Dog parks, are they the best environment for some dogs, especially with reactive and anxiety issues and with no training in place?
Dog parks or similar environments could be causing reactive or nervous dogs to become worse by putting them in the same situation over again. Some owners just cannot wait to take their new puppy or dog to the park to mix with other dogs that they do not even know but is this always the best environment for some dogs? I wanted to write about this due to the number of dogs being attacked in parks recently, there does not seem to be a day when I am not reading or hearing about another dog being attacked or killed by another dog in a park, it is heart-breaking. Letting your dog run freely around the same park every day with zero training can result in dog reactivity, anxiety bad behaviour, and poor recall, causing your dog to become over adrenalized.
I personally stay away from parks with my own two dogs, because of irresponsible owners in the past, where my dogs have been attacked by other dogs when my dogs were on a lead minding their own business. Unfortunately, some dog owners just do not have control over their dogs. I got totally fed up with hearing the owner in the distance shouting it is ok he is friendly while their dog was running towards my dogs. What they really should be shouting is I am too lazy to train my dog and I have no control over it.
Owners often view the park as a place where they can socialise with their dogs. For dogs that have already practiced socialisation and are well balanced and trained a park can be a wonderful place for you and your dog. This is especially true if you get to know what dogs go there regularly and they have responsible owners, and you understand your dog’s body language and can read other dogs’ body language because this is really important. But for the dogs that need socialisation, the park is not the place to start off and practice, especially with nervous or reactive dogs. For this type of dog with issues with other dogs, they need a calm, quiet and controlled environment to meet and learn proper interactions with other dogs. The park is not the best environment when there is a lot of stimulus making your dog more anxious. In fact, the owner is making their dog more reactive or anxious behaviour far worse by putting their dog in this situation and environment. It is not safe for your dog, and it’s not safe for other dogs that come into contact with your dog.
Fearful dogs can be afraid of too much noise, other dogs approaching them, sudden movements, and other humans. If you have a dog that tends to be easily scared or nervous the dog park can be a nightmare. Unfortunately, some owners think by pushing their dogs into these situations they will just adapt and become more confident. This could lead your dog to become more nervous and reactive toward other dogs trying to protect themselves from what is making them scared. I recommend if you are struggling with your fearful dog get help from a dog trainer and avoid the park until your dog has gotten over his fears and you feel ready for the park environment.
Trigger stacking, so what can happen when we are putting our anxious dogs in the same stressful situations and environments daily? Trigger stacking is when too many stimuli that a dog is sensitive to occur in a brief period. This is where a dog’s basic survival instincts are switched on and become reactive. Behaviours that may be observed can include lunging and barking on a lead and growling.
So, if you can imagine if you have a nervous or reactive dog putting them in this situation daily is going to make matters worse. When dogs are stressed, they release cortisol and it can take around 60 minutes to drop their level of concentration by half but when a dog is faced with lots of stimuli that he is sensitive to the negative feedback loop breaks down, cortisol continues to be released and up to four times as much cortisol as normal can be present. This can take several days to dissipate, so this means we now have a dog with a volcano effect happening inside your dog’s body and mind. So, if your dog encounters an event in the park that he finds stressful in that same week as the other stressors his behaviour is likely to escalate.
How can we stimulate our dogs and exercise them while you are training them and not going to the park? Exercise is important for dogs but they also need brain stimulation training. So you can practice all your basic foundation training such as recall (teaching your dog to come back). This exercise is so important for the safety of your dog and other dogs, in fact, your dog shouldn’t be off his training line until this is 100% proofed. Engagement exercises such as getting your dog to focus on you, lying down command teaching your dog how to be calm and to switch off, can be really challenging especially for nervous hyper dogs. The leave it and drop exercise and other essential exercises are so important for your dog’s wellbeing and safety. Flirt poles are a good way to burn off some energy and to teach your dog impulse control. Remember to reward your dog with treats for the behaviours that you like because this will help reinforce your dog to make more good choices. Build their confidence and get them happy listening to you, or you could mix it up by using a toy that he likes for his training sessions.
Practice some lead walking in a quiet environment, mixing up the routes and the lengths you are going because this will also strengthen your bond with your dog. When you are out walking your dog make the time to let them sniff their surroundings, by giving your dog the opportunity to use their powerful sense of smell, they will enjoy the walk more, they will be more stimulated and more tired and relaxed. Some dogs can become overstimulated when they do high energy level activities, so harnessing your dog’s natural sniffing behaviour is a calm and relaxing option.
When your dogs are at home invest in enrichment puzzles to stimulate your dog’s brain and keep them calm with a snuffle mat which is another wonderful way to provide your dogs with natural foraging instinct and relieve boredom. Feed your dog from a Kong occasionally to make them work for their food instead of the dog bowl, I recommend getting the next size up Kong to your dog because they don’t hold as much food as you think and you don’t want your dog getting frustrated trying to get their food out. Puzzle toys are a great way to provide mental challenges for your dog.
Please look out for your dog’s safety in park environments, every dog is different and what suits one does not suit all.
JP Holistic Nutrition