manners. They are not taught about ‘personal space’ and that some dogs need time and space before being approached or coming over to say hi. The lack of personal space can become intimidating and pushy especially if a dog is in a confined space (fenced dog parks) with nowhere to run away to. This, in turn, may lead to an altercation and fearful/ aggressive reactions which in most cases are misinterpreted as dominance/ aggression! Another risk is that a dog may fail to read warning cues from other dogs to ‘back off’, which, in turn, can lead to being bitten.
If you ever suffered a bodily assault, you’re then aware that it usually goes beyond physical injuries. The extent of emotional damage to any dog who has been attacked depends on the seriousness of the attack and on the temperament of the individual dog.
Another question to ask yourself is: why are all dogs expected to be social and enjoy the company of other dogs? Some animals like humans may be introvert preferring a quiet walk with no dog interaction. We happen to forget that dogs same as humans have different personalities- some are social and others are not. So why do we expect all dogs to be social and love the company of other dogs?
I also have to debunk one more belief about a dog-to-dog interaction which is ‘leave them to it, they will sort it out themselves’. You see, we couldn’t be more wrong! Imagine, taking a kid to a busy playground and letting all the kids decide for themselves what the best behaviour toward one another should be. I am sure you would not want your child to be stepped or run over by an older bigger kid. This same scenario applies to dog parks and dog-to-dog interactions. Sometimes it is not enough just to leave them unsupervised and let them ‘get on with it’.
“A big problem with dog parks, now that they are so popular, is that owners believe that taking their dog to an off-leash area and letting it run around all over the place is adequate socialisation”.
According to Steve Austin- one of the leading Australian dog trainers “A big problem with dog parks, now that they are so popular, is that owners believe that taking their dog to an off-leash area and letting it run around all over the place is adequate socialisation”. Mr Austin, further explains that “taking your dog to the park only really accounts for about 5 per cent of your dog’s socialisation training. Socialisation is actually an all-encompassing process, of which 95 per cent is about allowing your dog to experience normal everyday things like buses, children, crowded outdoor shopping centres, car rides and so forth.”
However, it is not all black and grim in the dog park world 😉.
Dog parks can be a great way for dogs to learn social skills, interact with others or learn about different behaviours by mimicking. A recent study done by Howse et al., 2018 highlights different behavioural patterns and interactions observed in an off-leash park in the first 7 mins of entering it. For instance, one of the most observed social interactions was mimicry. It was seen that dogs entering the park were more likely to initiate play bow behaviours or relaxed open mouth when they received the same behaviours from the dogs already in the park. Mimicry was however not observed when other behaviours such as jumping, mouthing or biting were recorded. This suggests that copying playful behaviours was more likely to occur than mimicking threatening/ aggressive behaviours.
Another point to make is that a dog-to-dog aggression at dog parks is rare despite apparent widespread concerns among the trainers (Howse et al., 2018; King et al., 2004; Sternberg, 2012). There may be plenty of reasons for that including owners who are aware of their dogs’ reactivity towards other dogs may avoid bringing them to the park or owners interventions in inappropriate dog behaviours that may or may not lead to aggression (Howse et al., 2018).
These studies were however conducted in the first 20 minutes of entering the park. Other observations provide broader data suggesting that most dogs stop enjoying the dog park environment by displaying avoidance behaviours such as yawning, head turns, walking away etc. after spending 20 minutes in the park.
To sum up, do not feel like you ought to avoid dog parks at all costs but also bear in mind that these places go unsupervised and you should always be vigilant and watchful to avoid any unnecessary dog conflicts and cause any unwanted distress to your dog.