I love the idea of dog parks. These canine-centered parks give dogs a chance to socialize and play with their own kind. Just as importantly, playtime reduces canine anxiety, boredom and frustration, and should help a dog behave better a home.
Unfortunately, some owners have reported that their dogs actually learn new (bad) tricks while at the dog park. A 2004 study compared a number of bad behaviors in dogs that attend dog parks versus those that don't -- owners noted that their pets frequenting dog parks actually had an increase in misbehavior such as dominance aggression, fear aggression and leash aggression. (Read Trish King's study at www.4pawsu.com/Dog%20Parks.pdf)
This doesn't mean that dog parks are bad, it just means that owners need to understand what lessons their dogs may be learning when they go there. Learning from others is not unique to dogs, every parent knows that their children learn things at school (from the other kids) that wouldn't have been taught at home!
Why do some good dogs go bad at dog parks? One reason is that every dog breed is different, and different breeds don't always speak the same language. A herding dog may not understand that a Labrador is trying to play when it jumps on him, and a Labrador may not realize that a herding dog is playing when it nips at his heels.
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Furthermore, dog parks can reinforce bad behavior. We've all seen the owner who calls his dog 50 times -- if that dog isn't responding on the 10th "come here," is he likely to respond on the 50th? Of course not. If your dog is having fun at the park and doesn't come back to you when you call him, what's going happen the next time you call him in from the backyard? Learned disobedience can be a serious consequence of bending the rules just because your dog is having fun at the park.
The increased aggression in some dogs may be due to the increased opportunities for conflict. Even the most docile dog can be provoked into a fight, particularly over resources such as food, treats or toys. Some dogs will protect "real estate," which is either the proximity to their owner or the corner of a bench, etc. When dogs get into these fights at dog parks and see that it had the desired effect (i.e. they got the treats), they may start to use this aggression at home and guard their corner of the couch or food dish.
Ultimately, it's up to the owner to understand his dog's nature and read the body language of the dogs he is playing with -- are they being good dogs or bad dogs? If your dog is going to attend the dog park, you should first be required to read a book like "Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook" by Barbara Hanelman.
Dog parks are a great idea, and I look forward to Merced's dog park getting up and running in the near future. If you plan to take your pet to the dog park, then now is the time to brush up on his basic obedience, because he may learn some bad manners when he's hanging out with the hounds!
Dr. Jon Klingborg is a veterinarian associated with Valley Animal Hospital in Merced. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.