Dog-Dog Socialization: Beyond the Dog Park

I don’t ever take my dogs to the dog park. The idea of the dog park is a great one: a safe place where dogs can play together and run free. However, in reality, I find that dog parks cause more issues than they solve, so I turn instead to other options for my own dogs.

Photo by Sangudo

There are several major problems with dog parks. The largest issue I personally have with public dog parks is the lack of oversight available for who attends them. I do not know the physical or behavioral health status of any of the dogs who attend, and the risk of exposing my dog to a sick or aggressive dog is much higher than with any other means of socialization. Unvaccinated dogs or those who are carrying parasites or viruses (such as kennel cough) are all possibilities. Since my dogs are healthy and are provided with appropriate immunizations and parasite control, this alone wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, behaviorally unhealthy dogs are a much bigger risk.

The largest problem with dog parks is that owners are often oblivious to or unconcerned about the behavior of their dogs. Many owners spend time at the dog park chatting with each other or on their phones, not even watching their dog. Dog parks are not appropriate places to bring dogs for remedial socialization, yet many people attempt to do just that. Many well-meaning people also bring their new or unsocialized dogs to the dog park with no idea of the dog’s comfort level around other dogs, a doggy version of “trial by fire.” Working as a dog behavior consultant, I receive calls and emails on a regular basis from people whose dog has either injured or been injured by another dog at the dog park. These calls range from a dog who has developed fear issues after being playfully jumped by a much larger dog at the dog park to a dog who literally ripped the ear off another dog when the two got into a scuffle over a ball.

There’s a saying among trainers: “if you go to the dog park long enough, something bad will happen.” While there are certainly lots of friendly, well-socialized, and healthy dogs who attend the dog park, it’s impossible to totally protect your dog from bad experiences in such an uncontrolled environment. This may not be a big deal for well-socialized, balanced, stable dogs, who will just shake off the bad experience and continue on. Young (under two years old), fearful, or easily upset dogs may not be so blase about the experience, however. One traumatic experience can set a dog up for a lifetime of fear or reactivity, something we trainers see all too heartbreakingly often.

As if this weren’t enough, I also avoid the dog park because of what my dog is likely to learn there. The average dog park attendee is an adolescent, setting the stage for a canine version of The Lord of the Flies since there are few adults around to keep order. Rude, pushy, and over-aroused behavior is often the norm. Practicing such behaviors teaches the dog that this is how he should interact with others of his species, and now we have a canine Tarzan or bully in the making.

Recall issues (where the dog refuses to come when called, or worse yet, plays “keep away” from his owner) are common at dog parks, and are a common reason why owners call me for training help. Dogs quickly learn that coming to their owners ends the fun, and start to avoid being caught. One client recently called me after she had to spend nearly four hours trying to catch her dog! She was finally able to snare the wayward pooch after her dog darted into the smaller fenced-in entrance area to greet a new dog.

So, how do I socialize my dogs? There are many great ways for your dog to enjoy the company of his own kind that are much safer and more enjoyable for all involved.

My dogs enjoy regular playdates with doggy friends. Playdates are based on my dogs’ age and play preferences, with my older dogs enjoying side-by-side walks (both on and off-leash) with their buddies and the new puppy enjoying regular off-leash chase and wrestling games with her friends. Ask around to find play partners for your dog: friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors are all great networks to tap. If one of you has a fenced-in yard, meet there for some off-leash play. Fenced-in tennis courts, baseball fields, and other such areas are also often available at local parks. One creative client of mine rented a neighbor’s fenced-in yard when she couldn’t find any other alternatives! A well-run doggy daycare can also provide your dog with regular access to other playmates, and you can feel comfortable knowing that the other dogs who attend daycare are also vaccinated and friendly.

Finally, my dogs receive regular socialization through training classes and dog sports. While the dogs may not directly interact with one another in these venues, they are still a vital piece of the socialization puzzle. Learning to focus on you and remain calm in the presence of other dogs is an important life skill. Human children are given time to play with one another and run around during recess, but also learn to sit still and focus in the classroom at school. Similarly, I don’t want my dog getting overly excited every time she sees another dog because she thinks she’s going to get to play. A dog who squeals and bucks at the end of the leash every time he sees another dog is not a well-socialized dog no matter how friendly he is, because he’s never learned how to control himself around his own species. Imagine if a human teenager or adult acted like that! Social behavior also includes the ability to just hang out calmly with members of one’s own species.

Some dog parks are better than others, and I may be more likely to attend a dog park with lots of space and trails than our local parks where dogs and people congregate around picnic tables. However, I honestly believe that there are better alternatives to the dog park. Providing socialization opportunities for my dogs is important, but that includes the responsibility to make sure that those opportunities are always safe and positive.

So, how do you socialize your dog(s)? Do you use dog parks, and if so, what do you do to ensure your dog’s safety? How are your local dog parks laid out? What socialization opportunities does your dog enjoy the most? Please share your stories and opinions in the comments below!

8 responses to “Dog-Dog Socialization: Beyond the Dog Park

  1. Great blog! I agree-if you go enough-something bad WILL happen!

  2. I don’t go to dog parks half as often as I used to, mainly because my dog has matured out of socializing with other dogs: she’d much prefer playing with me or exploring with me instead. I will take her to one park in the middle of a forest because it’s 1400 acres but all the unfenced “dog areas” and even the fenced ones host all the problems you covered.

  3. I have been going to 2 dog parks with my dog 2-5 times a week for 2 years and so far, no problems. I love the friends he makes, he remembers his friends (the ones that come regularly) and plays with them and gets to know other dogs as well. I have also met great people there and we share dog care advice and even arrange to go together or have a doggy play date. I love seeing my dogs friends when I go too, they always greet me and come over for a petting session with me before they run off to play again. If there is a dog problem, people step in to help and if the owner is not a responsible owner, he/she is asked to leave. Mostly all people are caring and responsible and if I see kids not treating a dog well, I take it as an opportunity to teach them.
    In the begining my dog hated leaving, but we just kept practicing the come and wait commands and now he comes when I call him. I also know how long he needs to play there, when he is tired or bored or ready to leave. Usually 20- 30 minutes is enough, but I dont’ mind staying longer if we are able too. If he has his favorite buddies there to play with and I see they are tiring him out I know he won’t need more than 20 or so minutes to play.

    You focused more on reasons you DON”T like the dog park, and less on the reasons of other things for them to do. Which is not a lot.

    I still like dog parks, I could spend all day there, playing with my dog and other dogs that I have come to know and love. Yes, sometimes there is trouble and I have heard at least one horror story, but so far, not experienced it. And if you go regularly, you get to know the regulars and learn from them and about other dogs and how they get along, who to watch out for, etc.

  4. Thanks Andrea for being on the positive side of why we take our dogs to Dog Parks,, if you focus on teh negative, well the negative will happen…

  5. I agree 150% with this article. Sadly, I experienced the bad and now I am paying thousands for behavior modification and remedial socialization. It took 1 time. Only 1 time for an attack. It was not a situation I was not paying attention or close by. I had been going to this park for a long time. It took one wrong dog… just one. She does mention many other things to do in this article. The main focus of the article is to inform why dog parks may not be the best – I feel she is being very honest. I have found MANY other activities as mentioned. Tennis courts, baseball fields, much largre grass fields, a neighbors back yard, training classes, agility, tricks, a lovely hiking trail… all areas that do not have the level of uncertainity as I find in the dog park. We select our doggy friends. At the park, you never know what you are going to get. We were given 3/4 of an acre filled with kitty liter and called it a fun place for dogs. My dog was not only attacked there but caught kennel cough, worms, eye infection…. not to mention the bacteria infection I got on my foot from the field. People don’t pick up poop, leave toys all over and you never know if your dog will get attacked simply by walking by. Don’t pay attention, mingle with humans instead of being there to enjoy the space with their dog, on their phone. Sadly, I should of seen it …… I have seen others attacked prior to my dogs attack but I really thought it wouldn’t happen to us because my dogs are well behaved. Come when called, can heel through any crowd off leash, even submit if I tell them to do so when they feel threatened… but it took just 1.

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  7. I rarley take my dog around others of her kind becuase i seem to to be the only person besides one person across the street that has a little dog and at six years my dog is still working on learning that she is not as big as large or medium dogs. I am also wary of our local dog park becuase there is no gate to the entrance area (only the main area) and most people congragate around the two benches and ignore their dogs. It has a trail but sometime i want to go on it myself before i trust my dog on it. (She only ever goes for walks on places i have been alone before since I want to know wether there are things that i sould watch for. even when she goes places outside of my yard where she can be alone i keep her on the retractable leash i have a just let it unlocked.

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