Quitting the dog park with your puppy doesn’t necessarily mean forever…

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sourced from: https://www.reddit.com/r/puppy101/comments/8vurja/quitting_the_dog_park_with_your_puppy_doesnt/

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This post is geared mainly to those of you with intact male puppies who are entering adolescence, although it could apply to others too.

My intact male Lab puppy had the typical socialization experiences that we all try to provide when our puppies are young. He stayed with the litter until about 10 weeks of age. He went to puppy classes that had a short play session in the middle. He went to a puppy play facility once a week. He went to doggy daycare once a week starting at 5 months of age. He played occasionally with dogs that belong to friends and neighbors. During that time, he was a model good citizen with good greeting behaviors.

I started taking him to the dog park once or twice a week when he was six months old. I would only go to two small local parks at times when they weren't very busy (in fact, sometimes we had to wait for another dog to show up!) and never during the weekend or after-work period, or to another busier park during bad weather when it was pretty empty. My goal was to let him run and play off-leash and hopefully also find a temporary playmate with compatible play style. (I don't have many friends who have dogs that would be interested in playing with an adolescent – a bunch of old dogs!) This went pretty well for a few months and he had plenty of great experiences running and wrestling with similar-temperament puppies and adolescents. But there were a few scary incidents thrown in the mix (being pinned over and over by a dog who was a real bully, being aggressively chased and pinned by a dog that should never be at a dog park, etc).

As his testosterone level started cranking up, so did the negative encounters. Some were his own fault for being overly obsessed with smelling a certain dog, or doing a macho swagger thing when approaching other intact male adolescents. But most were not overtly instigated by him at all, and he was "set upon" when he wasn't even looking toward the other dog a few times, due to his "testostaroma". I worked on keeping his energy down upon entry, kept him moving with me, avoided dogs that looked like trouble. But I came to the realization that the dog park was no longer a good place for him, and way too stressful for me. I didn't want the negative encounters to make a permanent change in his view of other dogs. So we stopped going when he was just under a year old, and I was bummed not to have that exercise outlet. (Looking back, I wish I had stopped going a couple months earlier.)

But we found new places to walk, off-leash as much as possible. (And it had a side benefit of developing a better bond between the two of us, when I wasn't constantly competing with the "you just can't top this" fun of playing with other dogs.) I did not let him greet other dogs while on-leash, but at least once a week, some loose dog would run straight up in his face and there would be a lot of posturing, growling etc. Mine is not the type to back down, so I used everything I could think of to avoid these situations, move away, and work on preventing any escalating reactivity. Honestly, it was really frustrating because mine would have wanted nothing more than to just run around with most of these dogs, rather than being a target of ill will. (PSA – please don't let your dog run up to another dog that is on-leash.)

Fast forward – I got him neutered at 18 months, and he is now 21 months old. Over the last week, we've visited two dog parks. He was fabulous. No issues. He played with some dogs and just greeted a few others that didn't want to play. He moved confidently and with relaxed body language with/through several very large packs of dogs that were with dog walkers, even though a couple dogs growled at him. He stuck with me whenever I moved on to a new spot. Over the last couple months, he's been to two different boarding places where he was put into dog play groups. Great. No issues at all. In a few of our walk spots, I now release him to go play with certain dogs if the owners are up for it, or to greet a loose dog if it seems okay to do so.

The moral to my long-winded story? Do your best to socialize your puppy when he is young. Those early lessons will stay deep in his brain while he goes through the tumultuous adolescent period. Be prepared for a period of time where you may need to cut back on places like dog parks, or more likely, stop going altogether (and do that sooner rather than later). But do keep exposing him to other dogs in positive ways as much as possible, even if it's just seeing them out on walks. You may think he will never be your well-socialized dog again. But then know that all your early work will pay in spades once your puppy is past this period and moving into adulthood!

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