By: Dr. Ellen M. Lindell VMD DACVB

Dog parks are opening up all around the country. They offer an opportunity for dog lovers to enjoy each other’s company and to watch dogs play. Dog parks provide a space for dogs to stretch and to socialize with other dogs.

Many dogs seem to be in their glory at dog parks. These social dogs greet every incoming dog with a friendly bow. They readily adapt their play style to suit each new playmate so as not to overwhelm.

How does a dog become such a dog park pro? Behavior is always based on a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some dogs are basically programmed to have more social personalities than others. A dog that is calm yet playful, one that is outgoing without being aggressive, is already ahead of the game.   

There are also environmental factors that can boost a dog’s ability to succeed at the park. It is important to socialize young puppies with other healthy puppies and friendly dogs so that they can practice playing well with others. If young puppies are afraid of other dogs, then they should be introduced slowly and gradually until they gain confidence.

If a dog is adopted as an adult, then her early socialization history may be unknown. She may have never played with another dog. In that case, she will need to be introduced to some calm, friendly dogs one at a time. A busy dog park is typically not the place to meet a calm dog. In fact, dogs playing at a park can be so excited that they can actually be rude and intimidating. A new dog entering the park is likely to be subjected to having head to tail sniffs done by multiple dogs all at once!

A digression: rushing forward and making intimate contact with an unfamiliar dog is not the way things are typically done in the dog world. Outside the dog park arena, when two dogs meet, they engage in a quiet conversation as they get to know one another. They sniff in an organized fashion, assessing the pheromones that convey important personal information. They may offer a gesture of friendship such as a play bow. And they listen to each other before finally agreeing to go for a romp.

Dog park regulars are often so comfortable that they appear to forgo the dialogue. They seem to assume that if a dog has entered the park, then that dog must be ready to play. Here We Come Pal Ready or NOT!

If your dog is a dog park newbie—please don’t introduce her to the park at a peak play period. Start slow, seeking sensitive dogs if they are available. Take a walk with one dog at a time. Watch for signs that your dog is warming up to her new friend. She might gently wag her tail, give a play bow, keep her ears softly back or slightly forward, and might even bark playfully. Be sure that she is equally receptive should the companion offer these same gestures. Once they appear eager to start the bouncing, you can try testing them in an off leash enclosure.

What if your dog does not relax with another dog? What if she growls, lunges, or tries to run away? Perhaps you have had her as a puppy and you just know that she has had no truly bad experiences—how could this behavior have just appeared out of no where? Remember—genetics affects behavior. Sometimes, even a well-socialized dog will display fear or even aggression (which is usually fear based) when she matures.

When you adopt an adult dog that exhibits fear or aggression towards other dogs, then you really cannot be certain whether the behavior stems from a genetic tendency, or whether your dog has had some very frightening experiences in her prior life. Perhaps she was attacked physically or was emotionally threatened by another dog.

Whether your dog attempts to run away or tries to lunge or snap at a potential canine companion, please do not scold her or force her to get closer to the other dog. Instead, consult with a qualified professional, such as a veterinary behaviorist, who can do an assessment and design a treatment plan to reduce this fear. Your dog will not grow out of this with repeated exposure and may in fact get worse!

A dog park can be an amazing opportunity for exercise and play. Dog parks allow behaviorally healthy dogs to develop and maintain good social skills. But dog parks are not for every dog. Don’t feel bad if your dog does not favor large parties—try a play date, or even a quiet hike. Enjoy each other’s company. Isn’t that what loving your dog is all about?

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