Lately I have been contacted by a number of clients who have concerns with their dog’s behavior toward other dogs in off leash park situations, yet continue to take their dog there to help him “get socialized”. These people may mean well, but taking a dog who is not good with other dogs to an off leash dog park can make matters worse. The saying “practice makes perfect” applies to this situation. The more a dog practices aggression or poor social skills, the better he becomes at this behavior. He will choose to engage in it more often, because it has desired results for him. This situation can put both the other dogs and your own dog at risk.
Most dogs who behave aggressively toward other dogs are, in fact, fearful and insecure. These dogs behave aggressively in an attempt to make the other dogs go away and stop approaching them. Dogs who are fearful or uncomfortable meeting “stranger” dogs constantly feel threatened and stressed while at the off leash park. Owners often do not understand the dog’s attempts to communicate its feelings, often misinterpret the dog’s behavior as the dog being “dominant”, and may even resort to punishing the dog for his discomfort and anxiety.
Imagine if you were fearful or concerned about being around snakes, and were brought to an area where snakes were everywhere, approaching you and making contact with you repeatedly. You may try to defend yourself against the perceived threat, even if the snakes were friendly. If you were able to prevent the snakes from touching you by striking out at them, you would continue to do this, as this strategy works for you and keeps you safe. Now imagine that you were punished by someone every time you reacted out of fear to protect yourself. If the punishment were unpleasant enough, you may suppress your desire to strike out at the snakes, but you would still not feel comfortable in the situation. In fact, you may feel worse about snakes. This is what happens when we punish dogs who feel uncomfortable around other dogs.
A dog who is fearful or uncomfortable around other dogs does not merely need to be exposed to other dogs in order to “get socialized”, or learn to face his fears. This type of dog needs carefully choreographed, controlled exposures to other dogs, ensuring that the dog never feels threatened. During these exposures, we want the dog to associate great rewards with being around other dogs, to help change the dog’s feelings about being around dogs from “bad” to “good”. Working with a certified professional dog trainer or taking part in a reactive dog class can assist you with changing this association for your dog.
Your dog should not be required to go to the dog park if he is uncomfortable there. Please ask yourself who you are going to the dog park for: Does your dog truly enjoy the experience? Most adult dogs do not want or need to play like they did when they were puppies, and many become intolerant of interactions with other dogs as they age. Each meeting with a stranger dog is stressful, in that the main purpose of the meeting is to establish relative status, and there may not always be agreement between the dogs. Some dogs simply do not enjoy the off leash dog park experience, and would be much happier being exercised in another manner. We owe it to our canine companions to understand this and respond accordingly.