Well, you guessed correctly: It all depends, and it depends on many factors. The internet is loaded with numerous, sometimes strong and even diametrically opposed opinions. Here are our thoughts:
In daycare, a well socialized, confident and playful dog can quite simply be a dog and also burn off steam, as long as it does not substitute for much needed interaction with the owner. In contrast, dogs with behavioral issues or poor socialization will actually get worse very quickly and you need to put in the time to properly socialize, train, and correct any issues first. Occasional daycare can be good for social dogs, but it is a very bad choice for attempting to socialize your dog. Once you’ve decided that daycare is a good fit for your dog, choosing the right facility is yet another issue, which we won’t cover in this article. There are many daycare facilities with responsible and knowledgeable staff, but there are also facilities to avoid at all cost, and everything in between. Often, your veterinarian will be able to point you in the right direction.
Now how about dog parks? They may have been a well-intended idea of open, legal, secure spaces for off-leash dogs, particularly in large cities or for people with limited space, but from our perspective they almost always fail to measure up. Here are some of the reasons:
First, take all the caveats we mentioned when it comes to doggie daycare and now remove all meaningful supervision. This is what you get in a dog park (enter at your own risk). But, aren’t the individual dog owners there to supervise? In theory yes, however owners are often seen engaging with other people or their cell phone, while others appear hypervigilant, nervous and as such not helpful either. The average dog owner has little to no idea about appropriate canine pack behavior and body language, let alone actionable knowledge on when and how to interfere.
When a group of three or more canines are without a strong human pack leader, they will instinctively establish a rank order. Sometimes this order self-establishes, but fights will determine the rank of a dog if some try to assume the same position in the pack. Once your dog has been subjected to attack by another dog, the likelihood of dog aggression in your dog exponentially increases and even a single incident may cause permanent temperament change that is very difficult to correct.
Put yourself in the shoes/paws of a dog: When your dog enters a park for the first time, it is not seen by other dogs as a new buddy. Instead, the new dog is perceived as an intruder, potentially leading to aggression secondary to fear, territory or dominance instincts. You may assume that every dog in the park is well-mannered, based on watching these dogs over a few minutes. Wrong. Several dogs playing with each other does not mean they will play with your dog who won’t know the rules of the existing pack and stir the pot just by entering. This is what dogs do. And if your dog only gets to be with other dogs at a rowdy dog park, he won’t learn to be calm and attentive in the presence of other dogs.
Here is a question: What would happen if you take the high school football team, the drama club and the jazz band, mix them into two teams and let them play basketball without any supervision? Exactly. In dogs, certain breeds have very distinct play styles. They range from chasing, quick snaps and dashing away to be chased (spaniels, hounds, terriers), nipping at heels or flanks in order to make the other dogs move (herding breeds), to body slamming and bites and wrestling matches (bull breeds). And just because they are all dogs does not mean they speak and understand each other’s play gestures and body language equally well.
Is there any silver lining here? Yes there is. Remember the fundamental difference between training and testing your dog. You can only train your dog when you are able to control the outcome. With your dog off leash at a dog park you would be testing your dog, and often with dismal outcomes. But, if you have a dog park nearby, you control your dog (leash) and don’t allow unleashed dogs to come near you (fence), you have a great setting for training with distractions. And don’t forget teaching your dog that you are more fun than any other dog at the park, simply by engaging in play your dog loves, away from the other dogs. And when your dog is off leash, 100% of your attention should be on your dog, with a contingency plan for unwanted situations. Likewise, socializing your dog with other dogs is fine; as long as you maintain control, i.e. have your dog on leash.