Do you Do the Dog Park?
No one can say that dog parks weren’t created with the best intentions, and hasn’t served well over the years, but as we become more conscious of the internal lives of our dogs and the possible consequences of co-habitation (think The Secret Life of Pets), a few people have raised some concerns about the reality of dog parks.
Vets have some concerns about dog parks: incidents of dangerous or volatile behaviour or spreading of disease in sick dogs. With so many furry friends and people running around, it can be hard to keep track and stick close to help out when needed. There’s no vetting process for dog parks, as they’re a public amenity, so there’s no way to know if your new furry friend is vaccinated, trained, non-reactive or suitable for playing. Even the most well-behaved dog can sometimes react out of character when push comes to shove. There’s issues with resource-guarding, territorial behaviours, or schoolyard bullying which can be hard to predict and stop in an emergency.
Even in a park full of the friendliest bunch, the environment itself might be cause for concern. As a public access area, there can be risk of injury through rocky terrain, litter like broken glass or plastic, diseased and unsafe curiosities like dumped food or native animal detritus (including wastage and bodies) and the disgustingly common practice of dog baiting.
These are all concerns, but this doesn’t mean the end for off-leash exercise for your dog, or even dog parks. There are a few things you can do and consider, courtesy of clever folks like the RSPCA and dog trainers, to give your pet the best experience exercising in public spaces.
Socialisation in puppies under 12 months is an important step in having a safe, well-trained dog, however socialisation doesn’t begin and end with other dogs. Socialisation means your dog doesn’t react explosively (positively or negatively) to new people, and can remain at or return to their baseline very effectively in the excitement. Socialised dogs are calm, friendly and aware of their surroundings. Putting a young pup in a busy dog park, letting them off-leash and letting them run is not an effective way to socialise: it puts the dog in an overwhelming and unpredictable environment where they will react without support. It could lead to your dog forming reactive habits or become fearful in social environments. It’s stressful and anathema to teaching your pet how to stay calm. It’s like being on the job on your first day with no training, no instruction manual and no friendly co-workers to show you to your desk. Absolute chaos.
Socialisation should happen in a controlled and calm environment, in stages, ideally with the help of an informed trainer. You can socialise a young dog with humans just as effectively as with other dogs. In fact, for the first few months of a puppies life, socialisation should not happen with other animals, unless it’s another animal that lives in the house or a family pet that visits often, OR with the help of a certified trainer in a puppy school.
Dogs are like children, and no, not just because we love them like one, but because of their developmental and mental levels. Training a dog is like teaching a child the important skills they need for life: it requires repetition, structure and patience. If you’re taking your dog to a dog park, having a dog that comes when called, sticks by your side and listens to you is very important for their safety and the safety of others. Without being aware, involved and reinforcing important training elements like recall, dogs may pick up other dog’s behaviours, become disobedient, and struggle to keep up with the practices taught in training.
If you choose to take your dog to an off-leash park, ensure you’re aware and practising training techniques before, during and after. Reinforce the practices you’ve developed together and ensure you reward them for keeping it up. If you see a dog that may be teaching your dog behaviours you don’t want, remove them and find somewhere else to exercise your pet.
Backyards are getting smaller and smaller as the population grows, and no one is blaming you for trying to find a way to give your pet the exercise they need. If there’s a well-maintained, clean dog park near you, see if you can find a time when it is empty or not very busy so your dog has room to move on their own. Consider keeping up with puppy training for as long as you can, or a club which teaches dogs physical tricks like weave poles and tunnels.
If you’re a busy person, consider doggy daycare which does include a vetting processing and constant supervision — these are rising in popularity in cities across the world including the Sunshine Coast (ensure you’ve vetted the daycare, just like you would a babysitter for your child, including cleanliness, supervision levels and capacity).
If you have a friend or family member that has a dog too, and a backyard, consider setting up regular playdates. It means the humans get to catch up, and the dogs do, too (make sure that both dogs get along and, ideally, share the same values and ideas around dog obedience as you do).
If your dog has great recall, find a small, quiet and ideally fenced in park to let your dog run. Ensure you’ve developed a technique for when unexpected things happen, including other animals and people appearing, loud noises, cars etc. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with going for walks in the cooler mornings/afternoons (especially if you make time for your dog’s desire to smell and look at everything around them), or bringing your dog with you on errands (ensure you know the dog policy around the places you’re going): there’s nothing cuter or more fulfilled than a Bunnings dog.
Physical exercise is not the only requirement dog’s need to be happy: mental enrichment is very important too, for brain health, and to prevent lethargy and mental degradation. Keep your dog young forever by involving mental exercises to your pets routine (most of which you can do at home). Treat balls, lick mats and obstacle courses are great mental enrichment for your pet.
Doing the Dog Park
So, you really love the dog park. You’re very grateful to all of those groovy people in the 70s who worked hard to create the phenomenon that is dog parks and you don’t want all their hard work to go to waste. We’re hearing you. Ensure you’re staying aware, training your pet, that they’re vaccinated and healthy, free from injury and not outside of their comfort zones. Naturally shy or anxious dogs won’t get the enrichment from dog parks that they need, so only take your dog if they seem like the type. Communicate with your local council about the quality and maintenance of the dog parks and do your part to make dog parks safer, more fun and enjoyable for everyone!
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