Once upon a time, when we adopted our Miniature Schnauzer, Ada, I had so many epic plans for all the great adventures we were going to go on together! We could go on road trips! She could come with me to dog-friendly coffee shops! I could spend blissful afternoons in the dog park, chatting with other dog owners watching our pups play! Ada was found and brought in as a stray with another schnauzer, so we assumed she would get along well with other dogs. As it turns out, Ada had other plans.
After letting her settle into our home for a few months, we brought Ada to the dog park. We brought her to the small dog area of Jasper Dog Park. It was the first “baby step” towards great, giant parks like Marymoor. As the one (yes, one) other dog in the enclosure raced around and tried to get Ada to play, Ada grew increasingly frantic, whining and trying to climb my leg. “It’s okay,” I reassured her, “Go play!” A minute later, Ada had rolled onto her back and was shrieking in a high pitched yelp.
She was terrified. I had to scoop her up off the ground to get her to move.
Needless to say, we headed home. “I guess she doesn’t like the dog park,” I concluded with resignation. My dog had failed at the BABY dog park. I already knew that dog parks weren’t appropriate for aggressive dogs, but Ada didn’t fit that profile. I knew she had dog friends in the past; why didn’t she want to play with some new buddies?
Stuff People Say About Dog Parks
Upon sharing Ada’s story with others, here are some of the responses that I’ve heard:
“Dogs are pack animals! All dogs need the company of other dogs. It’s cruel to deprive them of interactions with other dogs.”
“You just need to be more dominant and show more leadership, and then she’ll be more relaxed.”
“You shouldn’t have rewarded her fear by bringing her home. Make her get used to it.”
“Dog parks are important for her socialization. Keep bringing her to the park; she’ll get over it with time.”
So, FACT or FICTION? Are dog parks good places for all dogs?
I’m sure there will be some people who will disagree, but the idea that dog parks are a great idea for ALL dogs is FICTION.
On Scaredy Cats, Dump Trucks, and Drama Queens
For Ada, the dog park was a terrifying place that she wasn’t ready for. She was a scaredy cat. As for the people recommending forcing Ada to go to the dog park and “get used to it,” this technique is known as “flooding.” While this technique sometimes works, it is extremely stressful for the animal, and the strategy can backfire. Beware if a dog trainer suggests flooding your dog and correcting her for showing undesired behavior while being intentionally placed under stress. Sometimes overwhelming an animal can cause even greater fear and result in fear-based reactivity and aggression (more on this in upcoming blog posts).
Instead, research shows that systematically desensitizing a dog to something scary and socializing the dog with positive experiences is more likely to help a dog overcome its fears. This training can take time (it has to occur at the dog’s pace), but it is less unpleasant for the dog and, done properly, does not carry the risk of increasing fear-based reactivity and aggression. Dog parks are not an appropriate place for this type of training to start.
For those of us who have spent time at dog parks, I’m sure you have also seen dogs that you have a hunch shouldn’t be there for reasons other than fear. For instance, you see a dog that seems to enjoy smashing into other dogs like a dump truck, causing other dogs to be uncomfortable. Maybe you’ve seen a dog that likes to chew on the other dogs a little TOO hard. Or, maybe you notice the same dog always seems to be getting in scuffles—drama follows the dog wherever she goes.
What is the deal with these dogs?
Sometimes drama relates to mismatched play styles. If you observe dogs at a dog park, you will observe a variety of dog play styles (more on this in upcoming blog posts). Some dogs enjoy wrestling and gnawing on each other’s faces, others like to chase one another, while still others just want to run after a ball thrown by the humans. If you are adept at reading dog body language (more on this in upcoming blog posts) you will be able to tell whether the dogs are enjoying the play or heading for trouble.
While humans can do a lot by intervening in play when dogs are becoming unusually upset or over-excited, some dogs have a very hard time listening to the body language/signals of other dogs or their human’s cues. If this is the case, a dog may not be a good fit for a dog park if he is constantly overwhelming other dogs. It is a fight waiting to happen unless play is watched carefully and skillfully managed. On the flip side of this coin, if your dog is the one that is easily overwhelmed, the dog park may also not be a great place for her, either. Another thing to consider is that smaller dogs can be hurt by even the most well-intentioned larger dogs at play.
What about the “drama queen” that always seems to be getting into scuffles? It’s possible that this dog is responding out of fear and does not want to be at the dog park, and her humans need to listen to the messages she is sending. Oftentimes aggression is an effort to get other dogs to stay away. However, it is not uncommon for some dogs to enjoy the dog park as puppies, but upon reaching maturity (which varies depending on the size and breed of your dog), a dog’s temperament and feelings about other dogs may change. Some dogs that enjoy the dog park as puppies have a change in behavior and are no longer safe to bring to the dog park when they reach 1 or 2 years of age.
Introverts and Extroverts
Don’t feel bad or upset if your dog isn’t a “dog park dog.” Think about how some people are introverts and others are extroverts.
Let’s think about an extrovert. Their idea of a great Friday night is a giant house party surrounded by all their friends, and chatting up new people! Dogs that meet this description are called “dog-social.” They seem to love every dog they meet! These dogs are great candidates for the dog park.
Now, let’s consider introverts. For introverts, crowds are exhausting. They’d rather read a book or watch Netflix at home on a Friday night. Maybe they’d like to play some board games with one or two best friends, but a house party sounds draining. Some dogs are also introverts, preferring the quiet of their home to the dog park. These dogs can be classified as “dog-selective,” meaning maybe they have a few dog friends they like to hang out with after they’ve been properly introduced, but they don’t want to be surrounded by a giant pack of dogs, finding it irritating or maybe even scary.
Finally, some dogs are “dog-aggressive,” meaning they simply don’t get along with other dogs. While wolves are pack animals, the truth is that some domesticated dogs, for a variety of different reasons, do not enjoy the company of other dogs, and may respond with aggression when placed in such a situation. Please note that many dogs that are “dog-aggressive” love people, are safe around humans, and can make wonderful companions; a dog’s level of aggression towards other dogs does not predict their level of aggression towards humans.
It’s important to consider that these labels fall along a spectrum as opposed to discrete boxes (see badrap.org for more information).
Dog parks are often not the best choice for dog-selective dogs, and they are never appropriate for dog-aggressive dogs. Instead, private walks are a great way for these dogs to get their exercise.
As for my dog Ada, she had a lovely trip to the dog park today that she enjoyed. It’s taken her some time to get there, and she actually prefers the open space of Marymoor to smaller and more crowded parks. If a dog is “too scary,” we have plenty of space to stay away! We have used systematic desensitization over the past 2 years to slowly help her overcome her anxiety around other dogs. Ada could best be classified as a “dog-selective” dog that is becoming increasingly “dog-social.” More important than labels is that we humans in the household have learned to work with Ada at her own pace, and to love and accept her whether or not she is a “dog park dog.”
At Wiggles and Woofs, we understand if your dog doesn’t like being the life of the party, and part of your initial consultation is determining whether the dog park is appropriate for your dog. We have experience working with dog-social, dog-selective, and dog-aggressive dogs, and we offer both private walks and dog park excursions so every dog can be happy and healthy.
Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page if you want more information about dog body language and off leash dog play!
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics.
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