Last blog we discussed the importance of socializing your puppy or young dog with the world at large. Inevitably, when the topic of socialization comes up, people ask us: “What about the dog park?”
Most of the handlers of IPO competition dogs, trained German Shepherd watchdogs, or executive protection dogs avoid the dog park for several reasons. First and foremost is the risk of the unknown: dogs with unknown health histories, dogs with unknown temperaments and potential behavior issues, and humans with unknown handling abilities. Over and over again we have heard inexperienced or ignorant people say: “Oh, my dog’s friendly! He just wants to say hi!”, when in reality the dog is posturing dominantly and rudely seeking to assert himself. Dog parks in particular seem to attract this kind of inexperienced handler who does not fully understand the true intent of their canine’s behavior.
A second reason for avoiding dog parks is the inability to control the social interactions that occur. This is especially crucial with a young dog, as a negative interaction during their impressionable period can leave a lasting dislike or fear of other dogs. Beside the risk of disease transmission, this is one top reason why dog parks can be one of the worst places to take a young puppy. Puppies are inexperienced at reading the finer points of canine body language; they may miss all the telltale warning signs a dog is sending them, and end up receiving a bite to the face that leaves not only physical but mental scars. Additionally, not all dogs appreciate the youthful exuberance of puppies and young adolescents, and at a dog park you have no idea which dogs are fine with this and which dogs are not. As a result, unpleasant interactions may occur.
Third, we want our relationships with our trained protection dogs, competition dogs, and family watch dogs to be the source of all good and fun things for our dogs; this is a cornerstone to our success in training them, as the dogs learn to greatly enjoy interacting with their handlers. Repeatedly taking a young dog to a dog park BEFORE this relationship is well-established can create problems that will surface later during training. The dog may learn that playing with other dogs at the dog park is more fun than playing with you, and that you are the source for “ending all fun.” Think of what happens when it is time to leave the park: the handler calls the dog over, leashes him, and takes him away, ending the fun. The dog may then avoid coming when called, forcing the handler to go get him and again end all the fun. Not only will you inadvertently train the dog to blow off your obedience commands, but you will also teach him that you are the ‘fun-killer’ rather than the ‘fun-bringer’.
If you are intent on integrating dog park visits as a regular part of your life with your dog, then please do so very carefully. Visit various dog parks in the area (if available) and at different times to observe the interactions between the owners and dogs that frequent the park. Do the dogs play well together? Do the owners watch their dogs carefully, or do they ignore their dogs while they talk with other owners? Schedule your first visit during a less busy time so as to reduce the likelihood of unpleasant altercations with the current “pack”. If you have a young dog, spend time building your relationship FIRST (this takes months, if not years) before visiting a dog park. You can still socialize your young dog with dogs you know and trust in the meantime.