TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. - We live over by Lake Tahoe and recently took our 4-year-old dog Buster to a dog park there. It was a beautiful weekend day and the park was quite busy. Most of the dogs were running around playing, but a few seemed pretty overwhelmed and were hiding behind their owners. This only made the other dogs more interested in them! My wife and I got into a bit of an argument about whether the shy dogs should be there. We'd appreciate your thoughts.
Tahoe Dog Lovers
Dear Dog Lovers,
Well organized dog parks can be a great place for dogs to safely run and play off leash and young dogs can practice their social skills and let off steam. Dog parks also tend to be a place where people socialize. Problems can arise when people pay more attention to each other than to their dogs. Not recognizing when a dog is either bullying or being bullied is a significant problem. A dog who is bullied may learn to fear other dogs and the bully just learns he can overpower others. Lack of owner control also teaches the dog that he can get away with just about anything because his human can't or doesn't stop him from acting inappropriately. One trick is to move around the park so your dog learns to keep an eye on you and reward him each time he checks in.
Another problem in any setting where there are lots of dogs is differing play styles. Some dogs tend to be very physical and need to play with similar dogs. These dogs easily overwhelm more timid dogs. A well run park will have space for small dogs to play separately. They can easily be hurt by larger dogs. It's also important to watch for dogs who become overly aroused when there are so many dogs around. These dogs can easily display behaviors they might not under normal circumstances. Owners need to pay close attention to their dog's play style and interrupt the play with a time out if necessary.
Your question about the shy dogs is especially insightful. Owners who take timid dogs to dog parks are usually trying to "socialize" them so they will like other dogs. These types of dogs are usually very attached to their owners and will stay close to them. If a dog runs up to them, they may show teeth or growl in an attempt to tell the dog to go away. Dogs get better at behaviors they practice and a timid dog who is repeatedly put in this situation will get more aggressive toward other dogs.
Some dogs are better suited than others for dog park play. If your dog does seem to enjoy a day at the park, be a responsible owner and monitor his behavior. Give time-outs when needed and leave if you feel uncomfortable with any of the interactions.
- Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org