Training Tips

Dog Parks vs Structured Dog Walking

The wonder of structured walking Image by Peter Riemer

Which is Better & Why?

If you’re deciding how to best socialize your dog, here are some important factors to consider. What kind of socializing is healthy? What environment will help your dog to gain better behaviours rather than develop bad habits? If you’re hiring a dog walker, what skills and experience do they have? How much do they know about dog behaviour? Will your dog be bullied and traumatized by other dogs (or become a bully, overly defensive or reactive), or will they be taught, guided and advocated for?

Are Dog Parks a Healthy place for Dog Socialization?

The short answer is NO – not usually. In theory, dog parks are a wonderful invention, but the majority of dog park interactions can be very bad for your dog. Here is our experience. When we started offering dog walking, we mainly took dogs to off-leash dog parks – like basically every dog walker out there. Over time, we saw that most dog parks are filled with out-of-control dogs that their owners simply cannot walk on-leash because their dogs are not trained. Those dogs were dangerous to the dogs in our care because they were wildly over-excited and wouldn’t return to their owners/handlers when called – especially when they were behaving badly. Usually the owners didn’t even try to control their dogs, or realize when their behaviour was anti-social or showing signs of becoming dangerous. Many owners sit down at the dog park and ignore their dog completely! People forget that dogs are predators and in order to keep them safe, we need to provide structure and guidance. If your dog is attacked or bullied, they can lose trust in you as their advocate which can create reactivity or aggression to defend themselves against perceived threats that they feel they need to handle on their own.

Structured group dog walking is so much better for dogs!

Here’s why:

  • dogs build positive socialization & bond in a calm, healthy way
  • migrating together is instinctually satisfying
  • structured dog walking maintains the hard work you invested in training your dog
  • mentally engaging (to match pace, maintain position & ignore squirrels, other dogs & people, skateboards, etc.)
  • reinforces good behaviour & calmness
  • physical fitness promotes long-term health
  • structured dog walking is much safer for your dog
  • Fun! with increased ability to visit new & interesting locations

More UNhealthy Dog Socialization is not better

Too many dog owners out there assume that ‘more is better’, without considering what KIND of socialization their dog is experiencing. Carefully choose quality socialization over quantity. For example: You wouldn’t plonk your toddler in the sand box at a playground and expect them to “figure it out” when bullies throw sand in their eyes. You’d mentor, protect and guide them, showing kids what kind of behaviour is allowed and expected. Yet many dog owners – even ones who think of their dogs as “fur babies” – allow their dogs to build very bad social habits and develop serious phobias due to the lack of guidance and rules while in dog parks. It’s better to have no socialization than bad socialization.

Structured Dog Walks are the Best way to Bond

On-leash structured group dog walking is by far the best way for dogs to socialize and bond while working together as a team, rather than competing. Off-leash romping at the dog park can be fun, but only IF the dogs are behaving well. However, most dogs have not been taught how to socialize politely. Poorly socialized dogs challenge each other with stiff body postures, high tails, snarling, teeing up (putting their chin on the other dog’s shoulders), or attempting to hump, chase, gang up, bully, or bite each other.

Dogs that are well socialized can enjoy hanging out calmly with one another. Put into human terms, a poorly socialized dog is like an insecure person constantly challenging everyone they meet to arm wrestle, compared to confident adults talking and walking together in a peaceful, cooperative way.

But will my dog get enough exercise to be calm?

Structured on-leash dog walking tires dogs out just as much, if not more than off-leash play. Why? Because your dog is using their mind, their body, and their self-control. Maintaining a fantastic heel position is hard work – which is great in many ways. Dogs are fulfilled by having a purpose. Dogs LOVE having a job to do! They demonstrate their best behaviour when there are clear rules to follow. This makes them feel safe and happy in a relaxed way.

Off-leash dog park play generally amps dogs up – getting them into a frenzy of excitement. Many owners believe that their dog needs hours and hours of flat-out running in order to behave at home. The truth is that most dogs only need a couple of structured walks per day (between half an hour to an hour each), plus some outdoor play with you (e.g. training games are great, such as fetch, tug, disc, hide & seek for items). The goal for the average family is not to create a dog who is a marathon athlete who then needs hours of running beside your bicycle in order to behave well.

The best behaved dogs are those whose owners make being calm a way of life for their dogs. This good habit extends to every aspect of their lives. Relaxed dogs don’t do stupid stuff. For dogs, over-excitement is like getting drunk. Think of all of the stupid stuff people do when drunk that they’d normally never do – like get in fights, break stuff, or hurt themselves. Over-excited dogs are FAR more likely to feel stressed/anxious, jump on people, bite, run away, fight, over-react to bikes, skateboards, cars, cats, squirrels, other dogs, etc. Building a calm state of mind is key to developing a well-behaved dog.

Advocating for dogs is key in building trust

The dogs in our care trust us to protect them so they remain calm and well-behaved. They know that we never allow strange dogs to greet them while walking on the leash or allow strangers to grope them. We also avoid strangers who talk to dogs in a high-pitched, questioning, or over-excited way. The dogs trust us to remain calm and patient and keep them safe, rather than expecting them to protect us. This trust allows dogs to relax and follow our lead.

Why shouldn’t you let your dog greet unknown dogs while leashed? Because dogs are MUCH more likely to react badly while meeting on leash. They are usually overexcited, which often leads to poor decisions. They’re constrained and can’t move away freely if they feel they need space. Owners often allow leashes to remain tense, adding to any nervous tension. Meeting nose to nose is bad doggy etiquette. Plus, if things go wrong quickly, how many owners know what to do, or are willing to do it? Prevent your dog from getting overexcited while expecting to meet everyone they pass. Prevent your dog from building negative associations with strange dogs – not to mention vet bills and the real possibility of death. On-leash attacks happen all of the time. This traumatizes dogs and can lead to a long, difficult recovery process. Allowing dogs to meet on leash is so not worth it. Set your dog up for success by walking calmly WITH other well-behaved dogs that they know well, rather than rolling the dice with strange dogs while hoping for the best with face-to-face on-leash meetings.

Communication: Each Tool is a like new Language

We use dog training tools to communicate in ways that dogs understand and actually care about so they make better choices. You see dog owners allowing their dogs to yank them all over. This is dangerous for everyone. People and dogs get seriously injured – broken bones, being dragged into traffic, dogs running away & getting lost, attacking other dogs or people, etc. Every day these behaviours get dogs turned into shelters &/or killed. Some dogs are such a struggle or embarrassment to walk that they only get walked in the middle of the night, or are forever confined to their own backyards.

Prong collars are widely misunderstood tools. They look barbaric but are actually a much safer and gentler way to guide dogs. No doubt you’ve seen plenty of dogs literally choking themselves and hacking while pulling fiercely on regular flat buckle collars. Trachea damage is serious and not at all uncommon. Dogs wearing harnesses tend to pull like sled-dogs (which is what harnesses are designed for!) with zero regard for the human on the other end of the leash. The goal is teamwork between human and dog – not a tug of war with humans getting yanked around. Prong collars provide the ability to guide dogs gently and allow for much improved communication and control. The pressure is evenly distributed around the dog’s neck without causing any harm. As with any collar, pressure should never be maintained for more than a split second. Letting tension remain along the leash is one of the main reasons why people struggle while walking their dogs.

Ecollars are similarly misunderstood by most dog owners. Ecollars are absolutely fantastic! First, dogs should be gently, fairly and thoroughly trained to understand this new language of low-level stimulation. We teach dogs about ecollars as we teach a dog to respond to leash guidance – with gentle pressure, then the sensation is immediately removed as soon as the dog responds. We begin with leash guidance, to show the dog what we’re asking them to do when they feel that new sensation/tingle. Dogs respond exceptionally well – with unparalleled reliability – when there is clear communication and accountability. Keep in mind that no tool trains a dog by itself! Calm, patient training is required. Any tool can be used improperly and cause harm if the person is uneducated or intends to harm. Quality Ecollars are perfectly safe, wonderful tools. Dogs who have been well-trained with ecollars can safely enjoy a much more inclusive life with their families and have earned the freedom that comes with trusting that your dog will respond to commands, no matter what is going on around you. When you know that you can confidently call your dog and s/he will return to you immediately, in ANY situation, everyone stays safe and enjoys more fun and freedom. 🙂

We were among those who were previously misinformed about both of these amazing tools! So if this is new to you, please keep an open mind while you take the time to learn the truth.

Set up Play Dates in yards or Empty Dog Parks

If you want your dog to socialize off-leash with other dogs, setting up a play date with another calm, balanced dog in a back yard or empty dog park is a much better option than taking your chances at a dog park filled with strangers. We searched all over to find one park that is usually empty during the work-week, where we can closely supervise and guide the dogs while they fetch, romp, roll in the grass, sniff the scents of the great outdoors and socialize politely. If an overly excited or anxious-looking dog approaches the park, we simply leave and take to the trails instead. An even better solution is to ensure your dog’s heel is fantastic and teach your dog to have completely reliable recall so you can enjoy the great outdoors with total confidence that your dog will come when called, and not be restricted to using the dog parks at all. Then the world is your oyster- beaches, trails, camping – you name it!