As a dog trainer, I try to keep in mind that when we work with live animals, there will always be concessions to be made. We adapt. We find alternative ways of doing things and compromise where we must. Training clients have a variety of requests in regards to training that I will try to accommodate, if possible. However, there are some common requests that I find myself fielding more frequently than others. Inspired by the never-ending loop of my own voice answering the same questions with regularity, I have decided to write an article series addressing some of these frequent inquiries. I’ll start off with one of the most common requests I have run into recently.
“Can we hold our training session at our local dog park?”
Speaking as someone who not always a dog trainer, I can completely understand the thought process behind this question. At first thought, this seems like it might be a pretty decent idea. You have the opportunity to take your dog out into a high-distraction area outdoors, and work on the training you’ve been practicing all week. There are generally other dogs readily available to train against, and you want your trainer to be with you to explain the necessary steps and help refine your commands. Dog parks are generally a large open space (something some urban residents rarely have access to), and provide the opportunity to work on long-range recall with distractions, leave it, overstimulation, reactivity, and socialization. After all, we want to practice our commands and social behaviors in the real world, where we need them to work right?
There have been an increase in videos from YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok dog trainers working with their client dog in, or immediately around, an active dog park. While I understand that there are some highly visible professionals advocating for these types of exercises, there are several reasons why I do not hold training sessions at dog parks. This is out of consideration for the physical health and safety of your pet, out of my sense of responsibility as a dog trainer to provide the best behavioral outcome during training, and out of respect for the rules and other dog park attendees. Simply put, the dog park is not an appropriate place for us to hold a training session.
Most training methods utilize food in some capacity as a motivator or reinforcer during the learning phase. Positive Reinforcement training specifically relies on utilizing a reinforcer that the dog likes in order to achieve a desired performance. Many people begin training using food as a motivator, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! But it is never a good idea to bring food into the dog park, as it can cause resource guarding and possessive behaviors that can easily lead to physical altercations. All dog parks in Dallas County strictly prohibit food in the dog park (both human and canine). I also take into consideration that some things I bring into the park could be harmful if ingested by another dog. Many pets have allergies, specific diets, or regulatory disorders that prevent them from processing and eating certain foods. While my training dog may be able to live like a professional trash panda with no digestive consequences, others may be very sensitive to the edibles I am handling. I personally own a dog with dietary restrictions, and we must be very careful to monitor his food intake. It would be physically harmful to him and likely financially damaging to our family if he were to be given or gain access to treats he should not have.
Even if your dog trains with a favorite toy instead of food, the chances are good that other dogs in the park might also be highly motivated by your dog’s toy. Interest and interference from other dogs can make reinforcing properly difficult and can lead to undesirable results. Dogs can resource guard toys, people, and spaces, as well as food. Resource guarding is also known as “possessive aggression” and dogs with issues relating to aggression should not be in uncontrolled group play scenarios. Unfortunately, even if YOUR dog shares politely, another may not. While toys are not prohibited at the dog park, I always recommend using caution when gauging the interest of another dog in your dog’s high value toy. I prefer to train in controlled conditions where the dog is not under stress of having a reward taken from them and proper reinforcement can occur.
Some owners choose to train with aversive tools such as prong collars or electric shock collars. All dog parks in our area strictly prohibit the use of aversive tools in the park. The use of aversive tools when socializing or learning to interact with other dogs is not recommended by behavioral experts. This is because the research shows that dogs easily make inappropriate negative associations while using these tools and develop higher levels of stress in relation to training. A study of 95 dogs before, during, and after training by the American Animal Hospital Association determined that, “the dogs who went through the aversive training displayed more signs of stress, such as lip licking and yawning, and appeared to be more tense. Dogs who underwent the reward-based training did not exhibit the same stress-related symptoms.” These results were still true a month later. Aversive training is scientifically linked to higher levels of stress behaviors and hormones, and there aren’t many good reasons to increase the stress levels at the dog park. Additionally, aversive tools like electric and prong collars can be a danger to other dogs at the park during play and are often explicitly prohibited. Ultimately, no matter what reinforcer or motivator we are using to train, I find the dog park a difficult place to practice if we are respecting the rules and others around us. I want to make the most out of our time and training sessions, and it simply isn’t respectful or responsible of me to spend half of your training session fending off or addressing the behavior of other dogs in order to accomplish our training goals for that day.
In addition to running into behaviorally unsound dogs at the dog park, we are likely to run into piles of unclaimed eliminations. Leftover dog poop. Dog parks can be a breeding ground for sickness and are regularly responsible for the transmission of bacteria and parasites from one dog to another. With no required medical testing or deworming, you’re really taking your chances. Even turfed play zones are susceptible to bacterias like giardia and coccidia, and parasitic worms. I prefer to work in spaces that are medically safe and regulated. Poor health effects behavior, and to get the best results during training the dog should be feeling healthy and alert and unhindered by pain or illness. This is especially important during training for socialization and exposure.
In a study performed nationwide by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in 2019, they found strong evidence of the presence of parasites and bacteria at dogs parks. “In the new study, researchers collected fecal samples from 3,000 dogs over six weeks in July and August 2019 at 288 dog parks across the U.S., with owner permission and participation in questionnaires.[…] Overall, about 21% of dogs had some parasites.” The most common parasites were hookworms, whipworms, and giardia… but they also found roundworms, coccidia, and tapeworms. Because tapeworms are produced by the ingestion of fleas, it is likely that these areas are also infected with fleas to some degree as well. The AVMA also advises against dog parks as a learning or training space and encourages veterinarians to discuss the implications of regular dog park attendance with their clients. The dog park is not recommended for aggressive or fearful dogs, or for puppies without a full set of vaccinations due to the high likelihood of disease transmission.
I always gain consent from all dog owners and handlers that I will have participating in my training sessions. At a dog park there may be attendees who are not willing to participate in our training session. It is not their obligation or responsibility to do so, and exposing their own dog to a socially unsound or untrained animal in an off-leash zone may be a risk they are not willing to take. It is absolutely within their rights to decline to participate or engage with my training methods or exercises for whatever reason they deem prudent. Holding a training session in a public space where I cannot reliably gain the consent of every handler in the dog park (and also those who may arrive after I begin), would not only be irresponsible on my part, but incredibly rude and bad social etiquette. Owners should always give permission for their dog to participate in a training exercise. We don’t know what training methods, boundaries, or limitations those owners want for their dogs and it is irresponsible to assume they would like for their pet to participate in our doggy education.
Also, keep in mind that though this is a public park that is accessible to us, it is meant to be shared by everyone. That means that being considerate of our fellow dog park voyagers is not only the appropriate thing to do, it’s expected. If we want to share the social space, we must observe the rules and etiquette of that space. No amount of training my dog has completed will ever exempt him from perimeter leash laws, written rules, and general park etiquette. A trainer that encourages you to violate the rules and etiquette of a public space, or to break the law in the effort to train your dog, does not deserve your business. A dog trainer’s responsibility is to give you safe, humane, legal, and scientifically-backed guidance and education on what is and is not appropriate for training. Ultimately, holding a training session at a dog park (whether under the guidance of a trainer or done independently) is highly inappropriate – and sometimes directly against the posted rules.
I most commonly hear the request to work at the dog park in association with socialization training inquiries. Unfortunately, the dog park is not a safe or appropriate space for any dog to learn sound social behavior. Dog parks are designed for dogs who are already socially sound to get exercise and off-leash play time, and are not specifically intended for group play. It is a common misconception that dog parks are intended primarily for group play, and are often inappropriately used as socialization learning zones. The purpose and structure of the dog park does not allow for dogs who are not properly socialized or who have behavioral issues. This is particularly important to remember in 2021, as countless owners have adopted puppies and not been able to socialize them properly (or at all) due to Covid restrictions, work-from-home schedules, and centralized routines. As trainers, we affectionately call these dogs “Covid Puppies”. These dogs are adversely affected by pandemic quarantine and modified ownership routines during the time of Covid Shut-Down due to being undersocialized and undertrained during key developmental periods of their life.
According to a study from the American Pet Product Association National Pet Owners Survey only “four percent of the dogs in the U.S. take a training class. […] That means that as many as 75 percent of the dogs in this country never receive professional training — with more than 83 million dogs here, that works out to 62 million dogs. Dogs are dying in the millions at shelters, and bites continue to increase.” Americans are more likely to take their dog through a professional training program than ever before, but it still simply doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. While basic obedience classes have made an impact for many families, social training and behavioral evaluations and consultations are rare. Statistics indicate that most dog owners in our country do not seek training beyond basic obedience until there is already an established history of bad behaviors, and most pet owners do not begin training at the recommended age.
“…Even with puppy class, social skills may not be complete. Some still don’t learn the proper way to play and greet,” summarizes an article from Victoria Stillwell’s website, Pawsitively. Whether or not you believe in using Positive Reinforcement Training Methods for your pet, this is true of all training styles and methods. They’re absolutely correct. Social adeptness cannot be achieved in one Basic Puppy Class. Basic Obedience does not typically focus on social interactions, and is not all-inclusive for the dog. These obedience classes usually focus on the bond and communication between owner and pet and basic commands. These commonly sought basic obedience classes do not generally educate about appropriate dog social behavior at different stages of development or allow owners to become proficient at reading canine body language through their limited curriculum. Because most do not seek further training, this incomplete education makes most owners poor judges of dogs and temperament in general. Additionally, those who are not seeking professional help are often misled by Google Misinformation and the rise of Reality TV trainers. Some pet owners wait too long to begin basic obedience and are already experiencing significant behavioral problems by the time they seek assistance from a professional. The dog park is not a place for a puppy’s social learning curve, and we cannot expect other pet owners to have accurate judgements of their own dog’s temperament or rely on their dogs to be behaviorally sound for training or interactions during our session.
“Having your dog in a dog park requires trusting that everyone in the park is monitoring their dog, and is a good judge about whether their dog should be in the park in the first place. That’s a lot of trust to put in a stranger.” Sassafras Lowrey
“Having your dog in a dog park requires trusting that everyone in the park is monitoring their dog, and is a good judge about whether their dog should be in the park in the first place. That’s a lot of trust to put in a stranger.”
The unregulated social setting of the dog park can cause anxiety to develop from consecutive negative interactions, teach unwanted bad behaviors, or can create a sense of owner helplessness and learned disobedience. As a trainer I have personally heard too many times the story of the dog whose behavior gets worse with unregulated social exposure. This is almost always because the social engagements are with socially unsound dogs and handlers or owners who are ignorant about the rules of play and reading cues to understand behavior. When we don’t know the other dogs, there is no temperament testing, and no educated coach or lifeguard to hold dogs and owners accountable for bad behavior, we know it’s not a safe place to learn. During training, it is important that I am sure that any dog we are interacting with is behaviorally sound to provide the best possible training results for you and your dog with the least amount of risk for learned bad behaviors, the regression of social skills, or physical illness or injury. The dog park is an unregulated space and training conditions simply cannot be controlled well enough to make the space condusive for our purposes.
I usually provide distraction dogs and utilize training assistants as needed for training sessions with clients. If you are training independently or your trainer does not have access to assistants, I recommend scheduling play dates and training sessions with people that you know whose dogs are well-mannered in regulated enclosed spaces. Practicing in a back yard or other personal space is a good option. If you do not have access to an enclosed yard, there are some rentable spaces in our area where you can hold private events or sessions. Talk to your trainer about if they offer group social opportunities for their clients, and reach out to other like-minded pet owners who are also seeking social meetings. Social media groups are wonderful resources to find people who align with your dog training style and goals.
Using apps like SniffSpot may allow you to find private spaces for rent near you that are safe for your pet. There are also centralized dog locations that rent spaces like All Fur Fun and The Zoom Room. All you have to do is reserve your space and show up! Controlled training and exposure is the key to a well-socialized dog, and practice makes us better at reading social cues and ignoring distractions when given commands. REMEMBER, anyone who doesn’t respect your training wishes and goals should not be spending time with your dog during training. You are not obligated to allow anyone to interact with your dog. If your dog is showing signs of regression, fear, or aggression it may be time to re-evaluate your playmates and environment.
I hope this sheds some light on this particular question! Stay tuned for more Frequently Asked Questions, coming soon!