We can all agree that dogs are social animals. Getting proper socialization starting at 10-12 weeks of age is critical.
The new approach to socialization is to have a balanced approach to their immune vulnerability and their emotional development. You have to mindfully expose your puppy to various environments, people, noises, surfaces, dogs, other species, objects, etc before their critical window shuts down at about 16 weeks of age. After that you will be doing remedial socialization, again being mindful on how you expose your youngster to novel stimuli.
Dogs reach young adulthood at about 6 months of age when they have lost their milk-teeth and they have all their adult teeth in as well as when their sexual organs start ramping up with hormones. When to neutralize a dog is a whole other topic. For now, let’s talk about your first trip to the dog park with your youngster.
Youngsters should be at least 4 months old before venturing to the dog park and/or after they have received sufficient vaccinations from your veterinarian. This is due to the fact that there are a few diseases that are transmitted in such environments like: parvovirus, leptospirosis, kennel cough, hepatitis just to name a few (List).
The earlier you can expose your dog to well-rounded social dogs the better. At about age 2-3+, dogs become more selective in their ‘friends’. So what is your approach to introducing your youngster to the dog park? First I would suggest that you go when there are no dogs. Allow your dog to become familiar to the environment without the added distraction. Allow them to investigate and you can practice basic manners with them like sit, come, leave-it.
Set the Tone
BUT before you actually enter the park… may I suggest that you set the tone in the car. If you want a dog that is under control and is able to comply with your cues under the influence of high distractions then start your work at the car. Again, best done when there are no actual distractions to derail you.
The dog must have some self-control when you open the car door and wait for a cue from you to exit the car. Bolting out of the car and disengaging from you isn’t ideal. Use the Premack Principle to get from Point A to Point B (can you do this to earn that) or you may need to use a high rate of reinforcement for desired behaviors as you get to Point A to Point B. If you allow for uncontrolled chaos to occur as you get to the dog park and walk to the park with chaos… guess what you are training? Chaos. Once you get into the park, the unclasping of the leash shouldn’t be the cue to immediately bolt away from you. The dog should learn to again have self-control while the leash is removed from the equipment and wait for your cue to “go play”.
Keep It Short
Your first few visits should be on the short side so not to overwhelm your youngster and so that you can assess their preference in time of day and/or individual dogs they like to engage with. If the dog park has a separate area for small dogs and it’s not being used, that could be a good first step to being in close proximity to adult dogs without potentially being in harm’s way. This is especially good if you have a dog that is sensitive or cautious with new individuals.
You have to remember that anything can be a learning experience. I would advise that you observe play from the other dogs before you enter the dog park with your inexperienced dog.
What does appropriate play look like? You want to look for: bouncy movement, taking turns, sparky meta-signals, self-handicapping, and self-interruption. Meta-Signals are body cues from a dog to another that indicates what is to follow is not meant as a threat but for play engagement. Youngsters lack experience so they aren’t able to ‘read dog’ well. Encouragement from you with a well-adjusted adult for play is a good start. As they play, you have to monitor their play and step in and act as a ‘referee.’ Interrupt play frequently at the beginning of their play skills development. If a chase game or intense interaction occurs for too long the chance of a fight increases significantly. Play aggression is something to watch out for and you need to know how to interrupt inappropriate behaviors safely. Again… that could be another topic onto itself.
Keen Observation of Behavior
Some behaviors can be obvious for us to interpret like a tucked tail, turning head away, moving away, and hiding under a table or around people, snapping, baring teeth, growling could all be signs that a dog is afraid or stressed. Straight angels and a high tail barely moving is also a warning sign. Other warning signs to look for are: leaning forward, staring directly at another dog, and moving slowly.
Another thing to be aware of is the size difference between dogs. There is a reason when most dog parks have a big dog section and small dog section. Small dogs can easily become overwhelmed by the play and size of big dogs causing them to be anxious and stressed. Big dogs playing with small dogs can turn into a dire situation IF the small dogs intensify its behavior to escape or fight. The small dog’s behavior can trigger predatory drift in the bigger dog.
Dogs at different ages and from different breeds have their own ‘play style’ which may or may not mesh well with others. Some youngsters can be over-the-top in their initial greeting and too intense in their play engagement that most adult dogs will ‘correct’ them for the inappropriate behaviors. Some dogs like to body slam, some like to box, some like to chase aggressively, some dogs mouth/bite, and some dogs bully. When I went to the SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers lead by Jean Donaldson, we learnt about the following play styles and how to modify them: Tarzan, bully, police, asocial, proximity sensitive, resource guarder, compulsive fighter, A-1 player, and play skill deficit. Jean Donaldson mentions them and how to work on them, in her book Fight!
Potential Other Problems:
- If you aren’t aware of the pattern you reinforce you soon teach your dog that you are irrelevant and they don’t pay attention to you in a high distracting environment
- We tend to poison the cue “come”
- Some sensitive/cautious dogs can use aggression as pro-active self-defense and becomes a learnt behavior around unfamiliar dogs
- The right to meet and greet every single dog they encounter on or off-leash. This can lead to ‘leash aggression’ / reactivity.
- Resource guarding behaviors at the park around toys, treats, vomit, water bowl, entrance.
- Socially facilitated behaviors like a ‘dog-pile’ during a fight
- Owners don’t recognize problem behaviors
- Owners “correct” dog for actual appropriate behaviors but they think they are wrong due to lack of understanding or knowledge of canine social interactions.
- Letting dogs “work it out” is also very dangerous
Go Slow and Easy
Go slow and easy when introducing your young dog to new places and social experiences. Over time you should be able to recognize what sort of play style they have and which dogs they would do best with. Allow them to develop social skills gradually rather than ‘throwing them at the deep end of the pool and hoping they will swim’ approach. A traumatic experience, just one, can have enough of a mental and emotional impact on them to develop lasting behavioral issues.
Daphne Robert-Hamilton, CPDT-KA
Daphne Robert-Hamilton is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. She was a Certified Equestrian Coach by the Canadian Equestrian Federation before moving into the dog training world. She competed extensively with her two Doberman Pinschers from 1997-2002 and achieved being a finalist in the Top 20 Obedience in 2000 and 2002 with the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. In 2002 Daphne graduated from the SFSPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, which is now defunked. She went on to intern at the SFSPCA Academy and graduated with honors in dog aggression. Daphne became the go-to trainer in the SF Bay Area for aggression cases. Daphne has done webinars, been interviewed in several dog magazines and has written a two part article on “sibling rivalry” for The Chronicle of The Dog. Daphne was the Head Trainer for Washington state for Pets for Vets for about two years. She has fostered many dogs helping them find loving forever homes. Daphne is a member of The Pet Professional Guild.
Daphne has been married for 24yrs and currently lives with her two Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Washington State.
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