Survival of the Friendliest: The dilemma of Dog Parks and Daycare

As many of us are gearing up for a season of adventures with our dogs, I’m going to take a moment to post about my overall aversion to unstructured day cares and dog parks in general.

Dogs ARE social creatures, but they are not social the way the dominant “doggo” culture has lead us to believe. If we look at the evolutionary arc of dogs, we find that their relationships were based on mutual respect of the advantages of remaining close to humans as a survival strategy. In order to do this- survival of the FRIENDLIEST was key. They had to tolerate each other to keep to the human resource . But friendly and intense/high stim play are not the same thing. Recent research indicates that we did NOT domesticate dogs- rather we evolved with them and they self-domesticated (yes, really!!!!).

Every human that you as another human encounter, you don’t greet with a loud, jumping, wrap your legs around the person hug. If you did, you would damage your social relationships, and maybe even have legal repercussions. All of your friendships with other people are not the same level of intimacy, either. Some of your friends are work associates, some are close from hobbies, and some are your ride and die, etc.

A dog park and an unstructured day care (with no rest periods) are the Wild West of dog behavior. It is a very emotionally charged environment, surrounded by a barrier. The population is dense. The excitement level is extremely high. Picture a Black Friday crowd- the resources and controls are limited in comparison with the emotional environment.

Human Attention, food, water, toys, pee spots are all Black-Friday sale level in demand. So the conditions are RIPE for an over stimulated environment. And, not just that- but dog owners or daycare workers with varying degrees of dog behavior competency now want to lead an exercise class themed birthday party in this already overly charged environment.

What this teaches your dog is to overly advocate for those “sale items” through pushy, nervous, or guarding behaviors and that every time they see a dog, it is PARTY TIME.

This is not socializing your dog. This is subjecting them to very high levels of stress. Even if you have a very social dog (my service dog Rio is a great example)- they resort to rude behaviors- barking at gates, wrestling without breaks, refusal to call off etc. In an unstructured day care - there is no time for the dogs to decompress- so they become like a pot of boiling water on the stove that never gets to cool before the burner is turned back on. Someone is going to get burned eventually.

Teaching your dog to be social first starts with teaching them impulse control- and working with them to rely on YOU as the handler to control ALL resources, including spatial management. I work with an increasing number of dogs who “always did fine at the dog park, or love daycare” who are “suddenly” aggressive and/or reactive on leash, towards people or dogs. Or they got kicked out of daycare for nipping. Or they suddenly bark at windows. The list goes on.

Your dog is 💯allowed to be an introvert- who enjoys short burst of controlled socializing, but also needs a lot decompression time in between socializing events. Your dog should learn what I like to call “grocery store socializing” first- where we walk together, enjoy that we are in close proximity but there is no pressure of anything other than a polite greeting and moving along with your day.

Often times, we confuse excitement for contentment in our dogs. Excited is not a synonym with happy. We need to focus on teaching our dogs to trust us to be their intermediary to the world and new stimulus, and that we are their best resource manager. Getting excited and over stimulated is easy- learning self control and reliability is hard. If you want a social dog, start with low level, slow and easy, controlled socializing. More exposure at high intensity is not the best option, and is counter to what we know about the evolutionary development of dogs. We can, and need to do better. This doesn’t mean your dog never gets to play- but rather that you facilitate dogs who are a good play style and energy match, and understand fully how your dogs make friends.

Each dog is also an individual. One of my dogs needs multiple low stress socializing opportunities with a new friend before he will Ever offer play behavior. One of my dogs ONLY offers play behavior to his siblings in our house. One of my dogs is a socialite but has to be monitored to give dogs space bc she is TOO forward when excited to play. All of these are reasonable to manage, and it’s my job to help them negotiate their boundaries- and the boundaries of another dog. This simply can not be done effectively in a dog park by the vast majority of people - nor are the vast majority dog daycare staff trained to do so.

If you want a social, polite dog, stop using these options as your tool for teaching this. It will not work. And if you want help learning how to reach these goals, you’ve found the right community and balanced training program!