The idea of off leash dog parks is pawsome- in theory. Open outdoor spaces where fur kids can run free to meet and play with other fur kids. What could be better, right?! It can be, if as a fur parent you know what to expect and you know your fur kid implicitly to prepare them accordingly.
Part one is knowing what to expect. The best way I know to describe the dog park experience is to liken it to a night out at the bar. Really, I mean it! Both are enter at your own risk experiences where the outcome greatly depends on your frame of mind at the time and the specific other attendees present. You are entering premises where there are implicit rules to follow, although interpretation plays a large part, and enforcement is not overly prevalent.
I have nothing against Friday nights out at the bar at all, but consider the implications. First, the bar scene is not for everyone all the time. There are people who just do not enjoy the experience for whatever reason and this is the same for fur kids going to the park. My Chows are well socialized but they are independent aloof personalities who care very little for mingling with others. They would much rather go for a nice long walk or shopping with me.
Secondly, going into a social situation where there are a lot of strangers takes a certain amount of confidence & practice. Some people just have more adaptable personalities to do this than others. This is not to say that this cannot be learned, but realize that this needs to be done gradually in a supported and safe environment. Given the number of unknown variables at the dog parks, I do not advocate them to be the proper teaching grounds for learning social confidence, especially for young fur kids. Properly supervised puppy classes, play groups, and dog daycares are some safer alternate environments for practicing socialization. This would be akin to humans attending classes or hobby/sport group events to develop social confidence.
Even confident fur kids benefit from a little support now and again, especially with unexpected encounters. As your fur kid’s “wingman” so to speak, you need to know how to accurately identify these situations and run the necessary interference. Overzealous fur kids can be overwhelming even to a well-adjusted fur kid, particularly if there are a number of them or if yours just isn’t in the mood to engage. Additionally, as with humans, there are also strangers who we just have no interest in getting to know, for no other reason than a gut instinct.
Being able to assess a situation accurately is not as easy as you might think. Many fur parents misread the body language and behaviours of their own fur kid, never mind those of strangers. As you can expect, this is a recipe for disaster, and this is my greatest caution about going to dog parks. Countless fur parents say “oh, they’re just playing” when that is not the case at all. Sometimes one fur kid is indeed “just playing”, but the one they’re trying to engage with isn’t. Best case scenario, the fur kid not interested walks away. Worst case scenario, the other fur kid is scared by the behaviour and either fights back or leaves with a negative experience. Alternatively, the “just playing” behaviour could actually be dominance driven and not friendly playfulness at all. This could be met with complete submissiveness or rivaling dominance which could then lead to an altercation.
Even in the case of “just playing”, it is important to know that play behaviour is contextual to the players. Play can include nipping, jumping, barking, growling, and tackling, but careful scrutiny of the body language of all parties is necessary to know the intent. Many fur parents cannot differentiate between when these behaviours are done in fun or as defensive manoeuvers. Play can also take a quick turn to serious when it gets too rambunctious- no different than when human horseplay goes awry.
The other common fur parent misconception is the belief that “my fur kid is friendly” supersedes the need to take any precautions. “Friendly” is a general and interpretative term. Think of the range of “friendly” people: the touchy feely in your personal space bubble people, the life of the party in the middle of everything people, the follow you around do everything you do people, etc. You get the idea. These “friendly” people are not always received as such by all people in all circumstances. This is true in the animal world too.
The ironic part of many “friendly” fur kids is that they don’t know how to take a social cue. They keep up with their friendly overtures to disapproving audiences even after receiving warning signals to stop. Then no one is more surprised than the “friendly” fur kid and his/her fur parents when a scuffle ensues. Harken back to the scene in the bar- the stranger who puts his arm around you may get away with just a dirty look, or you walking away, but if he caught you at the end of a bad day, it might be a punch in the nose.
In summary, decide if going to the dog park is beneficial to your fur kid by assessing what your fur kid’s personality is, being realistic about what their socializing needs are, and understanding that the other park attendees will have different expectations and agendas than yourself. As with a night out at the bar, be in the right frame of mind, be the supportive pal for your fur kid, and know when to call it a night. Unlike going to the bar, no one at the park will be checking the other patrons for admissibility.