Many people view dog parks as the most fun place a dog could ever go. The thought of dogs romping around together in the grass brings happy thoughts to many dog owners. This is supposed to be what all dogs want, right? I am here to tell you that this is not the case for all dogs. It can be a fun place, but it can be a place of terror for some dogs. Or a place where illness lurks. Or where bad behaviors begin. Many of my clients' dog behavioral issues began from a dog park experience that went badly. Here are a number of things to consider:
Before you consider visiting a dog park, make sure that your dog is up to date on vaccines. The thing with dog parks is that you likely do not know the other dogs and owners. You don't know if the other dogs are up to date on their shots, and a dog that is not immunized could catch something from the close contact with other dogs, contaminated soil, and/or water dishes. Even if dogs are immunized, they can still catch other illnesses, such as giardia and lice, if people brought sick dogs to the park.
Similarly, consider the temperament of your dog. How has he behaved around other dogs in the past? Does he cower or hide? Does he lunge and bark? These are signs of fear/anxiety, and a dog park isn't the appropriate place to work through these issues because it will be emotional overload for your dog. Remember that a fearful dog that feels cornered may very well bite! This does not make him a bad dog, just one that isn't ready emotionally for stimulus overload at the dog park. For a fearful dog, the dog park can be a place of terror. If he reacts with fear in the presence of one dog, imagine how he might react with a dozen of them running up and surrounding him.
Does your dog have good manners around other dogs? Does he properly read the cues of other dogs telling him "Enough! Leave me alone". Or does he continue to jump on these dogs to get them to play? Think about how the other dogs at the park may react to this. You will likely encounter dogs of all ages and temperaments. If you do take an exuberant dog without boundaries to the dog park you must watch him very carefully to police his behavior around the other dogs. This isn't just a politeness issue but a safety issue since you don't know how the other dogs may respond to your dog's pushiness. Again, a fearful dog that feels cornered may bite. Are you prepared to do this?
How resilient if your dog? How would he deal with a dog that has a different play style, or a dog that is playing rather aggressively? Know your dog and be prepared to call your dog to you to break up such a situation. Some owners mistake their dogs' aggressive behavior for playfulness. I have even known owners who dropped their dog off inside the dog park and went back to their cars to sit. Who knows what their dogs might be doing? Make sure that you have control of the situation by always having the focus of your dog.
This leads me to address recalls. Will your dog reliably come, even with distractions? What is his level of focus on you? Are you out of sight and out of mind the moment he sees another dog? If your repeated calls fall on deaf ears, then your dog is probably not quite ready for the dog park. Recalls and handler focus are essential for a dog park visit. You must have control of your dog at all times while he is off-leash so that you can call him back if he is bothering a dog that isn't friendly or just doesn't like his play style, or so you can call your dog back if he on the other end of this situation. A reliable recall and handler focus are crucial! These can easily be developed and honed through training and practice that is integrated into your daily routines.
Is the dog park properly separated by dog size? Some large dogs, particularly bully breeds, exhibit predatory aggression due to their breeding. This means that they are triggered by the movement of smaller animals/dogs, and might grab/shake them in their jaws. They do not know they are doing anything wrong because it is instinct, meaning that it cannot be trained out of them. Ever heard of dogs catching squirrels, birds, or a Yorkie? Some owners think their predatory aggressive dogs are playing lunge and chase after smaller dogs. So, be aware if you have a small dog and stay with dogs appropriate to your dog's size.
DOG SOCIAL PREFERENCES
Lastly, not all dogs enjoy being around other dogs, and there is nothing wrong with that. Part of it is nature (breeding), part of it is nurture (bad experiences, lack of socialization). There is nothing wrong with a dog who doesn't want to play with other dogs. If there is excessive anxiety or any aggression, then those should be addressed. However, the fact that these dogs would prefer solitude or the company of people does not indicate anything wrong. My own dogs' breed, Nederlandse Kooikerhondje, tend to dislike other dogs. They are bred for extreme handler focus, as they are hunting dogs, and prefer the company of their family. They tend to feel comfortable only with dogs they have known most of their lives. There are countless breeds out there that similarly do not enjoy other dogs the way a Golden Retriever might. So, there is nothing wrong with a dog that does not like the dog park. For these dogs, a training class together with their owner, or a game of fetch in the yard might be better options than the dog park.
Dog parks can be fantastic outlet for the right dogs, as long as both the dogs and owners are prepared. I hope this has helped you consider everything to make the dog park the best experience for you and your dog.