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One of the bigger concerns I have as a trainer is seeing dogs who are pushed into a situation, like a dog park, where they are overwhelmed and overloaded—and set up for failure.
Compatibility for the park also changes for dogs as they age. Energetic dogs in adolescence, from about 6 months into early adulthood at 2 to 4 years, are the prime park candidates. After reaching social maturity, energy levels and the desire for play often begin to decrease. Those factors also work in combination with greater selectivity in playmates. So though early adolescence and adulthood are prime times for park-going, a dog may show less social behavior and compatibility at the park as he ages.
Another aspect that’s important to weigh in deciding whether to take a dog to the bark park is the high cost that may be incurred if a negative situation escalates.
Robin Foster, Ph.D., is an expert on behavior at dog parks. According to Foster, dog parks are public property governed under state and county law. Thus, if a dog bites another dog or person and the bite is reported, the incident goes on the dog’s record. In some counties, all it takes is one bite for an animal to be labeled a dangerous dog. In other counties, the dog’s record is labeled with the one-bite warning that’s given just before the dangerous dog designation that would happen on bite two.
The bad news for a dog is that even if a bite happens in self-defense, such as when protecting himself against a bullying dog, the one who bites is responsible. The same holds true if a person is bitten. The person may even have put himself in harm’s way, such as by attempting to break up a fight between dogs. But if he is bitten, even inadvertently, the biting dog is held accountable.
Repercussions that may occur for the owner of a dog who has bitten include responsibility for legal and medical bills, being dropped from insurance or an increase in rates, lawsuits and monetary settlements, and the possibility of ordered euthanasia. The cost of a bite is high, making it all the more important to discern whether a dog is ready for the heightened risks and stimulation that come with a dog park — and the limited ability to quickly remove the dog from the off-leash setting if he gets into an altercation.
Even though dog parks are the icon of a dog’s ultimate day out and provide a great outlet for many canines, they must be approached with caution, as not every pooch is right for a park. If there is any doubt about a dog’s comfort level at the park or ambiguity in his behavior, it’s best to seek professional help from a veterinary behaviorist or veterinarian working in combination with a positive reinforcement trainer to ensure that your experience at the dog park will be a positive one.
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