Why Dog Parks Aren't Always Ideal for Socialization

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

puppy socialization

Story at-a-glance -

  • The word “socialization” in reference to dogs is often misused; puppies require socialization, while adult dogs need appropriate social interactions
  • Socialization of puppies involves introducing them, at a specific age, to a wide range of unfamiliar stimuli in a safe manner so they learn not to fear new experiences and challenges
  • Dog parks can be overwhelming to puppies during the socialization period (not to mention a disease risk), so it’s best to wait until they’re past the puppy stage to see if they enjoy social interactions with other dogs in a dog park setting
  • Many adult dogs enjoy dog parks, but many don’t; canines aren’t social in the sense of making friends with every dog they meet — this is a human notion that doesn’t readily apply to dogs
  • There are many ways to arrange for your dog to have social interactions throughout her life, depending on her personality and temperament

Many pet parents who frequent dog parks go there because they believe their canine family member needs “socializing,” however, the meaning of the word when it comes to dogs is a bit muddled. As animal behaviorist and professional dog trainer Karen London explains in a recent issue of Bark magazine:

“Jargon can create communication problems and misunderstandings in any field, especially in a field such as [canine] behavior, which uses many common English words in specific and sometimes non-standard ways. Only puppies can be socialized in the technical sense, but adult dogs can benefit from social interaction.”1

Puppy Socialization and Dog Parks

Socialization means exposing your puppy to as many new and safe people, animals, environments and other stimuli as much as possible without overwhelming her (more about this shortly).

Socialization should engage all of her senses through exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of daily life. This exposure will help her develop a comfort level with new and different situations, with the result that she'll learn to handle new experiences and challenges with acceptable, appropriate behavior. A well-socialized puppy is:

  • Handled from birth and learns to accept touching of all body parts
  • Positive exposure to as many people, other animals, places and situations as possible
  • Encouraged to explore and investigate her environment
  • Allowed to experience a variety of toys and games, surfaces, and other stimuli
  • Regularly brought along on car rides to new environments with her human

Puppies go through several development stages on their journey to maturity, and it’s between the ages of 5 and 16 weeks — the “socialization” or “sensitive” period — that they are most open to investigating new environments and stimuli.

Many responsible breeders institute early puppy socialization and environmental stimulation shortly after birth through placement in their new home, which can have very positive effects. Puppies not given a full range of socialization opportunities by about 10 weeks can develop fear of the unfamiliar.

As I noted earlier, it’s equally important not to overwhelm or create fear in puppies during the socialization period, and it’s easy to do, which is why London doesn’t like puppies to go to the dog park:

“It’s far too likely that another dog will overdo it (perhaps aggressively, but more commonly due to an overabundance of exuberance),” she writes, “and scare or overwhelm the puppy, setting up a young dog for a life of concern about other dogs.

Dog parks are better for dogs once they are past the puppy stage, but puppies can and should have play dates with very small groups of sociable dogs who play appropriately.”

Adult Dog Social Interaction and Dog Parks

If you’ve spent much time with dogs, you’ve probably learned that not every canine companion loves to mix and mingle with others of his species at places like dog parks. But because dogs are social animals and in the wild tend to live in social group units, many people are convinced that every dog everywhere lives to be around other dogs, and further, there’s something “wrong” with dogs who don’t.

This just isn’t true, and if you have a furry family member who’s less than enthusiastic about being with his own kind, it’s never a good idea to force the issue, as it will only cause him to feel even more uncomfortable. “Not all dogs need to be around other dogs or benefit from being social in the general sense, but many do,” says London.

Dogs who genuinely enjoy being around other dogs are easy to spot, as their body language and approach are relaxed, friendly, and often playful. Dogs who are fearful, on the other hand, will frequently try to keep their distance when another dog approaches. Their ears may lie flat against their head; and they may lick their lips or look away.

Fear can also cause a more apprehensive dog to behave in an aggressive manner by barking, growling, snarling, or snapping at an approaching dog.

If your dog is extremely fearful or aggressive around other dogs, I recommend consulting a veterinary behaviorist to help you determine what’s causing the behavior and how best to handle it at a pace and with techniques that don’t make the problem worse. Above all, being aggressive or forceful with an aggressive dog is a terrible choice.

Finally, there are dogs who will approach other dogs or allow them to approach, exchange greetings, and then move on quickly to something more interesting.

Again, like people, dogs’ personalities don’t necessarily remain fixed throughout their lives. In fact, if owners haven’t kept up on providing a variety of consistent and positive (I suggest daily) puppy socialization opportunities that morph into regular teenage and adult dog social opportunities, many pet parents realize their formerly friendly, social youngster has grown disinterested or even guarded when other dogs are around.

You can dramatically reduce the likelihood of this happening by providing safe and enjoyable social excursions consistently through a dog’s first year of life, based on his preferences for “fun.”

If your dog seems uncomfortable around other dogs, it’s never a good idea to force the issue, as it will only cause him to feel even more stressed and anxious. As humans, we certainly don’t want to be forced to be around people we have nothing in common with, or worse, people or environments we dislike, fear or are wary of.

It’s also important not to automatically assume that if your pet doesn’t do well at dog parks, he's anti-social or unfriendly toward all other canines. In reality, mature dogs are more likely not to “play nice” with unfamiliar dogs in a dog park.

Canines aren’t social in the sense of making friends with every dog they meet. This is a human notion that isn’t compatible with the true nature of dogs. It’s actually incorrect, on our part, to assume all adult canines want to to casually mix and mingle with large groups of strange dogs. This is why dog parks get a bad rap; the risk of things going wrong is high.

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Tips for Lifelong Social Interaction and Mental Stimulation

One-on-one play dates — If your canine BFF is on the shy side and you have friends with dogs who do well with other dogs, arrange play dates with one compatible dog at a time. Put your dog and her friend in a safe, enclosed area and let them get to know each other.

This is a low-pressure social situation in which your pet can hone her skills without being overwhelmed by too many dogs, or an overly dominant dog. If things go well, you can arrange future outings for the four of you to take walks or hikes, toss Frisbees, fetch tennis balls, go swimming, etc.

Obedience classes — Obedience classes provide an environment in which all the dogs are kept under control. This can be very helpful if your pet seems wary or fearful around other dogs. Organized, fear-free classes give him the opportunity to be around other dogs, but from a slight distance. Many facilities have classes and programs specifically for shy or undersocialized dogs.

Dog agility events — If it makes sense for you and your dog, get involved in dog agility competitions. These events provide a great opportunity for your dog to be exposed to other dogs and people while getting lots of exercise, mental stimulation, and shared time with you.

K9 nose work — Nose work encourages your dog to use his natural hunting drive and unique talent for picking up scents and locating the source. In classes, dogs work one at a time and rest crated or safely in a vehicle between searches, so reactive dogs can enjoy the activity, too.

Focusing on scent detection can help reactive dogs learn to tolerate the presence of other dogs. It can help shy dogs grow more comfortable with their surroundings, and it encourages distracted dogs to stay on task.

Nose work is also beneficial for senior dogs, dogs recovering from surgery or an injury, dogs with hearing loss or eyesight problems, and retired service, working or competition dogs. It can also provide a great outlet for hyperactive dogs.

Therapy work — Another wonderful activity you can share with your pet, depending on his temperament and personality, is training to be an emotional support dog for pet therapy programs. These dogs and their humans visit hospitals, nursing homes, detention units, rehab facilities, certain schools, senior citizen apartments and other places where people aren’t permitted to keep pets or aren’t able to care for them.

Other dog-centric activities — If agility isn’t your thing (or your dog’s), there are lots of other activities that might be, including flying disc, dock jumping, flyball, flygility, herding, hunt and field trials, musical freestyle and heel work, to name just a few. Dogplay.com is a good resource for exploring organized exercise and social interaction possibilities for your dog.

Doggy daycare — Another possible option for socializing and exercise is to enroll your pet in a doggy daycare program one or two days a week. You want to ensure the facility you choose has at a minimum a knowledgeable staff trained in dog communication and interaction, separate play areas for dogs of different sizes, and supervised playgroups.

Extensive temperament tests should be performed on all dogs to evaluate their behavior in the daycare environment. Introduction to the group should be gradual for all new dogs. One word of caution about doggy daycare facilities: many still require over-vaccination of dogs, but more and more facilities are accepting parvo and distemper titers in lieu of mandatory repeated and immunologically unnecessary vaccinations.

Walking your dog — Last but not least, never underestimate the social value of regular daily walks or hikes with your dog. You both get fresh air, stress-relief, and perhaps even heart-thumping exercise, and opportunities to encounter old and new two- and four-legged friends.

If your dog likes other dogs, plays appropriately, and has had positive experiences at well-managed dog parks in the past, as long as the one you choose has plenty of space and responsible pet owners, it’s fine to add it to your dog’s activity list.

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