After three years of tireless volunteer fundraising and campaigning, our community dog park is finally open! The dog park team worked hard to ensure that our park is a special place for our local dogs and their people, and that included requiring that all human dog park members attend an hour-long orientation session that detailed the rules of the park, and more importantly, canine body language.
The mandatory class raised eyebrows around town. People wondered what we could possibly tell them that they didn’t already know about dog parks and dog behavior. Since I’m on the front lines of the local dog world in my store, I knew that there was plenty for the future members to learn. The most important lesson? What kind of dog should visit a dog park.
As the grand opening date approached, many people stopped by my store and expressed their excitement. “I can’t wait to bring my dog to the park to get socialized,” they’d say to me. When I dug a little deeper about what they meant, the people usually told me that they didn’t know how their dog was going to do in the park. They told me stories about how their dogs hadn’t had a chance to play with canine friends since puppyhood, or that they thought their dogs liked the company of other dogs but they weren’t quite sure.
One of my favorite slides in the orientation session included the following quote:
A dog park is for socializing, not socialization. (Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC)
That simple sentence sums up why behavior can quickly go off the rails at unregulated dog parks. Dogs attending parks should have a history of appropriate play with other dogs – there shouldn’t be any guesswork about how the dog is going to react to the unfamiliar environment and crowds of dogs. A visit to the dog park shouldn’t be viewed as a free-for-all where an under-socialized or “troubled” dog can work out his issues. That’s unfair to the other canines in the park and potentially dangerous. A dog park is for dogs that welcome the company of other dogs and know how to respond accordingly to play and “cut off” signals when things get too rough. (On a related note, dog park attendees should have a good grasp of basic training cues like “come” and “stay” as well.)
We lost a few potential dog park members because of that slide. After my orientation sessions, people told me that prior to the class they had no clue that their dog wasn’t a good fit for dog parks. After taking an inventory of their dogs’ behavior, they realized that they could be putting the safety of their dog and the other canines at the park at risk. I commiserated with them (just because your dog can’t go to the park doesn’t make him a bad dog!), and thanked them for their honesty.
Our locked members-only dog park is controversial because of the registration steps we require of our members, but I’m confident that our park will remain a safe dog playground for years to come.
Do you take your dog to the dog park? Would you be more comfortable attending a park with membership requirements like the one in my town?