What You Need To Know About Dog Parks

dog park aggressionThere are a lot of Dog Parks in Los Angeles and on the Westside. With strict leash laws there are few places besides your back yard where dogs have the opportunity to get off leash and have free play outside.  People are surprised to hear that I don’t frequent these parks that often even though I work with dogs every day. I’m not opposed to giving a dog the opportunity to socialize off leash with other dogs, but if you are planning a dog park visit, be sure to learn about the potential hazards before you go.



Dog Parks Expose Your Pet to Health Risks

Dog parks are a breeding ground for diseases, kennel cough, or worms.  If your dog has a weakened immune system or has not yet been vaccinated, skip the dog park for this reason alone.  There is no way of knowing how healthy other dogs are that are coming to the park or if they are vaccinated.   If you do bring your dog, be prepared for possible vet bills.



Agressive Dogs and Dog Fights

When a big group of dogs are thrown together and don’t know each other there can be problems. Some dogs may be attempting to dominate others and all the dogs are left to figure out where they fit in the group hierarchy.  That can lead to aggressive behavior and dog fights.  In nature dogs live in families and it is not natural for large groups of unfamiliar dogs to socialize together. There are different theories on this but many studies show this to be the case. When you do have the unnatural situation of large hoards of dogs being put together, there needs to be some strong leadership which is usually lacking at a dog park.



Inattentive dog owners cause problems in the park.

Being your dogs leaderWhen you come to a dog park you often see owners sitting around chatting, or on their cell phones completely ignoring their dogs.  They think the dog park is a place they can bring their pets to get activity and burn off excess energy with little effort on their part.  Their dogs may be acting aggressively or running from aggressors and the owners are totally unaware.  Unengaged, inattentive owners cause serious problems in the park. Pay attention to what your dog is doing and how they are coping with other dogs.



Dealing With Aggression

It is your job as an owner to take the role of leader with your dog and to protect your dog.  If you haven’t established this protector/parent/leadership role, it’s not too late to start but may require some changes in the way you interact with your dog.  If you need some help, find a good trainer who can observe you and advise you on how to change old habits. Be aware of dogs whose owners are not in control of their overly dominant or aggressive dogs.  Dogs being chased will go to their owner for protection.  The owner either expects their dog to stand up for himself or just thinks the dogs are playing.  This can be very stressful for your dog and lead to behavior problems and dog intolerance issues. I’ve met many people who tell me their dogs were friendly and loved meeting other dogs until a bad experience in a dog park so be aware and protect your pet.



Characteristics of an Aggressive Dog

dogAggressive (1)

Characteristics of an aggressive dog are important to know. He will take a stiff body stance.  His body will be rigid or stiff and he will show steady, direct eye contact.  His tail will be straight up in the air, or straight out, not down or between his legs which is a sign of submission.  He may or may not snarl or show his teeth.  A dog displaying dominance at a park will try to consistently put his muzzle over the shoulders of another dog.  He will also constantly be coming at the dog he is trying to dominate.  This is a display of dominance and not play.

If you see this is happening step in.  Find the owner of the dog and say “Look, you need to get control of your dog.  He is being aggressive and trying to dominate the other dogs.”  If that doesn’t work, leave the park.  Irresponsible dog owners are not about to change just because you call them on it.  Your first responsibility is the safety of your dog.



Be Aware Of the Park Atmosphere

Before entering dog park, ask yourself – what is the overall temperament currently in the park? You can tell by observing the way the dogs are interacting with each other.  If it feels stressful or intense, leave.  We are accustomed to feeling distracted by life’s many demands and don’t pay attention to what is going on around us. Take the time to be present and feel what is going on in the dog park.  If it doesn’t feel right, leave and try another day.

When I enter a dog park it is when the energy in park is calm and relaxed and I only bring dogs that are calm, not fearful, and able to engage in relaxed play with other dogs.  Small dogs should at all times be kept in small dog areas and not exposed to strange bigger dogs. Big dogs can seriously hurt or kill a smaller dog before you have time to react.  If your dog is particularly sensitive and seems tense or wary at the park, just skip it. There are more calm and controlled environments where they can meet dogs and socialize.



Alternate ways to Socialize Your Dog

dog park 2Dogs really do benefit from the play and company of other dogs. If you want to give your dog the opportunity to meet other dogs but not at the dog park, walk them on a leash in an area where you interact with other leashed dogs.  Keeping dogs on a leash makes it easier to keep things under control, regulate social interactions and reinforce positive behavior.  If the dogs start to get intense with each other or one is trying to overpower another, it’s easy to step in and take control.  Play dates with dogs your pet is friendly with is also a great way to provide a safe fun socializing experience.

In Santa Monica one of my favorite spots for meeting dogs is Palisades Park along Ocean Avenue.  This is really a wonderful park.  After 5 PM on a weekday, and on weekend afternoons it is full of dogs and owners out for a stroll and is wonderfully pleasant and relaxed.  You can literally feel the difference between this environment and the high intensity environment of the dog park.



The Calm, Purposeful Dog Walk

A calm, purposeful walk, just you with your dog is the safest, healthiest and most relaxing way for your dog to get exercise and burn off excess energy.  There is nothing better for their mental and physical well being.   Taking your dog or dogs on a walk or run also establishes you as leader.  This is important for their mental balance and a requirement if you want a well behaved dog who responds to you.  If you establish this regular habit of daily walks and throw in safe socializing opportunities with other dogs, you will see how much it adds quality to your dog’s life and yours.

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