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The Ball Pit at McDonald's: Why Dog Parks are Not the Place to Teach Your Dog Socialization

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

If you know me you have heard me say this, its my favorite analogy for dog parks and why they are not the place to TEACH socialization. "Would you take your child to the ball pit at McDonald's, throw them in, sit back and expect them to learn proper social skills?" That's what you are doing at the dog park with your puppies and new dogs. Just as you wouldn't want your human child learning habits from every other kid they meet, you do not want your dog learning habits from just anyone's dog. This is why I spend so much time with my puppy parents on what proper socialization is and is not.

Take this example, you have a 6 month old puppy that hasn't been around other dogs much. She's confident and boisterous at home, but is a bit more reserved in pubic. Your first time at the dog park she is mobbed at the gate by bigger dogs who then proceed to follow her around and pick on her. This is detrimental as she becomes more shy about dogs coming towards her, even outside the dog park. Her attempts to flee that are being ignored by the other dogs (and their owners and maybe you as you think they're "just playing") cause her to escalate her behavior with barking and snapping to see if that gets them to back off. If she's not learning that proper dog play means give and take and that when asked the other dog backs off, she could develop an issue with how she sees other dog's intentions.

Now you'll notice I emphasized "teaching" socialization. I mean just that. If you've done your homework and had your dog playing and learning from balanced dogs of their age and older, the dog park *can* be a fun place to blow off some steam. Once your dog is solid in their play skills a rude dog will not phase them as much (and they may even teach that dog some manners through their play, maybe). The biggest problems with dog parks is inattentive humans. Sadly as a mom I see this on the play grounds of human children too. You're watching your phone, or chatting with another person and something happens. You didn't see it start so assume it wasn't your dog that caused it, but maybe it was. So your dog is in no way corrected for their rude behavior, and maybe another dog suffered the consequences. Now you've got vet bills to pay or face a suit. It happens so fast! The dynamic of the playgroup changes with every dog that comes or goes. If you watch at a park you'll catch it. A group of dogs are all playing pretty well together, grouped in one area, but then another dog comes through the gate. Now most if not all of the dogs are investigating that dog and the group seems tenser for a time as they get their new pecking order. Hopefully the new dog is well adjusted and things calm back down. However if the new dog is inexperienced around groups the situation can escalate quickly.

While I don't bring my personal dogs to dog parks, many people do and that's fine. But I would caution you to become familiar with canine body language and proper play before heading through that gate. Know your dog well enough to notice their cut off signals (ie, hey man I don't want to play with you anymore) so you can get them out of a situation before it goes too far. Find friends or family with dogs you'd like your puppy to act like and have them around that dog before trying the dog park. Even better, consult your local trainer. We set up play groups based on size, age, and temperament; so you can watch and learn while knowing your dog is having fun and being safe.

For the Dogs,

Christina, DTFC

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