A bark in the park
|Big Canoe Animal Rescue dogs enjoy a romp in the park.|
By Doris Dressler, CPDT-KA
While in the spring “a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of love” (Alfred Tennyson), a young dog’s fancy likely turns to thoughts of playtime at the dog park.
Before frequenting your local dog park, be aware of the pros and cons of dog parks. It helps to understand appropriate dog park etiquette and to be able to read your dog’s body language to determine whether he is having as much fun as you are.
Dog parks can offer excellent socialization opportunities and off-leash exercise for your dog. The downside is there is always the danger of dogs getting overly excited, resulting in potential injury as a result of dogfights.
Keep in mind that not all dogs like dog parks. Just like humans are introverted or extroverted, not all dogs are party animals either. If your dog is shy and timid, the dog park may not the place for him. Consider doing other things with your introverted dog; he may prefer controlled play dates with one or two dogs he knows well, long walks, a game of tennis ball catch in your driveway or an organized dog sports or group class.
Tips for a successful dog park experience
Set your dog up for success by taking some of the following points into consideration.
- Remember not all dogs are good candidates for the dog park. Senior dogs, young puppies, dogs with behavior issues, fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, reactive dogs, bullies or introverted dogs might do better in a different venue.
- Do not allow your dog to crowd the entrance gate when a new dog is trying to enter the park. Call your dog to you or go get him and allow the new dog to enter the park without being “mugged.” Once the new dog has been let off leash, release the other dogs to play, preferably one at a time.
- Be conscious of size differences between dog park playmates. Most experts suggest no more than a 25-pound difference in playmate size because of a phenomenon called “predatory drift.” Predatory drift occurs when normal play suddenly “drifts” and the dog’s predatory instincts kick in. A larger dog who was fine just moments ago playing with a smaller dog suddenly might perceive the running dog as a prey object and a disaster could occur. Most dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs to prevent this from happening.
- Be careful with the use of treats and toys when other dogs are around.
- Supervise your dog at all times. It’s important to monitor your dog’s arousal level. If play seems to be escalating, call your dog to you (or go get him), and put him in a doggie timeout for a minute. Dogs will generally take a short timeout on their own, but sometimes—just as with children—we need to step in and remind them to do so.
- If you notice your dog is posturing, leave the dog park immediately. Alternatively, if you notice your dog is nervous and not having fun, it is best to leave the dog park.
Dog park body language
It’s helpful to be able to read your dog’s body language, so you can monitor not only how your dog is doing but also, just as importantly, how other dogs are doing.
Look for balanced play between dogs; sometimes one dog is on top, sometimes the other. Sometimes one dog is the chaser, other times he will be the one who is chased.
The following information was extracted from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website.
Playful actions to look for include:
- Back-and-forth play where dogs change position and reverse roles
- Bouncy, exaggerated gestures
- Wiggly bodies
- Open, relaxed mouth
- Twisted leaps or jumps
- Pawing the air
Signs of anxiety and stress to watch for include:
- Fast wagging, low tail
- Whining or whimpering
- Ears held back
- Hiding behind objects or people
Signs of fear include:
- Dog trying to look small
- Tucked tail
- Head down, hunched over
- Submissive urination
- Nervous panting
For more information about dog body language, access aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/canine-body-language.
Visit the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website, apdt.com/petowners/park/default.aspx to learn more about dog park safety.