About 75% of my ‘guests’ love the dog park. They make 5 new friends the second I disconnect the leash, and never want to leave. I decided to focus on socialization because of the other 25%.
Those dogs usually fall into three groups I’ll refer to as “The Loner”, “The Trauma Victim”, and “The Alpha”.
This group includes the shy, timid dogs that lie by my feet, hesitant to interact with any other of the other dog park patrons. This group includes dogs of all sizes and breeds, and can be compared to an only child who’s been home-schooled his whole life, and then shows up for the first day of high school. This dog is insecure and is views every dog that approaches as a potential threat. That attitude is easily picked up on by other dogs at the park, which will react accordingly by either snubbing him as a potential playmate, or attempting to dominate or bully him. This dog may enjoy being outside at the park, but feels most comfortable sticking by his master. This is an unfortunate case because these dogs usually really need the exercise and wind up just longingly watching all of the other dogs have fun.
With just a little patience, encouragement, and the help of a certain type of companion dog, The Loner can blossom into a social butterfly, romping and running with the rest of the pack. He just needs to bank a handful of truly positive experiences with other dogs to get over his anxiety. For a case like this, I will look for a dog from the other 75% that is particularly outgoing and friendly to serve as a mentor. The next step is to determine what the anxious dog views as his greatest pleasure; usually a pretty simple analysis. Maybe it is a walk to that fire hydrant on the corner, or a particular toy or ball, or perhaps a piece of a kosher hot dog. Once you begin introducing his favorite things in the presence of the other dog, his confidence will grow. He will begin to associate all of these wonderful things with that other dog being around, and will start to relax. The next step would be to introduce a third dog, one that is a little more rambunctious to represent that group at the dog park that is usually wrestling and roughhousing (but shows no signs of aggression). It is important that third dog responds well to commands and that you begin his stage with all three dogs well controlled on a leash, asserting yourself as the pack leader at all times. The third dog’s owner might be helpful during these outings, but the same principle applies – the goal is to expose your shy dog to his favorite things in a safe, controlled manner while in the presence of these other dogs. Once this ‘pack’ is established, and the shy dog begins to display signs of growing self-assurance, bring them all to a fenced-in area together and let them off the leash.
After a couple of these outings, you’ll be ready to bring them to the dog park together, eventually progressing to bringing the shy dog by himself, taking care to expose him to gentler strange dogs at first. The important thing to remember is that this is a slow, deliberate process with objectives to reach at each stage. Just like physical training and muscle memory, whatever negative association caused this dog’s shyness must be replaced by positive, happy experiences. Eventually you and your best friend will enjoy the benefits of regular visits to the dog park. Think of how much richer your dogs life will be with additional sources of stimulation, exercise, and play!
The Trauma Victim
These dogs make up the most unfortunate group, and can be the most difficult to heal. This group does not show any signs of aggression, fear-based or otherwise. He will usually avoid other dogs whenever possible, perhaps choosing to hide behind his owner or immediately lying on his back to submit. Like The Loner, oftentimes these dogs experienced something in their past that molded their personality, but it was likely more frightening. Perhaps this dog was scared or bitten by a Boxer at a young age, and now shows aggression to any member of that breed. The process for building their confidence is similar to that of The Loner, however you can expect improvements to come much more slowly. Also, the second and third dog in the group should be of calmer dispositions, and preferably much older. These dogs need the calming influence of a few gentle friends who like to share toys and games without competing for attention. Introductions to these two have to be made with great care, beginning with very short periods and gradually spending more time with each visit. Again, the goal is to associate these new friends with your dog’s favorite treats and experiences. It is unfortunate that the most common course of action for the owner of this type of dog is to keep them isolated, which only compounds their social anxiety. Again, all that is required is a little patience, a lot of love, and a consistent commitment to changing the behavior. The result will be worthwhile for everyone involved!
When dealing with potentially aggressive dogs, it bears repeating that the advice below is for educational purposes only, and it is strongly recommended that you proceed with the supervision of a professional trainer. Dogs that display a tendency towards aggression at the dog park are similar to the previous two examples in that this reaction, barring any underlying psychological illness, is learned behavior rooted in some past experience.
It is very helpful if you are aware of the cause of this tendency; although most often this type of behavior was learned before you met. Again, you’ll want to work on changing the dog’s associations by introducing positive experiences with the presence of other dogs. This type of personality should be partnered with ‘mentor dogs’ with strong personalities yet are extremely well trained and obedient, even off the leash. They must be capable of earning the target dog’s respect through constructive exercises that reward good behavior.
When the dog ‘greets’ a new pack member in a calm, friendly manner, they should be praised and rewarded. It is usually wise to begin these exercises with your dog wearing a simple plastic muzzle, available at any local PetSmart for about $15.
Socializing your dog is as important as socializing your child. If you dog is sheltered from exposure to other dogs or new people, his behavior will be difficult to predict, which can be dangerous. The most basic argument for this type of training however is just that your dog will be happier and enjoy a fuller life by spending time with other canines.