The days when dogs were allowed off leash in public areas are, for the most part, gone. More and more, local municipalities are prohibiting off leash dogs and regulating to which public areas you can take your dog. Some municipalities are even regulating the maximum length of the leash you can use in certain areas.
Dog parks have popped up partly in response to these restrictions. Dog parks can be secure, legally approved areas where your dog can run off leash and be free to be a dog. They seem like a good idea, but are they really?
It helps if you understand what dogs are doing when they are “playing”.
Dogs retain the predatory motor patterns of their wild ancestors, namely orient/eye stalk/chase/grab bite/kill bite/dissect/consume. Happily, the dissect and consume behaviors are rare. Nevertheless, when dogs “play” they are merely rehearsing these predatory motor patterns.
When two dogs are of equal size, energy level and predatory motor pattern style, they can rehearse those motor patterns at low risk to the two individuals. If one more dog is added into the mix the balance cannot be maintained. When all the dogs at a dog park are added into the mix that balance goes out the window altogether.
Play with weapons (all those big, white teeth) is risky, therefore, dogs develop strategies to protect themselves, namely, defensive maneuvers, offensive maneuvers, strategies designed to avoid any engagement with the other dogs, or guarding behaviors around people, places or things.
Should you take your dog to a dog park? Here are some things to consider:
Go to the dog park:
* If your dog gets along well with other dogs. The dog park is not the place to teach appropriate dog-dog behavior. It is the perfect place to rehearse inappropriate behavior.
* If your dog comes when you call him - right away, every time.
* If you and your dog have a well-formed bond with each other. Do not take your new dog straight to the dog park. It takes about 6 months to get to know your dog and establish the kind of bond that is needed for reliable behavior at a dog park.
* If your dog is at least 18 months old.
* If there is no one else at the dog park or if the park is large enough that you can find a spot to yourselves. This is a good place to practice a few skills: fetch; come when called; master your dog's obedience; arrange a date to meet a dog with whom your dog plays well.
Do NOT go to the dog park:
* If your dog is a puppy. Puppies should never go to a dog park. Puppies do not have enough experience to deal with all those adult behaviors. Any inappropriate behaviors he learns he will apply to all other dogs. If he has a traumatizing experience that will effect his relationships with other dogs for the rest of his life. You might not see the traumatic thing that happened. You might not think what happened was traumatic. Your puppy will be the judge of that.
* If you just brought your dog home. You must develop a bond, and know your dog well before you take him to a dog park. Engagements with other dogs will damage your relationship with your dog and prevent you from developing a well-formed bond. It will make obedience training much harder.
* If your dog does not reliably come when called. Every second he does not come when called he is being reinforced for not coming.
* If your dog has a weakened immune system. Dog parks are petri dishes of viruses and bacteria.
* If your dog is lame or over-weight. He can become a target of other dogs who recognize your dog has a physical weakness.
Next Up: How to pick a dog park