Should I take my dog to the dog park?
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Trainers everywhere are often asked how to resolve issues that come up at the dog park. The park might be the only time that they receive exercise and enrichment off leash due to the fact that many people don't have a fenced in yard. But why do so many trainers advise against them?
First off, I am not going to get into all of the diseases that your dog can catch at the park and the fact that you don't know the vaccination history of the dogs coming to the park. Hopefully this pandemic has taught all of us that germs and viruses are everywhere and there is an inherent risk of catching something everywhere that we go. So let's focus on our dog's behavior and how it can be impacted at the park.
The most common issues that come up at the park usually involve other dogs, new people, and children. When dogs are off-leash in a fenced in area, they have the freedom to greet people and children as they please. This is fine if your dog is comfortable around children and people, but it can be a disaster if your goal is to get your dog to stop jumping on people or if your dog is fearful. The dog park is NOT an ideal place to "socialize" your dog, test out their social skills, and help them overcome their fears of dogs and people. In fact, the unpredictable environment can magnify your dog's fears and make them worse.
What are the chances that my dog will get hurt or psychologically damaged by another dog at the park? The truth is that we don't know how many fights occur in parks. One study found that interdog aggression occurred 19-39% of the time over the course of the study (Shyan, Forktune & King, 2003), but this was only observed at one park. Other studies observed dogs at off-peak times, where there are fewer dogs and so incidents were less likely to occur. If anything, the current research shows us that the density of the park correlates with aggressive incidents. When dogs have plenty of room to get away from each other, fights are less likely to occur.
Research on wild vs captive animals, such as wolves and chimpanzees, has shown us that unnatural arrangements create more conflict than what is typically observed in nature. Wolves create family units where the parents are naturally dominant over their offspring, and their offspring one year will be dominant over the offspring born the following season and so on. When they reach maturity, they will likely leave their pack to create a new one. When you put multiple unrelated wolves together, fighting will occur to create an artificial dominance hierarchy that is much more stressful than what you would find in nature. A dog's life is dramatically different from their wolf ancestors, but understanding this part of their DNA can help us understand why some dogs become more territorial as they reach social maturity (Lindsay, 2005). When aggression was observed at the dog park, it was typically initiated by an older dog between 16 months and 7 years of age, and recipients were usually younger dogs. Most dogs reach social maturity at 1.5-2 years of age, so these findings are not surprising.
An online survey of 272 dog park users found that 46% of users reported an injury, and 60% of the participants reported a behavioral change in their dog after a conflict with another dog. 48% of those dogs had behavioral changes (dog aggression and reactivity) that lasted 6 months or longer (Berg, 2020). This is a small sample size, but those numbers are alarming.
Some dogs are predisposed to having dog aggression despite our best efforts to socialize them to other dogs when they were puppies. Other dogs are predisposed to being more accepting of outsiders when they mature and will bounce back easily if they have a negative interaction with another dog. Sound training plans will set our dogs up for success by putting them in environments where they will succeed and avoid environments that will set them up to fail.
Here are some things that you can do instead of going to the dog park:
Plan a dog play date with a dog that you know and trust.
If you don't have a fenced yard and your dog is not off-leash trained, get a long line to allow your dog to safely play and roam.
Play training games in the house such as hide & seek, or hide treats around the house for them to find.
Train your dog! It will improve your relationship with your dog and allow you to do more fun things with them.
Berg, J. (2020, August). A Safer Visit to the Dog Park. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog, 43-46.
Lindsay, S. (2005). Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols. Wiley-Blackwell.
Shyan, M. R., Fortune K. A., and King C.. "Bark Parks' - A Study on Interdog Aggression in a Limited-Control Environment." Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6 (1), 2003: 25-32.