Dog Parks, Day Cares, and the 1:1 Ratio
Updated: Sep 23
When you have a dog that seems to have bounds of never-ending energy, you might consider using your local dog park as a place to let them run free and burn some of that energy off. This sounds like a win-win for you and your dog as you don't have to do much work and your dog still gets to release some energy and socialize with other pups. I don't blame people for wanting to utilize a space that is (sometimes) free to them that can help their dog's physical enrichment needs, however this well-meaning outing can actually be a potential hazard for you, your dog, and your training process. My goal as a trainer is to make sure both dog and parent are happy and successful together. This includes making sure my students use spaces such as dog parks and day cares appropriately. I am going to highlight some main points to consider before you decide to take your dog or dogs back to the dog park or day care. These pointers should help you in determining if these spaces are actually something you want to keep using in the future.
Safety comes first
This can go into many of the categories listed here, however safety is definitely something you need to consider. Not all dog parks and day cares are created equal and that matters for your dog's safety. Also, many people don't know how to use a dog park safely.
Keep in mind a few things when choosing a dog park:
Is it large enough to hold the number of dogs visiting it on it's busiest day?
Is it free entry or do you have to pay to use it?
What vaccinations does the park require the dogs have to enter?
Are there large and small dog sections to separate dogs that are too different in size?
Are the people there using the space appropriately and following the rules?
Keep these things in mind when choosing a day care:
Do they have many play areas or just one large one?
Do they follow the 50% rule (dogs are kept together with dogs that are not less than or greater than 50% of their weight)?
Is it a large facility style building or someone's home?
How many dogs do they allow to be together at one time?
What vaccinations does the daycare require to allow the dogs entry?
Do they have cameras that allow you to watch your dog on your phone or computer?
Are they willing to feed your dog their meals if the dog is with them at meal time?
As you can see there is a lot to consider when choosing where to take your dog! It's a decision that should be taken seriously as this a place that you may utilize often and you want to make sure your dog is first and foremost safe while there. For example, some dog parks are free to the public, meaning anyone can come and use them. Other's charge you per dog or per entry, and can sell monthly or yearly subscriptions too. Both styles have their advantages, however dog parks that charge are generally safer as each dog has a record on file for up-to-date vaccinations and aggression incidents. If a dog's vaccines are out of date for example, the dog isn't allowed entry until the vaccines are updated, which means all other dogs in that park are safer. Not all dog parks that charge entry fees are expensive either. I know of one in Wyoming, MI that charges $12 a year for residents and $24 a year for non-residents. Very budget friendly and still safe.
There is also a much larger dog park near the same area in Jenison, MI. This dog park has many fenced-in areas for dogs of different sizes and offers more room than Wyoming Dog Park. This is important because if too many dogs are squeezed into a small area, that's just a fight waiting to happen. This park does not charge admission however, which means that there is greater risk of your dog catching an illness here. Also, without monitoring from a professional, someone can easily take their small dog or large dog into the wrong play areas and predatory drift can happen, or simply a dog can be injured due to size differences.
Finally, there is also a private dog park in Ada, MI called Shaggy Pines Dog Park where you pay a fee to get in. They require up to date vaccination or titers, a behavioral assessment be done before admitting your dog into the park, and are closely monitoring your dog's behaviors as you visit. If issues arise they help you understand the safety concerns and direct you to a trainer who can help.
Day cares have just as much variation. Is it a small operation in someone's home, or is it a large facility that holds 100+ dogs at a time? Are the people or staff who look after your dog CPR and first aid certified? Does your dog do well around so many other dogs and/or their barking? When choosing your day care, if you choose to go that route, try to keep your dog's personality in mind and what they are comfortable around. If your dog doesn't care to hang out with a bunch of dogs, using that large daycare facility in town may not be the best option for your dog. Instead look for a well educated (certified in CPR is a plus) person who runs a small business out of their home. Some in-home day care providers even take just one dog at a time to ensure your dog is safe and well cared for. Be prepared to pay a premium for a service like this; you may find the money is well worth the comfort however.
Whether you decide to use a dog park or day care or none, you need to consider if your dog is the type to even want to socialize. I have met so many dog parent's that believe their dog NEEDS to be around other dogs to live a happy life. This is simply not the case. Yes, they do need and sometimes want to socialize with dogs they care to be around; however most do not care to be around constantly new dogs they've never met. We know that dogs prefer to hang around other dogs they are familiar with. Their dog friends you might say. It's not much different from yourself. If I sat you down in a restaurant and told you to go talk to each person in the building, you would probably feel pretty uncomfortable doing so. However, replace every stranger with a close friend or family member and suddenly it is a lot easier and you feel less stressed about it.
Small play dates in the backyard (assuming there is a fence or enclosed area for them to safely play off leash) with a familiar dog that they get along with can be a much better way to fill your dog's socialization needs than putting them in an area with a bunch of dogs they don't know.
This is even more important for those dogs that are dealing with stress, anxiety, timidness, or fear. If your dog displays these kinds of behavioral issues they most likely won't do well in a crowd of dogs, even if they seem to do well from an untrained eye. If your dog is reactive towards other dogs while on leash, but does well in the park off leash, this is only going to make your on leash reactivity worse. It's even possible taking your dog to the dog park or day care caused their on leash reactivity, I've seen it many times. These are just a few examples of dogs that should not be going to dog parks or day cares. Not because they aren't welcome, but because it will only make their behavioral issues worse. In this case, hiring a dog walker or dog sitter may be a much better and safer option for your dog.
Dogs have a complex body language that they use with each other. Some are pretty good at using it, while others not so much. For example, there is always one bully in any group. This is the dog that runs around ramming into the other dogs and barking in their faces trying to get a rise out of them. This dog is most likely just trying to have fun and doesn't realize he's being a jerk. It's up to the other dogs to tell him that. However, if the other dogs aren't well versed in dog language or the bully just isn't getting it, the bully will keep trying. This is where the parent should step in and teach the bully to not be so rude. The problem with this is most people don't understand proper dog body language. It would be pretty hard for a human to teach a dog a language they don't comprehend themselves.
When I'm teaching body language in my classes, most people are surprised at just how much can be said by just doing a few simple body movements. It's an amazing language! Do your best to learn this language from someone who knows it (make sure they actually do as many people who claim to know body language don't). Brenda Aloff's book Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog is a great guide to learning this language if you'd like to research yourself.
There are plenty of other options to successfully relieve your pup of excess energy!
Don't just rely on one source. Even if you do decide to use the dog park, don't let that stop you from realizing all of the other fun ways in which you can not only work out your dog, but also build a bond between you and them.
Classes can be an excellent way of dedicating a day a week to your dog and you can take what you learn in class and apply it into the home life too. Classes such as agility, dock diving, and lure coursing are a few of the more labor intensive sports. Nose work and obedience however can also tire your dog out as the dog has to use a lot of mental energy during these classes.
Always remember that physical activity is just half of it. Your dog needs to be provided with mental activity as well. It's also been proven that mental activity will tire your dog out faster and generally longer than physical activity. So don't underestimate the power of a few 10 minute training sessions throughout the day. Those are really going to tire out your pup.
I generally equate it to taking a hike and taking a calculus test. If you took a 2 mile hike, you might be physically tired at the end, but your brain is fine and you're thinking about the rest of your day. If I gave you a 50 question calculus test your brain would be pretty tired and you wouldn't feel up to much else for the remainder of the day.
Games your dog finds fun to play can also help to tire them out both physically and mentally. Games such as "find it", hide and seek, tug of war, flirt poles, and trick training can give your dog that physical outlet within the home or backyard, but also gives them a sense of purpose and fulfills their mental enrichment needs too.
"Ditching the bowl" is another way of allowing your dog to use their brain during the day. This topic deserves its own blog (keep an eye out for it!) and it's basically saying goodbye to the food bowl and using other means to feed your dog; puzzle toys, snuffle mats, Lickimats, scatter feeding, and slow feeder bowls are just a few examples.
Finally, don't be afraid to change up the routine in your daily life with your dog so they don't get bored at home. Instead of walking your dog before dinner like usual, take them out afterwards and let them smell to their hearts content all of the new smells at a different time of the day. Do a training session of "wait" before you take your shower in the morning, instead of after. Little changes like this make your dog excited to see what comes next and don't become bored in the home. The four B's are: Boredom Breeds Bad Behavior. Don't allow yourself to let your dog get bored.
The 1:1 ratio
Lastly, if you do decide that the dog park or day care is a place you think will help you and your dog be successful in life, I just ask my students and others to follow one simple rule, the 1:1 ratio.
This means that for every 15 minutes your dog spends off leash at a park or day care, you need to provide them with 15 minutes of on leash interactions in the same day. Be on leash interactions, I mean seeing dogs and people at a distance. Leashed dogs should not be greeting one another as this increases the chances of an altercation happening. 15 minutes is the maximum time I recommend allowing your dog to play off leash with others in one given session. This way, they don't get too hyper, and they also learn that they can get off leash time for behaving on leash.
When you take your dog to the park or day care, they must earn that play time, no exceptions! It might take you 20 minutes to get to the gate of the park or doors of the facility but that's teaching your dog one thing, they need to listen to you and they'll get what they want. This also helps them control their impulses which is extremely important for a dog to do. Once they earn that play time, give it to them. 15 minutes maximum. Once time is up, call them back to you, and leave the off leash area. Do an equivalent amount of time on leash, outside the off leash area, doing training exercises for some tasty treats. If you feel your dog has done well, they've earned themselves some more play time. As long as you follow this 1:1 ratio your dog has a much lower chance of becoming reactive when on leash and as a bonus your dog learns to listen to you better. I have found that since I've come up with the 1:1 ratio and have told my students about it, I have had less students develop reactive or aggressive behaviors later on.
If you decide to not use dog parks and day cares, that is okay too. Don't feel you are depriving your dog of something. As long as you provide them with adequate physical and mental enrichment each day, you are doing a good job. Remember dogs prefer to hang out with dogs they know versus dogs they don't know anyways and a large majority of dogs would rather not be at the dog park themselves. So plan a play date in the backyard with one of your dog's friends for some social time. This is a safe and appropriate way of socializing your dog.
If you still aren't sure what to do to tire your dog out, and none of the above has worked, don't be afraid to reach out to a qualified behavior professional to see if something else is at play. If these ideas have encouraged you to give it another go with your tireless pup, I look forward to hearing how they have helped you. Finally, if you've already been doing these things and have seen progress, congratulations!