Dog Parks and Dog Behavior

Dogs need regular exercise and positive daily interactions with people and other dogs. They need time to be themselves, running, playing, fetching, sniffing, etc. These dogs are generally happier and healthier. They tend to have fewer behavior problems than dogs that are always on leash and never run freely. 

Dogs need training that is humane and effective. Dogs are members of the family and need to learn how to behave appropriately at home and in the world.  An understanding of dog behavior and how dogs learn is necessary for all ‘dog people’; especially first time dog owners. Many first time dog owners get advice from other dog owners before they seek professional help. These dogs often develop behavior problems due to the owner’s learning curve.  

Dog parks can be wonderful places for people and their dogs.  Dog parks also create many problems. Here are some guidelines for using or not using a dog park to socialize and exercise your dog:

  1. Puppies under four months of age should not be taken to dog parks. All immunizations should be completed before exposing your puppy to unfamiliar dogs. Between 8 and 12 weeks of age, which is the critical socialization period, puppies should meet and interact with healthy and friendly adult dogs and other puppies. It is best if your puppy’s first impressions are positive.

  2. Dog training should focus on teaching dogs what to do rather than punishing what not to do. It is a process that begins at home and it must be put into practice everywhere. Dogs, as with children, are learning even when you are not actively teaching.

  3. Again, as with children, dogs need consistent rules to live by. They do not understand 'sometimes or maybe' and 'here, but not there'. Think of the dog park as a privilege, not a right. 

  4. Supervise and engage with your dog. Make yourself relevant to your dog so that he will respond to you wherever you go together. Paying attention to what your dog is doing allows you to be proactive rather than reactive.  If your dog cannot see you, he will be less likely to respond to your requests.  Your dog should always be in your field of vision.

  5. Dogs learn appropriate and inappropriate behavior from each other. Remember, pack mentality in dogs is much like peer pressure in teenagers.  Groups of dogs will engage in behavior that they would not do independently. A dog under the control of its owner does not chase a jogger, a cyclist, another dog, or any wildlife.

  6. Some dogs get bullied while others become bullies. This is often a by-product of owners not paying attention and/or not knowing enough about dog behavior to respond appropriately. Do not allow your dog to antagonize or be antagonized. Aggressive behavior must be immediately interrupted and redirected. Positively. It is not always best to let dogs 'work it out'.

  7. Dog fights happen and injuries occur. Dogs, like children, fight over resources; food and toys are the most common. Most fights are skirmishes that are over quickly. Dogs that are ‘in heat’ should never go to dog parks. Briefly, what to do when a fight occurs: 

  1. If your dog is not involved, get your dog to focus on you and move away from the scene.

  2. If your dog is involved in a fight, do not try to break it up alone. A short, loud blast of a referees whistle three feet or so over the heads of the fighting dogs often causes a pause that allows both owners to get their dog. Move away and in opposite directions. Immediately check your dog for injuries; then calmly but firmly give your dog a timeout by requesting that your dog sit. Redirect your dog to a positive, fun activity. If your dog does not respond, leave the park. Do not 'alpha roll', yell at, or hit your dog. Doing so will likely damage your relationship with your dog.

  3. If fighting has become routine for your dog, stop going to the dog park and seek professional dog training services immediately. 

Please contact me at 617-566-2097 for all of your dog training needs.  I work with my clients wherever they need me; in their homes, neighborhoods, and at dog parks to prevent and resolve behavior problems.

Vera E. Wilkinson wrote this article in January 2003 for the Town of Brookline and its Green Dog Program, a pilot off leash program.

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