I went to the Dog Park the other day…

In fact, we took several of the dogs. 

A Labrador in training for competitive obedience who’s a social butterfly…

An 85lb behemoth of a Malinois who is toy obsessed…

A dachshund mix that is overcoming his reactivity towards some people and other dogs…

And another Belgian Malinois who barks at strangers. 

We took them all to The Dog Park…

But we never entered the gate. 

Because we didn’t go there to let them rough and tumble with other unknown dogs…

We went there to practice our training…

To reward engagement and focus…

And to teach our dogs that even when other dogs are rough housing, barking, and running like mad…

Focusing on US is where the real fun is at.

We went there to PLAY with our dogs…not to teach our dogs to play with everyone and everything BUT us. 

Truth is, I didn’t always use dog parks for this purpose…

Back in the day, when I had a reactive dog myself…

Heading to the Dog Park was a regular occurrence. 

I took my first dog Koby…

Until his reactivity made it unsafe to continue. 

And then, I took my basset hound Darby Lee, and my Great Dane Kira. 

You could always find us at the Dog Park…

Laughing at the dogs as they knock down drag out wrestled with one another…

As dogs bullied one another…

And others tried to get away only to have 3 or 4 dogs in hot pursuit, not allowing them to rest from constantly being the underdog.

But we didn’t know…

And they were having fun…right? 

I mean, the socialization was good for them…in fact, it was a requirement for raising dog-friendly dogs…right?

These days, I approach dog parks differently.

These days, now that I’ve learned about dog behavior…

And dog body language…

I realize the error in my thinking. 

Now, when I go to the dog park the only time I’d go inside is if no one is there…

And if someone comes, I hightail it out before they ever enter the gate. 

I don’t go to “socialize” my dogs. 

I go to work with my dogs…

To play with my dogs…

And to reinforce my training.

I go to teach my dogs that play with me is the best thing in the universe…

And I do all of this OUTSIDE the gate. 

In fact, I’d never let my dog run with strange dogs. 

I don’t find out of control play with others valuable for my dog…

And plainly stated, it’s just not worth the risk.

Here’s why my perspective changed…

  1. I don’t know the other dogs at dog parks – People bring anti-social dogs to the dog park all the time. In fact, in the short time we were at the park, I saw dogs repeatedly pummeling and rolling other dogs, bullying them while their owners watched on and laughed. They didn’t know any better, but it doesn’t change the experience the dogs had, and the fallout it very likely will create in their behavior. One wrong move with an anti-social dog, or a dog park bully, and my dog could develop a negative association with other dogs, and that’s not something I want. 
  2. There are no vaccination requirements that are enforced. Listen, despite how many kisses you share with your beloved pooch, dogs can quite easily pick up illnesses from their environment. There’s all sorts of bacteria and other nasties in the soil, and dogs can easily contract all sorts of yucky stuff just by licking their feet. I’m not overprotective of my dogs, but if they are going to be hanging with others, I want to make sure those others are healthy.
  3. I can’t control the environment – Dog parks are wide open spaces with plenty of room for the dogs to run. So what happens if the dogs get into a scuffle on the other side of the field? I can’t do anything about it, and my dog runs the risk of getting hurt. 
  4. It hurts my training – In going to the Dog Park, even if my dog has a perfectly fine experience, they are in essence learning that all of the other dogs in the world are super fun…and I’m the person that drags them away from play time. How well do you think that will do in reinforcing my engagement and relationship, especially if other dogs are around? 

Here’s the thing…

So many people tend to frequent dog parks because they feel this need to “socialize” their dog, exposing them to other dogs in order to prevent them from developing aggression issues or other bad feelings. (At least, that’s why I did it all those years back…I *thought* I was being responsible)

But over the course of my career…

After rehabbing thousands of reactive dogs both in person and in my online courses…

I can tell you that most of the dogs that came to me for help with on leash reactivity (in fact, I’d estimate a good 90% of them) were extensively “socialized” at Dog Parks or unstructured doggy daycares, my own dog included. 

But bad experiences in an uncontrolled environment…

Allowing them to be bullied, or inadvertently reinforcing them for being the bully because we just don’t know any better…

While simultaneously building value for out of control play with other dogs…

Was the leading cause of reactivity in my clients. 

I’ll say it again for the people in the back…

Unstructured play at dog parks and doggy daycare was the LEADING CAUSE of reactivity in my clients. 

Dog owner after dog owner attempted to socialize their dog, only to end up like me, back when I had my first dog Koby and didn’t know any better…

With a dog obsessed dog who quite frankly, was frustrated that the pesky leash I held in my hand prevented him from greeting other dogs…

With an over-excited dog, who shrieked in the car as we approached the park, and dragged me to the gate effectively obliterating any hopes I had of mastering a loose leash walk…

With a dog who was a little insecure, after being pummeled one too many times…

Who thought his best defense was a good offense and who became a bit of a bully himself…

And with a dog who wanted to be anywhere but with me. 

Listen, it’s my goal to give my dog positive experiences as we navigate the world together. It’s my job to give my dog good reason to trust me, and to trust that I’ll keep them safe. And it’s my job to teach my dog that play with me is just as fun, if not moreso, than play with other dogs.  

For that reason, I frequent the local dog parks…

But not to let my dog play with others. 

I go there instead, to reinforce that play with me is super fun…

That focusing on me is really awesome…

That other dogs are nothing to worry about…

And that I’ve always got their back. 

Because ultimately, those are the lessons I strive to teach my dog on the daily. And allowing them unstructured play at dog parks will do nothing more than move me further from my goals.


Want the fun of the dog park, without the risk? Want to connect with other likeminded dog owners and learn the latest training tips, and tricks for building a better relationship with your dog? Click Here to join our virtual “Dog Park” – it’s totally fun, and totally free.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    1 Response to "Play Smarter : The Dog Trainer’s guide to creating better dog park experiences"

    • Sandy

      I often took two of my Westies to the dog park with the intention of having them play and have a “good time” with other dogs. Until…running the fence line between big dog and little dog parks became an obsession. One bigger “small” dog took on my Westie and he wound up with a torn ACL and a $2000 bet bill. We have not been to a dog park since, more than 6 years ago. However I will take my current Westie -in -training back to work outside the fence! This is a GREAT IDEA! Thanks Megan!

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