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.

To leash or not to leash…

With experience comes caution…

When we first got dogs in the mid-80s, it never occurred to us to leash our dogs in the parks of Seattle. After all, our dogs needed exercise. Sascha and Klea (our golden and collie), were somehow naturally perfect trail dogs–Klea stayed close by on the trail, and Sascha, wild athlete that she was, would turn on a dime and race back to us when called. Sascha would even carry her own leash when she absolutely needed to be tethered, and would stay in heel position, her swagger reflecting her pride. It was just who she was–responsive and completely reliable.

Then came Tess and Lola. In spite of years of training, Tess, our second collie, was wild and independent, and Lola, six months younger, was insane on trails.  Hiking in the mountains with her was a liability because of her tendency to tear through the woods and to leap without anticipating the landing. I remember holding my breath while watching her leap and fly across the boulders of a landslide on the way to Lake Ann. So after that, we left her at home when we went to the mountains. Our reluctance to have the two girls with us at all times, however, was still driven by their behavior, not by potential conflicts with people and other dogs.

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We kept Vera and everyone else safe by choosing carefully when and where we walked her, and by keeping her on leash.

Then we adopted Vera (of Finding Vera), and for the first time realized that there really was the risk of encountering dangerous dogs out in the community. To protect herself, Vera would threaten to attack any dog who got close.  We didn’t see this side of her right away.  For weeks after her adoption, she was difficult, but seemed to do well both on leash, and off-leash on logging roads and off-leash trails. Then things went south. After she injured her favorite sister in a fight, we realized that her threats were not empty, and we never allowed her to run off leash again. We became skilled at intervening if an off-leash dog approached, but every loose-dog event risked injury to us, the other dog, and our beloved Vera. We replaced her off-leash romps with training and games, and she lived out her life content in spite of her restrictions.

Annie in her "kinky boot" after surgery.
Annie in her “kinky boot” before her surgery.

What now?

Now we have Annie, an eighteen-month-old collie, who has finally recovered from a surgically rebuilt joint (right hock). For the six years since Tess and Lola died, I have worried about this moment of decision–to keep her leashed, or to let her off. I now know there are dogs out there like Vera who have owners who are either naive, or in denial.  These are dogs who will attack another dog when they feel overwhelmed, and the infraction could be as small as a “look”, or simply existing on the same planet. On the other hand, I itch to let Annie run free; watching her run and play with other dogs makes me feel like I am flying.

In the past few weeks we made our decision. After months of practicing recalls and walking miles of trails with her on leash, we unclipped her.  We sent her to daycare to learn how to cope with groups of dogs, had friends’ trail-savvy dogs guide her on designated off-leash trails. We used high-value treats (chicken and steak) to reward her for recalls.  And then, with a leap of faith we set her free.

Finally allowed to run off leash!

Training Tips

  1. Practice, practice, practice recall with your dog before you take your dog off-leash. Take classes, work on recall in different environments, begin by calling your dog at a short distance, then gradually add distance on a long line. Don’t advance unless your dog is successful 80% of the time.
  2. Always carry high-value treats to reward your dog for coming back to you.
  3. If your dog is a rescue, don’t take him off-leash until you have a good, strong relationship. This will take at least a few months. Err on the side of caution.  A lost dog is a terrible thing.
  4. Once you are comfortable walking your dog off leash, adhere to the rules of the trail you are on.  Many people walk their dogs on on-leash trails because it’s their only choice. They simply can’t frequent dog parks or off-leash trails. Respect their limitations.  They are just trying to keep everyone safe.
  5. Don’t let your attention wander from your dog. No cell phones. Things can go wrong very quickly with dogs if you aren’t aware of their body language. Without knowing the dog who’s approaching, how do you know what’s about to happen if you aren’t reading their signals?
  6. Some people are fearful of dogs and deserve space.  They may have been bitten in the past.  I was bitten by a small dog a few years ago–at least 5 times in as many seconds. Now my ankles tingle whenever I’m approached by a small, barking, lunging, dog. And I am passionate about dogs. What about people who don’t even like dogs?
  7. Even if you are on an off-leash trail, leash your dog if you approach someone who looks uncomfortable, or notice that someone leashes their dog at a distance from you.
  8. If someone asks you to leash your dog, PLEASE don’t argue. Chances are, they are trying to protect your dog as much as theirs.  And they may know more than you do about what might be about to transpire.

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.