When we first got Knox, we made the same rookie decisions as most owners: let’s socialize him at the dog park!
Lesson 1: This was a stupid idea because dog parks are a crap-shoot of behaviours.
For the first 7 weeks, we were the 5:15pm regulars at one of our local, enclosed dog parks. Knox made some awesome friends and played super hard every time he saw his friends. He still gets all wiggle-butt when he sees Bubbles the shiba inu, Sity the blue heeler, and Penny the pocket pitty (pictured above after a great play session!). We were addicted to how calm he was after a great play session, and how he would just sleep after getting home.
Unfortunately, we also started noticing new behaviours: he was becoming more obnoxious to dogs that didn’t want to play. His focus on those dogs have become heightened and in turn, whenever they came to the park, he’s rush to the gate and bark his head off. He started to get in another dog’s space and if another dog was barking or playing too rough, he’s join right in. All these bad dog park behaviours would inevitably lead to Knox becoming over aroused from play and becoming a bit of a menace.
We had 5 incidents at the park with the same 4 male dogs, two being intact. These were the scariest moments in my time with Knox, and they’ve taught me some incredibly valuable lessons in reactive dog wrangling.
Let me first pause to remind people that reactivity is not the same as aggression. They are not interchangeable.
Reactivity can, and usually does, lead to aggression if it’s not managed properly. But properly managed reactivity through identifying triggers, minimizing, and counter conditioning, dramatically reduces the chance of something bad happening.
Which leads us back to dog parks, reactivity, and aggression:
Inappropriate dog park experiences often exacerbate, if not directly cause, aggressive and reactive behaviours. – Sophia Yin
The first few introductions with the dogs he later had fights with, seemed okay. Looking back, I can see that there was a ton of nervous energy from Knox when the new male dogs came into the park; he’s generally friendly and loves to play, after all. He was cautious but quickly went into a play bow. He gave a width arc of space to some of the dogs that didn’t seem interested in playing with him but wanted to be part of the game.
Lesson 2: dog parks are often uncontrolled, unstructured, and unsafe spaces for socialization.
With each of these dogs, they would go from either super standoffish then “correction” bites, or super playful then too rough. While Knox is able to keep up with rough play, it would soon escalate above threshold for all dogs involved and lead to a fight.
These fights were started due to a number reasons, but the top three start and end with:
- All owners not paying enough attention
- Not stopping play early enough
- Not limiting the type of play or number of dogs playing
A huge red flag that we missed at the beginning was the tension in play between two large bonded male dogs (one intact, one not) whenever another joined in. Whenever the third wheel would get too much for the older male, he would snap. When he snapped, the younger one would join in.
Lesson 3: Pay attention, always.
This happened on our last routine evening dog park session: Knox was the third wheel, became a little too much, and the older male snapped. The younger one ended up drawing blood from Knox along his neck, face, and body.
Now, we avoid dog parks unless we know the dogs in there. Completely unenclosed parks have been nice because the environment is so interesting that Knox is distracted (by the mud, haha) and get bored by the dogs. It is, however, risky since you just never know what could happen and frankly, his recall isn’t that great yet.
If we do go to an enclosed dog park, we following these rules and procedures:
- Must be calm (i.e. sit and look at me) before entering park.
- No entering park if he pulls or becomes over-aroused in any way (barking, whining, fixation on a dog, etc.)
- No more than 1 or 2 mid to large dogs in the park.
- No small dogs or puppies in the park.
- Play can only last 30 to 60 seconds at a time.
- Must come when called, and rereleased on command to play.
- Never allowed near the park gates or fence when a dog is entering or exiting. Must be paying attention to me.
- Never allowed near the fence when a dog is walking by. Must be paying attention to me.
- If other dogs have a good thing going on, he cannot join unless invited (by those dogs).
- Leave on a hight note, not because of a fight.
While these rules may seem a bit strict, it introduces a structure of calmness for before, during, and after play.
Lesson 4: manage the reactions.
We learned that the more he’s allowed to go over threshold (i.e. barking at the fence/gate, stalking other dogs, intruding on play…), the more practiced it is and easier for him to get to a bad place.
We want to have great experiences. We want to have our dogs remember that being calm at the park and playing nicely means they get to play more again.
We’re still having some issues when we walk beside a dog park, but Knox gets a super high rate of reinforcement whenever we’re getting closer to the dog park. As we walk, attention, and treat earlier, it means he’s more likely to look at me when we’re going by the super exciting dog park! than to go into high-alert play/bark/whine mode.
Don’t take my word for it – obviously we’re still figuring it out – but here are some great resources:
- Sophia Yin – How and Why Dogs Should Behave Politely at the Off-Leash Park
- Sophia Yin – Dog Park Etiquette (via Huffington Post)
- Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) – Dog Park Etiquette
- APDT – Dog Park Body Language
- APDT – Dog Park Pros & Cons
- APDT – What Makes a Good Dog Park
- Wag n’Train – Stress Signs in Dogs
- ASPCA – Canine Body Language
Do you still go to dog parks? Have you had good or bad experiences?