In today’s post, I want to talk about a potential problem that people run into because they misunderstand their dog’s needs.
If you poll dog trainers, you generally won’t get the same answer from any of us. We tend to disagree about everything. Sometimes I think that’s just for sport. You could ask “What’s the best color shoe to train dogs in?” and some trainers would argue that red or gray or black shoes are better than others. The reality is this: we don’t agree on many things.
But there’s one thing that most trainers actually agree on: don’t take your dogs to a dog park. Dog parks tend to create inappropriate relationships, which in turn lead to aggression and fear. The majority of the aggression and anxiety problems we see at my company stem from time at dog parks.
Every time I say this, I get an email from someone whose dog does wonderfully at parks. Well, some people can smoke cigarettes for ninety years without getting cancer, but that doesn’t mean that is good behavior! The same is true of dog parks. I’m sure that there are dogs out there who have no problem going to the park, but the percentage isn’t very high.
When I talk to people about dog parks, I try to get to the root of the issue. Owners often say that their dog loves the park, I don’t want to be that jerk who immediately replies: “Oh, that’s bad!” I want to get to the bottom of things and understand what people want their dogs to get out of the park. Many owners will say “My dog needs to play with other dogs,” or “We got two puppies at the same time so they wouldn’t get bored.”
Now, it’s not bad to get two puppies at the same time. Even though it’s sometimes a challenge, I’ve seen it work wonderfully for many clients over the years. And the mindset of wanting your dog to interact with other dogs isn’t incorrect. But I try to help people understand what their dog actually needs, rather than what they—as humans—tend to think the dog needs.
So what does a dog really need? Food, water, and outlets for their energy and drive. Good outlets might include a structured walk or a nose game—or play. But play with other dogs isn’t a need. If your dog goes his entire life without ever playing with another dog, he can still have an incredibly fulfilling life. In many cases, he will have a happier life than the dogs who are going to dog parks and being accosted and threatened by other dogs.
Your dog does not need to play with other dogs to have a good life. I’m sitting at home right now, with one of my dogs is on the floor and another on the bed. They aren’t playing together, because they don’t want to! Honey is an old lady—she’s fourteen—and Chip, who’s a year and a half. Chip might like to play with Honey, but Honey certainly doesn’t want to do that. No part of these dogs’ minds is occupied with a need to play with each other. They’re not thinking to themselves: “Gosh, I really need to get out to that dog park so I can play!”
If I were to take Chip to a dog park she might have a good time playing, but she doesn’t need to do that. Play can be accomplished perfectly well with just the two of us. You can get out a Frisbee or tennis ball or get down on the ground and wrestle. There are a whole variety of ways that your dog can experience the outlet of play.
Now, I’m not trying to say that letting your dog play with other dogs is a bad thing. That’s one outlet we can give. I run a structured daycare, and that’s a wonderful thing for dogs who really want to play. Many of my clients have play dates with their neighbors or friends and their dogs.
Playing isn’t the problem: thinking your dog needs play is the problem. That’s the mentality that leads people to buy second dogs before their first dog is even trained, or to go to public places like dog parks that create issues and challenges for their dog. It’s important to weigh what you want your dog to have against what your dog actually requires. In a perfect world, would I let my dog go to a dog park and run around with other dogs, having a great time? Of course! But I don’t live in a perfect world. I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a big chunk of dogs at the park have aggression and anxiety issues.
I wouldn’t socialize my kids at a prison, for the same reason that I won’t take my dogs to the dog park. It’s not a good environment for them to learn about social interaction. Instead, my dogs go to day care or have playtime with other well-behaved dogs. I play with them. My kids play with them. They live very fulfilled and happy lives, because they have exactly what they need—and what they want, too!