Dog parks: Why not?

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play.  No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started. 

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Three dogs at a dog park take a break from play…an appropriate way to calm arousal levels. Communal sniffing is a wonderful way for them to bond.

However, the reality is often much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.

“Yes,” you may say, “so what?”  The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting.  If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.

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Annie studies white dog–he’s playful, but BIG and boisterous. She is confident: her stance is solid, her tail  up, her mouth open, ears back but not pinned.
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Annie is overwhelmed even though the white dog is not being aggressive. She copes by slipping out from under him and running away.  Her run, though, is playful and confident, not fearful.
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Annie recovers nicely and when she finishes her run, greets the white dog at a 30 degree angle. No hard feelings.

Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights often erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights—humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites—sometimes by their own dog—when attempting to break up the fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:

1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”

2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”

The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble. 

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Annie is surrounded. She only knows 1 of the 3 dogs. Her style is to find an escape, run away, then rejoin the group.  But what if she needed to protect herself? Dogs have to think fast and react appropriately.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure or be injured by another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
  • If you take your dog to the dog park because you’ve been told he “needs more socialization”, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner rather than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed aggression. Once aggression has worked for him, he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
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Annie is bumped from behind, fairly hard, by this puppy. She is startled, and not happy about it. She whips around, faces him, then dances off.

If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics.  If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.

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The puppy grabs a stick.  Annie also likes sticks–a lot. But she leaves him to play with it. If she took it away from the puppy, that would probably be okay.  But what if it was a mature, resource-guarding dog?

Do not even consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target.  Muzzles have no place in a dog park.  Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself.  Leashing your dog at a dog park will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more. If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.

If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider: 

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  • Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give and take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. The owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
  • Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s. 
  • Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play. 
  • Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate. 
  • Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play.

Reactive dogs and Neighbors

Trouble with the neighbors

We live in a planned community where there are strict dog-leash rules…except for those who don’t believe it applies to them. Fences are also an issue here–one needs authorization to build them, so for the past twenty-six years, we have walked our dogs on the curving, twisting, wooded roads of this community. Unless one lives with a dog-reactive dog, or is terrified of dogs, or has an old or infirm dog or fearful dog, the off-leash issue isn’t a problem (except for the loose dogs themselves who get hit by cars, get into garbage, slug bait, and other toxins). But having lived with a fearful, dog-reactive dog for the past twelve years, who over the past year became old and infirm at the age of thirteen, we have many, many stories to tell.

I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t believe in aggression in dogs.  They don’t believe that a dog’s natural weapon, jaws with teeth, can actually be functional. That they can bite six times per second, puncture, and much worse. For years I talked to neighbors until I was blue in the face, politely explaining Vera’s shortcomings, pleading with them to at least call and hold onto their dog while we passed.  We walked her on two points of contact–a head collar and front-attachment harness.  We did u-turns to avoid dogs, hid up driveways behind cars, took alternate routes, split between her and any potential threat. But time and time again, I would find myself wedged between two raging dogs, Vera straining to attack a dog who was circling to get her. She was easy prey to them–insecure, threatened, rude, and bound to two points of contact and a controlling handler. When this happened, the owners would shout at the dog to come back, suddenly aware that their dog could get hurt.  The dog might return to them, but often would not.

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Loose, friendly dogs running toward you leads to instant panic!

As we slunk through the safest parts of the neighborhood (we knew where every dog lived, the hours they were out, the risks we took by walking V in that direction), we have been jeered at for being cowards, and physically threatened for asking (maybe at this point, demanding) for the hundredth time that one man put his dog on leash. Testosterone-fueled aggression in male humans is rampant when his dog’s leash status is questioned, and one man actually sat in the middle of the road, holding his dog by the collar, effectively blocking our passage by his house when asked to put his dog on leash. As we edged past, blocking Vera with our bodies and feeding her a river of treats, the man actually said “Bite me!”. This man knew about Vera, had owned a reactive dog, had hired me as a reactive-dog trainer, was soft-spoken and articulate, and still could not say “Sorry, I didn’t see you coming–I’m on it!” and leash his dog.

I don’t know what the answer is. My husband learned to be calm and polite no matter how verbally abusive people were.  I tended to be silent, and focused on Vera which was perceived as being rude.  We stayed away from everyone–the pariahs of the neighborhood. I’m not sure how many people realized on a real level that we were just protecting a very fearful dog who saved herself in a very scary way. That we were protecting their dogs from an emotional assault and possible puncture wounds. Until one lives with a reactive dog, I don’t think it’s possible for others to understand the reactive-dog owner’s plight–the isolation, the dedication it takes to give a reactive dog a rich and rewarding life, the love it takes to share one’s life with such a dog. I’ve tried to give this perspective in Finding Vera, and I hope that it educates at least a few people on reactive dogs, and ultimately works towards earning reactive-dog owners the respect they deserve.

Training Tips

  1. Talk to new neighbors about your reactive dog and his/her limitations.
  2. Let neighbors know all that you are doing to keep your dog safe.
  3. Be assertive, but always polite.
  4. Avoid areas where you know neighbors let their dogs off leash.  Vera’s “safe” area became smaller and smaller over the years.
  5. Don’t call out to people to put their dogs on leash if they are a distance away–in my experience, the humans won’t hear you, but the dogs will, and they will charge over to you to investigate. It was always better to just change direction.
  6. Teach your dog an emergency “sit behind” and practice it over and over. If, as in Vera’s case, your dog is too large and reactive to stay behind you, you will need to face your dog, keep him on a short leash, and pivot between your dog and the loose dog. There is the risk of being bitten with this maneuver, though it never happened to me. Once dogs are fighting, the risk of getting a redirected bite from one of the dogs is much greater.
  7. Carry an air horn in case a dog starts to charge up to you from a distance away. The neighbors won’t like it, and it will scare some dogs, but the vast majority of dogs will stop, think about it, and choose to return to their owners or proceed very cautiously, giving you the chance to escape. Follow the air horn link to read more about it.

Denial and reactive dogs

My dog’s not aggressive!  (Though he is clearly reactive.)

Denial is pandemic when one first realizes that aggression might be an issue with one’s dog.  And what is aggression, anyway?  The definitions are pulled and twisted and analyzed by the experts.  To me, as a past reactive-dog trainer, aggression is any behavior that is meant to threaten or intimidate another creature.  It is also any defensive behavior that injures another dog intentionally.  Well-socialized dogs will posture and correct as part of a canine interaction.  They are controlled and bite-inhibited. They are not acting out of fear or intimidation.

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 When a dog acts in an aggressive manner out of fear (95% of aggression is due to fear), it is an uncontrolled response, thought processes are restricted, and they make bad decisions. It is up to the guardian to learn the dog’s limitations and not push him, to keep him feeling safe, and the world around him safe–and, with time, love, confidence building, and work to desensitize him to his triggers, he will improve.A

But time and time again I see just the opposite–blatant denial in the human partner of the team.  I have been there too.  The desperate hope that THIS time, my dog will be calm, listen to me, stay by my side, and leave the person, dog, deer, squirrel, bird alone.  The stress kept me awake at night, and finally I decided to act. To take control.

Based on experience and hundreds of hours of study, I will say that dogs will not change without work.  Not quickly, not spontaneously. Letting a reactive dog who has confrontations off leash, will not make the dog safe to others. Allowing a scared dog who expresses his fear through reactivity or aggression, or a dog who has a strong prey drive to the point of bite/kill to run free, will risk a lost dog, an injured opponent, or a dead deer, squirrel, rabbit, or smaller dog.

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In the past few days I have seen a German shepherd with a known bite history running off leash with his human. I dealt with a loose dog who lunged, barked circled and snapped at my collie while she looked on in confusion while the owner muttered platitudes under his breath.  In another incident, my husband intervened as a terrier, who lives down the street, charged our collie–a terrier who had almost lost his life doing the same to a Rottweiler a few years ago when the rottie retaliated.

Denial is a potent coping device, but it doesn’t save us.  It just allows the situation to progress, to worsen in front of us while we sit back and hope.

Training Tips: If you have a reactive dog:

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Read about it: Books that might help you: The Midnight Dog Walkers by Annie Phenix, The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell.
  3. Find a trainer who specializes in aggression work.
  4. Medications may help. Talk to your vet.
  5. Finding Vera by Kerry Claire (me) is not instructional, but is filled with canine perspective and behavior and shows how one family coped with a reactive German shepherd in a novel format. It is both educational and supportive to those making their way through the maze of reactivity.