Walkie vs. Dog Park?

Dog owners and trainers the world over will attest to how much most dogs crave being physically active. Many dog owners report that simply picking up a leash will result in their dog doing a "happy dance" or a variation thereof.  Similarly, if you spend some time outside almost any dog park you're likely to see enthusiastic displays on the part of dogs as they make their way to the entry of the park. In fact, you've likely witnessed the dogs that are so excited about prospect of going into the dog park that their owners have given up trying to get the dog to walk politely on leash and simply allow their dogs to run unleashed from the car to the gate of the park (note: the unleashed dog beelining to the gate of the dog park is not a good idea for a lot of reasons but it is indeed an unvarnished testimonial from dogs about their priorities). 

With the rise in the number of dog parks in the last decade, there has been a concurrent debate on the value of dog parks. I know there will be those among you that are already saying "I don't like dog parks and never take my dog to one". Others among you will swear with equal passion to the value dog parks and proclaim that from your dog's point of view, dog parks rank right up there next nasty fox poop to roll in.

So, the question is: walkie or dog park for your dog? There is interesting new research out (L. Ottenheimer Carrier and colleagues, 2013; Applied Animal Behavior Science; 146; 96-106) that provides some insight to how dogs experience visits to dog parks. 

Let me start by discussing briefly how the research was done. First,  the above mentioned paper was actually a "2-fer" article which means that there were actually two studies reported in the same article (I always feel like I'm getting such a deal when researchers do this!) The first study, and the one that I'll discuss more extensively here, examined if there were changes in companion dogs' salivary cortisol levels under two conditions: (1) when dogs went for a 20-minute walk with their owners, (2) when dogs went to the dog park with their owners. (Cortisol is a hormone released by the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal [HPA] axis and is thought to be an indicator of arousal and/or stress.) So, simply stated on separate days the owners participating in the study took spit samples from their dogs just before and after their dogs were exposed to the above conditions. 

The researchers found that on the day when dogs were walked there was no significant change in dog's cortisol levels from the pre-walk to the post-walk assessments. In contrast, however, on the day when the exercise involved going to the dog park, there was a significant increase in dogs' cortisol levels. Hmm...does this mean that dogs are experience significant stress when they visit dog parks? 

First, let's acknowledge some important elements about who participated in the study. It turns out the majority of the owner-dog dyads (~75%) who participated in the study did not regularly visit the dog park (i.e., they went to the dog park less frequently than 3 times per month). So, one might argue that the increase in the dogs' cortisol levels stemmed from the fact that most of the dogs were being exposed to a social situation that put them on "unfamiliar turf". In fact, in Study 2, which included a larger sample of dogs, researchers found there was trend for dogs that that visited the dog park more frequently to have lower levels of cortisol.

(For the research geeks like me that might be out there, I'll include a brief critique of the methods used in Study 1. It turns out that for all but one of the dogs in the study, the "dog walk" condition occurred first and was later followed by the "dog park" condition. To avoid a variety of possible confounds to the data, a stronger research design would have varied the order in which dogs experienced the two conditions (i.e., so that roughly half of the dogs were assessed the "dog park" conditions first and the other half experienced the "dog walk" condition first.). 

Despite some limitations in this study (all studies have them and this is all the more reason not to get too worked up one way or another on the results of a single study), I'm interested in how the findings might be applied to shelter dogs. An increasing number of animal shelters now organize "play groups" and/or dyads for the dogs in their care. From my experience, there are clearly dogs who seem to prefer the company of people over meeting new dogs. However, on behalf of the many shelter dogs that do seem to enjoy and benefit from play time with their dog friends, it's worth asking, if a similar pattern of results would be obtained? That is, from an animal welfare perspective, does it make more sense to organize dog play groups or is the time of shelter staff and volunteers better spent providing dogs with a walk or jog? It's likely that this varies as a function of the individual dog; nonetheless, I'll know I'll be paying extra attention to these issues raised by this study as I work with shelter dogs on a regular basis. 

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What have your observations and experiences been with regard to dog walks and dog parks?  Please feel free to share your thoughts. 

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On a related note, I wanted to bring alive the discussion about dog parks with some video footage collected from a dog park. To this end, below is a video clip from my archives. You'll see a red hound mix, Tucker, who was my parent's dog being checked out by a boxer mix. Tucker was an example of an outgoing, confident dog that really seemed to enjoy socializing with other dogs at the dog park. Tucker was found as a stray and when he went for his neuter surgery the vet informed my parents that he was technically a hermaphrodite (or intersexed). Google this if you want to read up more on this or check out this link. What always struck me about watching Tucker's dog-dog introductions was that the introductions seemed particularly long..I don't have any data on this-just my observations over time. It was as if the dog Tucker was meeting had to spend some extra time sorting through the incoming information and comparing it to the dog's frame of reference. The good part was that Tucker was consistently such good sport about all this. In the video the other dog has a chance to meet Tucker and it seems to be that Tucker wants to get the introductions over with so the play can start!  Your comments?