Dog Parks Are Like Shopping at Walmart — socializing your dog the right way

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We are blessed to live in Victoria, which is such a dog-friendly community.  We have numerous dog-parks where we are able to enjoy our dog’s off-leash. However, I’m starting to see a myth about Dog Parks and I need to debunk it!

Dogs are known as Man’s best Friend.  And truly they are.  However, many of the dogs that I work with now a days would rather go play with other dogs than be with their owners.  They ditch their owners in a heart -beat to interact with a complete canine-stranger.  Their owners are not their best friend’s.  Complete dog-strangers at the dog park are.

I’ve been observing it for a while, and trying to understand why people are creating this in their dogs.

In my world with my fellow dog-trainer friends, all of our dogs are side by side, and barely even take a sideways glance at each other.  How is it that my dogs and my friend’s dogs don’t even acknowledge others of their species and are completely happy and balanced in their lives when many of my clients’ dogs would drag them in front of a bus, for a chance to frolic with a complete stranger?

I have the answer, and it is Dog Parks. We have misunderstood their purpose.  Dog Parks are a safe place to exercise your dog who is under control at all times, even when off leash.  However, they have become a giant dog-daycare where dogs are expected to run and play with little human-interaction, all hidden under the guise of socialization.  This leads me to goals…

If I were to ask my friends why they went to the Dog Park and what they did on their outing, they would tell me of the games they played with their dog, or how their dog made them laugh on their walk, or how their dog was simply a dog and is now tired.  If I were to ask my clients what they did at the Dog Park they would give me a list of the dogs that their dog liked, and perhaps even disliked.  Trainers and my clients have different dogs because of different goals and focus-points for our walk.

We dog trainers go to enjoy our dogs.  Regular Folk get enjoyment from watching their dogs have fun with other dogs.    Trainers engage with their dogs.  Regular folk want their dog’s to engage with others.

Now here is the fascinating part of human nature at the Dog Park.  Even if a dog dislikes other dogs, the human need doesn’t change:  Owners still  want their dog to have fun with other dogs.  Their fun does not come from engaging with their dog.  Their walk is fun or failure depending upon their dog’s ability to engage and play with complete canine-strangers.

Myself, I have always equated Dog Parks to me shopping at Walmart.  When I go to Walmart, I rarely look at strangers in the eyes.  I might casually sweep my eyes on them, and then past them, but I don’t stare at anyone.  For the most part, other than the occasional nod or smile, I walk around the store like they do not even exist.

However, when I was a young child, I sat in my cart and talked to strangers.  I looked at everyone, greeted strangers from my boring seat, and more often than not, got smiles, waves, and minor greetings in return.  Once in a blue moon I also received scowls!

There came a time when I was growing up that I was in this awkward age, being a bit too old to greet boring strangers, yet hadn’t learned how to be an ignoring-adult.  My greetings were more boisterous and pushy.  Or I was completely shy and awkward not knowing how to behave.  Fortunately this was a short lived period, and I quickly learned how adults behave in my culture and abandoned my previous greetings and eye contact of everyone.

Dogs are exactly the same.  Puppies are learning and greet everyone, regardless of the social cue that was given.  Most adult dog’s tolerate it, a few scowl and dislike it, and young recipient dogs love every minute of the greeting and the play begins.

Eventually they grow up a bit, and either become boisterous and pushy in their greetings, or shy and awkward, or both.  This awkward adolescent stage doesn’t last long, and quickly they SHOULD learn adult behaviour.

The adult behaviour is ignoring most of the other dogs in the park.  They casually scan their eyes over approaching dogs, and just meander past, the same as me and my shopping cart.  There will be moments where they give a canine-handshake equivalent of a bum-sniff to an interesting stranger, then meander on.  And once in a blue moon they might even have a rip-roaring game with a complete stranger though this is an annual event for my dogs.

However, my clients are teaching the opposite.  They are telling their dogs that they want them to play with and greet everyone there.  Even when on leash, the dogs get taken to other dogs to sniff them.  These dogs quickly learn how to please their owners; by greeting other dogs.  They quickly become dog-obsessed.

I think that most dog-aggression is caused by our human need for them to be friendly and to play with others.  If we could change the focus of our walks to enjoying each other as human and dog, and the other dogs being irrelevant to our enjoyment, then the pressure of them to have to be friendly is gone.  Shortly so will their aggression.  I believe aggression is being caused by our own human-need for them to all be friends, rather than to just mind their manners.

Aggressive dogs that go on weekly walks with their dog-walker and pack of dogs demonstrate this.  They get along perfectly well with dogs they know, but they have no intention of being nice to in-your-face strangers.

We must let go of who we think they should be, and learn to enjoy who they are…

This all got started with a misunderstanding of the meaning of SOCIALIZATION.  Dogs need to be socialized.  That means that dogs need to SEE the world, and handle it with social grace.  We need to teach them the skills and habits necessary for participating within our society.  Unfortunately socialization got misunderstood as interacting and playing.

Puppies do need to play, and will gradually learn the social rules of adult dogs.  Adult dogs will also have rip roaring games with their established dog-friends.  Reggie still dreams of Clarabelle the Mastiff.  Clarabelle is his giant friend, and he has a relationship with her that developed from fun and trust.  Together they are uninhibited and free, in a way that neither of them would ever be with a strange dog.

On your next visits to the dog park, please focus on enjoying your dog.  Dog ownership is about them making us laugh, but they can only do that if we actually interact with them.  Start playing with your dog on your walks, and enjoying him and our beautiful nature.  Remove your own obsessive need for him to sniff and greet everyone, and instead focus on playing with him.

If you have an adult dog that you have taught to be dog-obsessed, make sure you walk and don’t stop when you pass another dog.  The purpose of your walk is to walk!  If you quit becoming obsessed about other dogs and instead keep walking, your dog will too.  He will learn to float his eyes past other dogs, then walk on past with minimal interest, just the same as you would when you are shopping at Walmart and you pass a complete stranger.

I apologize for crushing your ideals for your dog, however, if you do as I have suggested, you will end up with dogs like mine and my friends, that will adore you and want to play with you, and will always listen to what you have to say, even when other dogs are present!

Monique Anstee

Victoria, BC



Well written and informative!

Love this!!

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