I am laughing right now as I'm writing this, because I'm realizing that it is probably starting to look like I "hate" a lot of things... It's really just Flexi leashes & dog parks... (until next week when I have a whole other topic I forgot about to rant on!) Just kidding, but truly, I'm not a negative person. It's just these hot button issues!
Anyway, allow me to define dog park, in reference to what I am referring to here. A dog park is a fenced piece of property where dog owners get together legally to socialize. Socialize their dogs or socialize themselves? Hmmm.. A topic for discussion indeed. A dog park can also be unfenced, such as the W***** Center in the town over from me, and I much prefer that variety if I have to pick one, because it does, in theory, require owners to have enough control of their canines to let them off the leash without the benefit of the fence containing them. That (AGAIN, in theory) would lend itself to owners having verbal control of their dogs, hence a more advanced level of training in order to keep everyone safe. More on that later.
Whenever you close dogs in, literally or figuratively, tensions run higher. That's a fact, and any trainer worth their weight in salt will tell you the same thing. That applies to animals in general, probably including humans , too. When you close in a bunch of strange dogs (so I am not speaking about a denning scenario here), tensions run higher, meaning, stress levels are higher & dogs are more likely to squabble.
I am NOT saying that it is impossible to use the dog park responsibly. It just never seems to happen. Obviously, I am a professional dog trainer, which means I see the repercussions of this arguable fact walk through my facility's front door all the time. That ALONE will put a bad taste in your mouth eventually for the whole dog park idea in general. It's more than that, though. My main issues with the dog park are as follows, and I am mainly referring to the fenced variety here:
I totally disapprove of people who bring their dogs to the dog park with NO recall on their dog. What "no recall" means is that you are unable to reliably call your dog to you (including off of a distraction, up to & including: toys, sticks, people, kids, oh, I dunno, another dog...). I feel like this is often what happens: people bring their dog to a fenced-in dog park BECAUSE they have no recall on their dog. I am NOT accusing every single dog park proponent of this, but I know from experience that this is often the case. What if their is a squabble? Are you able to call your dog to you? If the answer is no, your dog shouldn't be off the leash in this setting.
It is frequently posted (and this varies by park) that children under a certain age aren't allowed there. This is a safety measure that some people don't heed. It is completely irresponsible to have your 13 year old child handling your dog in a dog park. I just want to say that out loud for the record, and AGAIN, that does not mean that I think every single human being that has ever visited a dog park is guilty of this infraction.
Also, and I have had multiple clients pick up on this after I mention it & reaffirm it, because it happens ALL the time. People frequently bring their dogs to the park, and then sit there with their coffees, phones, even LAP TOPS, fill in the blank, and aren't even watching as their dogs are off riding each other in the distance... Again, I am NOT accusing every single dog park user of this, but who can deny it happens with frequency? Any time dog owners are totally oblivious to their dogs' behavior, I take issue. Especially in this type of scenario, people miss the little red flags that prelude an actual fight, and when you miss those, all you see is the explosion, and then it's the classic "out of the blue!" (which, for the record, is bullsh*t, baring a brain tumor or neurological disorder; it's never "out of the blue." YOU just didn't see it coming.. especially if you were on your IPhone.)
There are no checks and balances at most (not ALL) dog parks. There is no one standing there with a clip board making sure your dog is vaccinated & healthy. Anybody, theoretically, can bring anything in there and no one is ever the wiser... until somebody gets sick. This is another reason not to bring dogs you've had for a matter of DAYS to the dog park... more on that in a few paragraphs. Of COURSE there are signs posted that your dog must be vaccinated, and many require licenses, but as anybody that's ever been to one can attest to, people frequently ignore every single thing that sign says. This becomes an even greater problem when lazy (or oblivious) owners don't clean up after their pets. It simply isn't the same as an indoor facility that is cleaned & sterilized at the end of the night. Does anybody remember all the circulating facebook posts of razor blades in cheese cubes and poisonous treats turning up in dog parks (and canine GI tracks)? Dog parks are frequented by many MANY dogs owned by irresponsible people (they are like moths to a flame when it comes to dog parks), and not everybody appreciates our beloved pets as much as we do... People with bad intentions (as evidenced above) are attracted to dog parks for the purpose of targeting dog owners in general, and it happens more often than you think.
People also do not realize - and this isn't exclusively "dog park people" - that canine behavior (and attitudes) change as dogs mature. That is not negative or positive. It just IS. Just because a young dog (1-2 years old even) is super tolerant of other dogs (or certain behaviors) does not mean that is going to stay that way, even if you, as an owner, change NOTHING. It does not surprise me in the LEAST when I get this phone call:
"All of a sudden, my dog doesn't seem to like other dogs.. He has started getting in fights at the park" to which I usually say, "Ok, how old is he? 18 months? 2? 3? 4?" There is nothing surprising about this to me, because I know that maturity is a factor, but dog owners in general are baffled by this. (I am in no way, shape, or form saying that maturing is an excuse for bad behavior; it isn't. But it should provide a little bit of insight. Are we the same people we were at 13? 17? 23 years old? Hope not... (Thank GAWD in my case! :) And just because your dog was acting a certain way, or deferring to certain dogs, or tolerating certain behaviors, at 8 months old, doesn't mean this is going to stay that way, regardless of whether or not you change anything. Make sense?)
Now, this is not directed at any one person or organization. This is a general statement I am making, I am being completely honest, I stand behind it 100% and here it is: it is ASININE to me that people fostering dogs bring their foster dogs to the dog park, some within 48 hours of HAVING the dog. This is why: first of all, until a dog is adopted & released to the adopter, the rescue organization in charge of that dog is responsible and liable for that dog. IF there is an incident, whether or not the foster dog "started" it, if a bystander is bit in the process of breaking up a fight or any similar altercation, the rescue organization is liable for that. As one can plainly see, this is a terrible (and UNNECESSARY) position for a shelter/rescue organization to be in, a lawsuit waiting to happen, and in the cases where it has happened (and it does), the whole thing is completely preventable by being responsible and NOT bringing your foster dog to the dog park.
Beyond the liability factor, foster (and adopted) dogs take some time to adjust and "show their true colors." You couldn't possibly ascertain within 48 hours that your foster (or new) dog will be "fine" at the dog park. By bringing your brand-spanking-new adoptee or foster to the dog park, you are unnecessarily putting others at risk. You DON'T know what the dog's background is or how it will react in a given situation. You couldn't possibly know how it will respond because you can't possibly know the dog in that time frame, nor have you built a relationship where you have reliable control of that dog. Bringing a brand new dog or foster dog to the dog park demonstrates a total lack of knowledge to me. Lack of knowledge huge crime? No. But then again, if you are going to put yourself and your dog(s) in that position, you have the responsibility to GAIN the knowledge to know that isn't a good idea. It certainly isn't setting the dog up for success.
I am all for dog-on-dog socialization. It is not that I don't think dogs should have that, because I totally do. I think there are much smarter ways of going about it than to try your luck on any given day at the dog park. It can be a chore, but finding a responsible, reputable doggie-daycare can be a great option. I stress the "responsible, reputable" part, which will require some research. There are also great groups on Meetup.com for dog owners to socialize their dogs. Group training classes are a great place to start & make some friends, for you AND your dog. My dogs socialize with other dogs all the time... We meet up with friends (human & canine), take training classes (socialization doesn't always mean wrestling), they go, on occasion, to a reputable daycare that I totally trust, and the best: I train my dogs to a degree that I can have them hike with me off leash and we hang with like-minded folks (and dogs) who do the same. (People frequently say right here "Well, I don't KNOW any other dog owners like that." Sign up for a cool training class and you will. Meetup.com, again, is a great resource as well, although all groups cannot be created equal.)
In short, as you can see, I am NOT a dog park fan, and I don't utilize them with my own dogs. I have no idea why people place such an emphasis on having to have their dogs go to them, for all the reasons I cited above. I definitely will acknowledge that it's not impossible to use them responsibly, but by design, they don't lend themselves to responsible dog ownership, and there are a million other ways to socialize your dog. I won't begrudge anyone a good time that IS able to use the dog park responsibly, but I can't think of an instance I'd ever put my dogs in that situation, and I guess I have to say, I would never put my stamp of approval on one. Again, I'll reiterate one more time, I am NOT saying that everyone who goes to the dog park is the caliber person I described in this article, but you'd be the exception and not the rule.
Herrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre it comes! Love it or hate it, thank you for reading, and if there is anything I can do for you and your dog, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again. Happy training!
Cassie-Leigh Stock, ABCDT, CTDI, AKC-CGC