Dog Parks Revisited…

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 can be 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 (my collie) 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 can 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 inflicted by their own dog) when attempting to break up a fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

Shortly after we adopted Vera (our poorly socialized German shepherd), she and Lola (our well-socialized golden retriever) were having a play session. Vera’s play style quickly escalated and became too rough for Lola, who told Vera to settle down by sniffing the ground, turning away, and refusing to further engage in play. In spite of Lola’s efforts, Vera didn’t slow down and kept pummeling her sister (jumping on her, mouthing her, body slamming her). Next, Lola tried to out-run Vera, but Vera caught up to her and took her down. Lola’s last choice was to correct Vera with a lunge and a snarl, which should have clearly communicated to Vera to back off. However, even though these dogs were very bonded, Vera felt threatened enough by Lola’s correction that she attacked Lola and a bad fight broke out. Lola sustained multiple puncture wounds and their relationship was damaged for several weeks. If both dogs had been unsocialized, a fight would have broken out much faster.

In a dog park situation, if the aggressing dog happened to be your dog, you would have to deal with the risk of breaking up the fight, the guilt that your dog harmed another dog, potentially large vet bills to pay for the injured dog, and lots of decisions to make about how to handle, train, and exercise your dog in the future. (You can read about how we managed Vera’s life in my novel, Finding Vera.)

Dogs can also have healthy “scuffles” where a dog who is feeling overwhelmed clearly states “I’ve had enough”. There will be lots of noise, saliva will fly, and the dogs might look like they’re killing each other, but at the end of the argument no harm is done. The problem is, if one of the dogs is poorly socialized and truly feels threatened, he might respond with a full-fledged attack, and if he hasn’t learned bite-inhibition as a puppy, the well-socialized dog could get badly injured. With the large number of dogs adopted during the pandemic, it will be extra important to be careful at dog parks since there will probably be a larger number of unsocialized dogs present than one has encountered in the past.

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. Her mouth is closed, she’s licking her lips, her ears are back, and she’s evaluating her options.  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 want to socialize your under-socialized dog, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner 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 reactivity or aggression. Once aggression has worked for him (it gets other dogs to back off), 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 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 is not a good idea. It 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 have your well-socialized dog at the dog park, avoid any dog who is on leash.

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. 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 and squabbles.
  • I follow these guidelines when I take Annie to the dog park and so far, all has been well.

Do I want a dog? Or a robot?

It occurred to me after watching Spot, the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, perform several complex and independent tasks, that many people want a robot, not a sensitive, independent-minded, opinionated, sometimes naughty and obnoxious canine companion. I must admit, when I’m trying to train Annie a new, multi-step trick, there is something very seductive about the thought of clicking a button or moving a joystick, or even better–to preprogram her to do what I want, when I want. Also, a robot does not need to go out in the rain and wind to do its business, need daily training and mental stimulation (though it might need programming), or go for daily hikes (though as long as the hikes were less than the four-hour battery limit, Spot might be able to go for hikes, too). I could also turn off a robot when I wanted to read or write or watch the tube.

So why have a real dog? I think each of us has to answer that for ourselves. There is no doubt that dogs are a lot of work and a big responsibility when we invite them into our lives. But what we get is the opportunity to share our lives with another species we have, as humans, shared a bond with for thousands of years. One who is willing to learn our language, live in our culture, and spend years with us as individuals being our partners and companions. They read our emotions, learn our language, laugh with us, dream with us, and do our bidding because they choose to. They give us insights into their world of scent, expressing intense emotional responses to things we might not have noticed. They also love us, and scientists believe they are genetically bonded to us through thousands of years of evolution. And not only that, Dr. Stanley Coren, in an article in Psychology today, discusses a study that shows that dogs are not only able to empathize with us, but also to sympathize.

enjoy your dog being a dog:

  • Take time to watch your dog being a dog–playing, sleeping, problem solving, and learning.
  • Consider how remarkable it is that our dogs will do even one of the inane things we ask of them. We can’t explain to them why we ask them to “sit” or “down” or “come” like we can with a child. Dogs do our bidding either because we reward them or threaten them. They certainly don’t do things for us because there’s any logic to our demands. If the tables were turned, what would we think if they took us for a walk, thrust our heads to the ground and demanded “sniff”? I know I would be confused and irate. Our dogs are very tolerant!
  • Realize that the intelligence of dogs cannot be compared to ours or to a robot’s. Dogs have many abilities that we do not, all of which are classified as a type of intelligence: their sense of smell, their sense of hearing, their ability to herd, to track, to run and balance their bodies in activities such as playing Frisbee (kinesthetic intelligence), to hunt, to communicate, and to socialize.
  • Unlike us and the robots we have created, dogs are born with a complex body language which they use to communicate with the world around them in an ongoing flow of phrases.
  • Many dogs have remarkable speed and endurance compared to their size.
  • They can navigate their complex and intricate social structures and have fascinating social interactions with their own species as well as with others (humans, cats, and sheep for a start). In my novel, Finding Vera, I describe many subtle social interactions I observed between Vera and her golden retriever and collie sisters. Take time to observe similar interactions between your own dogs, their friends, and acquaintances.
  • Dogs perceive much of their environment through their sense of smell and can glean detailed information as they pass through their world. By observing your dog carefully, you can sometimes determine whether the odor she’s studying stems from a new dog in the neighborhood, a cat, deer, raccoon, coyote or cougar based on her reaction to the scent. Your dog can also determine which direction an animal is moving by assessing the intensity of its scent. To me, the dogs’ interpretation of this invisible world is nothing short of miraculous.
  • Consider the remarkable ability of your dog to anticipate your return home. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist from Barnard College in New York City, believes that dogs cannot only tell the time of day based on their circadian rhythms, but can tell how long their people have been gone and when they are due back through interpreting the strength of human scent in the house. This is discussed by Dr. Stanley Coren in an article in Psychology Today.
  • Instead of being frustrated by your dog barking at every little thing, try to imagine the world through the sensitive ears of your dog, and how your complex, computerized home resonates with sound. Find a trainer to help you desensitize your dog to the multitude of sounds he might hear if noise makes your dog anxious. Also consider using simple, calm, music to help her to relax.
  • Although dogs can see better in the dark than we can, they can sometimes be alarmed by objects they don’t recognize and will bark in response. Dogs’ vision is not as acute as ours in daylight, and therefore things might appear unexpectedly scary, even to the well-socialized, savvy dog. Reassurance and a treat can go a long way to easing their minds when this happens.
  • Dogs are emotional creatures just like us, and thrive on social interactions and relationships with humans and often (though not always) with other dogs. They can experience the basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not the more complex emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride. Watch for these emotions in your dog as you share your days with her, and don’t expect more of her than she is able to give. Don’t misinterpret fear and submission in anticipation of anger, as guilt.
  • Dogs love to share time with us, delight in our touch, our voices, and our attention. We revel in their warmth, their beautiful, expressive eyes, and their luscious fur. Both humans and dogs find joy and purpose in play and in working as a team.
  • If you find yourself getting frustrated with your dog, try to remember what a remarkable thing it is to share your life with another species. Take a deep breath, and revel in the wonderful individuality of your companion, so unlike the predictability of a robot.

Listen to your dog!

There are so many different ways to listen to your dog: barking, vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions. Yet how good are we at understanding what they are saying? We think we can tell when our dogs are happy because they wag their tails–but this is only partially true. The position, rate, and pattern of tail wagging changes depending on what they are trying to communicate. We label them quickly when we think they are being naughty or stubborn because they don’t do what they’re told. Yet dogs always have a good reason for not doing what we ask of them and try to communicate that to us–though we might not understand or agree. When they tremble and whine, we might think they are scared. Maybe, but these signals could also indicate excitement or pain.

For example, in the Featured Image above, Vera is telling me she is not enjoying the hug I’m giving her. Her mouth is closed, her face tense, and she is looking as far away from me as as she possibly can. I’m enjoying it, but she is NOT!

Dogs are much more complex than we give them credit for. They have an entire language with which they can communicate excitement, arousal, contentment, affection, stress, fear, anger, joy, disgust, shyness, and suspicion according to Dr. Stanley Coren. (They do not feel the more complex emotions of guilt, shame, pride and contempt.) They also have opinions, preferences, and motivations. They are thinking, emotional creatures with brains similar to ours, and they communicate with us all the time. Since we have invited them into our homes, it is not only polite and respectful to learn their language, but we owe it to them to do so. After all, we expect them to know ours–whether we teach it to them or not!

I recently watched a webinar by Julie Shaw VTS-Behavior, addressing the question of stubbornness in dogs. She reflected my own experience with dogs: if dogs don’t want to do something, there’s a good reason for it. Either they don’t have a clue what you want them to do (they haven’t been adequately trained and don’t understand the words or signals being used to direct them), they know something you don’t (as with Annie when she refused to go down a path–we found coyote tracks in the snow twenty feet further down the trail), they are in pain (as in a friend’s dog who refused to get into the car), they’re scared (a shelter dog refusing to go through a doorway into the unknown), or they know they will dislike what will happen to them if they do what’s being asked (a dog who is expected walk politely over to the tap for a bath). Dogs don’t tend to do things randomly any more than we do. There is always a reason, and if we stop to think about what they’re telling us, we can often figure it out and modify our expectations. But we need to have the patience to do this.

How to listen to your dog

  • Watch your dog more closely than you have in the past. Even those of us who have studied canine body language for years can benefit from doing this. We become complacent over time and start to miss cues.
  • Purchase a good book on canine body language if you don’t have one. I recommend Brenda Aloff’s book, Canine Body Language, a photographic guide, but there are many other books out there. My novel, Finding Vera, is full of canine body language used by the dogs in the story to navigate their lives. In part, I wrote it as a way to educate readers on canine behavior and the language of dogs, while enjoying a good read.
  • Download a free poster on The Body Language of Fear by Sophia Yin.
  • Watch some canine body language videos, or look at photos of dogs’ facial expressions on the Eileen and dogs website to get a better understanding of your dog’s emotional state in different situations.
  • Watch your dog closely when you take her on walks. It’s always interesting to see where dogs sniff. Unfortunately, we tend to discredit their sniffing behavior because we don’t smell or see what they are sniffing. It is thought that they can smell in layers–a complex tapestry of input to them, like us looking at a multilayered sunset or view. By seeing how they react to certain scents, we can learn a lot from them. For instance, I’m now able to determine from Annie, our three-year-old collie, whether the dog who just passed by is new to the neighborhood (increased excitement and persistence in sniffing the air flow behind the dog), whether a neighbor just got a new dog (she’ll stop and air sniff while pointing directly at the dog’s house until I respond), or a coyote (she’ll sniff every inch of the ground and vegetation deliberately, then curtail her walk). If it’s a dog she’s familiar with, she’ll sniff, then move on.
  • Observe if there are places your dog likes to go, and places she doesn’t.
    • For instance, some surfaces might be harsh on a dog’s paws, for instance gravel paths, or sand–especially on a long walk. Your dog might hang back, ask to go on a different trail by pointing her body in that direction, or turn around and ask to go back to the car. It’s hard to know how sensitive dog’s paws are on rough surfaces. Some don’t seem to mind, others do.
    • Wild animals such as coyotes or cougars might frequent the area and your dog might make the very smart decision to return to the parking lot, even though you are oblivious to the danger.
    • Your dog might be fearful of a dog who barks at her from behind a fence and hang back, shake off, scratch, or try to turn back the way she came. Her communication shouldn’t be ignored. You could turn back and go a different way, arc around the barking dog, or put your dog on the side of you away from the scary dog, feeding her treats as you pass.
    • Your dog might be hesitant to go to the dog park because even though she’s well socialized, she doesn’t like interacting with a group of wild adolescent strangers. Don’t force her to do this. She knows better than you how well she can handle the situation.
  • See if there are places she likes to be touched and places she doesn’t.
    • Often the first indications of emotional or physical discomfort will be licking her lips, turning her head away, or yawning. If you don’t listen to these signals, she might escalate her communication to moving away from you, staring at your hand, or even mouthing your hand.
    • Her sensitivity could be due to an injury, a sore muscle, or past association, but a visit to the vet might be in order if this is a new behavior.
    • She might not enjoy being touched as much as you think. Many dogs love our companionship, but only enjoy being touched in certain ways at certain times. Even Annie, our well-socialized, happy collie only likes to be touched when she asks for it by coming over to us, weaving between our legs, or barking and stretching and acting silly on the couch. We make a point of stopping our snuggles before she moves away.
  • When you’re training your dog, watch closely to see if you’re communicating well with her. If you are, she should be paying attention and engaged in learning. If she starts to become confused or overwhelmed, you might see her licking her lips, turning her head away, scratching, yawning, or trying other behaviors. Our golden, Lola, used to lie down and refuse to move when she was confused. Tess would nip at me and bark. Annie will try different behaviors, and eventually get silly. The other day in her Treiball class, she ran around the room visiting the other dogs and their people when my expectations were too high.
  • Listen to your dog’s bark. Dogs have different barks and vocalizations for different things. Remember, barking is an excellent form of communication as is growling (an important warning that they’ve been pushed far enough.) A dog should NEVER be punished for a growl since the signs of low and moderate stress levels could escalate directly to a snap or bite if the growl has been suppressed. Turid Rugaas’s book, Barking, the Sound of a Language, is an excellent resource on barking.

Learning to understand and communicate with your dog is extremely rewarding. As you become familiar with her language over time, more and more subtleties will become apparent to you, and the bonding you experience over the years will be worth the effort.

Is My Dog sick?

There are many veterinarian-authored articles that articulate the precise symptoms to watch for to decide whether or not your dog is ill. In this blog, however, I’m going to talk about the more subtle signs to watch for in your dog.  It’s not always easy to tell if your dog is just tired or really not feeling well–if you should jump to attention and rush to the emergency vet, or let time pass and observe him.  These are some things I’ve learned after 35 years of living with dogs. 

Tips for understanding your dog

Dogs communicate with their bodies. The tension and lines in their faces, the position of their ears and the wrinkles on their brows communicate only part of how they are feeling. The arc of their backs, the position of their tails,  and their level of energy, whether panting and pacing, leaping and barking, or curling into a lethargic ball all give us clues. Sometimes dogs who don’t feel well will cling to us, sometimes they will keep their distance and refuse to be touched. Every dog is different, and that makes it difficult to decipher their signals until you know your dog well. 

Lola would curl into a ball and sleep when she was in discomfort or didn’t feel well. Since she was a couch potato at home, this was easy to miss.
  • Get into the habit of observing your dog carefully. Your dog is constantly communicating with you, the other pets in your house and the world around him.
  • Get a good book on canine body language such as Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language” to help you interpret his normal signs of communication.  
  • Watch for changes in energy patterns…is your dog panting and pacing more than usual? Is he suddenly more energetic or frantic– more outgoing or crazy than normal? Is he sleeping more than usual? Not as interested in being near you? Is he clinging to you?  Is his back arched? These behaviors paired with a decrease in appetite, diarrhea stool or blood in the stool, vomiting, limping etc, could tip you off that he is experiencing more than just an isolated symptom, and that your dog is feeling ill or is in pain.  In other words, you should contact your vet ASAP.  
  • An arched back along with panting and pacing could be associated with abdominal pain, and a call or trip to the emergency vet is definitely advised as this could be very serious. 
  • Lola would shut down when she wasn’t feeling well, but Vera would pant and pace, or leap and spin and bark, unable to settle. Her behavior could be mistaken for a sudden surge of playfulness, where in actual fact, paired with a decreased appetite, we would finally figure out that she was in pain.
Annie did not want to be touched one minute, and the next minute would be asking for attention when she was feeling ill earlier this week. Here she is moving away from me as I try to play with her.
  • Annie, who recently had blood in her stool, let us know how dreadful she felt by avoiding physical contact one moment, then appearing by my side and asking for reassurance the next. She refused breakfast and treats, but then ate a small amount in the afternoon. Rather than settling for a nap after her snack, she became frantic to get outside and walked quickly ahead of me at the end of the leash, her head down, the sides of her mouth pulled back in stress, tail tucked, and was not at all interested in the smells that usually capture her interest.  At that point, we took her to the vet.  
  • Lip licking, yawning, and turning away from you are other signs of stress and though dogs use these signals constantly to negotiate space, they can be used more frequently in conjunction with other body language if they are not feeling well. 
  • Looking directly at your hand, and tensing or flinching or moving away when you touch certain parts of their bodies–legs, paws, back or abdomen, could alert you that the area is painful.
  • Take some time to get to know your vet before you actually need to visit him/her. Having a trusting relationship with your vet is as important as trusting your own doctor. 
  • Have emergency phone numbers in your phone. Animal Poison Control hotline has poison expert veterinarians available online 24/7, and the Pet Poison Helpline offers help 24/7 to both vets and owners at 800-213-6680.
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Kids and small dogs at dog parks

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The ideal time to socialize a dog to children is under the age of 16 weeks. These two look happy and relaxed together.

We have a fantasy from “Lassie” and other movies that kids and dogs go together. Small kids, babies, big kids…they are all depicted as being special companions to dogs.

Kids and dogs can get along well:

  • IF the dog has been raised with kids through the first 16 weeks of life or has at least been socialized intensively with kids during that period. If not, dogs are often scared of kids, or at least wary of them. There are hundreds of “funny” or “adorable” photos and videos on the internet of kids interacting with dogs that make my stomach roil–the dog’s body language is filled with distress–the next second could erupt with a bite to the child and consequent punishment, isolation, or euthanasia for the dog. Dogs usually communicate when they are being pushed too far, but unless the parent can direct the child to respect their signals, we can predict that the dog will be forced to react physically i.e. a growl, snap, or bite.
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The boy is having a great time, but the dog isn’t–his mouth is closed, face tense, eyes wide,  and brow furrowed.

IF the socialized dog and child are carefully monitored while together and the guardians know what stress signs to watch for in the dog. A dog that is just tolerant of children is not the same as a dog who loves children, and should not be forced to spend with them. How do you tell if your dog is happy with kids or not? Eileen Anderson has a fabulous website with excellent photos of canine body language you can view.

Children at dog parks

So, if you consider the above information, think about kids at a dog park:

  • You don’t know the dogs at the park.
  • You don’t know how much socialization they’ve had with children.
  • One dog may be anxious about the way your child runs, jumps, waves his arms, shouts, or plays with his toy.  Children’s movements are erratic and unpredictable. Kids smell different, they are small, their voices are high.
  • Another dog may be outright afraid of children and express this fear through aggression to which a child might scream and run, further terrifying the dog and triggering prey drive in other dogs.
  • Small children can get injured easily if dogs in full play bump into them.
  • If a child were to get in the middle of a squabble between dogs, he could be bitten inadvertently.

Even if your child has successfully gone to dog parks many times, it is always a big risk. Children do get bitten by dogs.

Small dogs at dog parks

Below you see two dogs–Annie~50 lbs and Lucy~25 lbs.  They have different play styles and although they are figuring things out, there are behaviors present that bear watching.

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Lucy (small dog) is pestering Annie (collie). You can see Annie licking, her mouth is closed, and in the video she turns away again and again. She isn’t happy with this style of play.
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Annie wants to chase Lucy, and finally sees her chance. Lucy runs away at full speed. Annie chases with an intensity I haven’t seen with larger dogs–no bouncing, just a low, fast, charge, hackles up. Lucy is intimidated. Her tail comes down and she tries to hide, then takes off again.
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Lucy wheels around and stops Annie in her tracks and control is back with Lucy. They pause, sniff the ground.
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Then they play bow to each other in a shared communication of “it’s all in play”.  For part of the play, however, they were very aroused and intense. There were behaviors present I hadn’t seen with Annie when she played with larger dogs. Think about how things could evolve with dogs who didn’t know each other and where their size differential was much greater.

Small dogs love to play, just like big dogs. However, small dogs risk injury at dog parks with big dogs:

  • They can be seen as prey to the larger dog (a 25 pound differential between dogs is seen as the vague cut off point wherein a dog may view a smaller, running dog as prey).
  • Have you seen dogs playing with a stuffed toy or rope toy?  How they shake their heads and growl, toss their toy, grab it and shake, and toss again?  Our wonderful Vera LOVED to do this with toys, but when she charged and grabbed a juvenile raccoon and treated it the same way, I realized she was just practicing her prey sequence with her toys. It gave me a chill. Small dogs can be treated in the same way by larger dogs, who are not being aggressive in the general sense of the word, they are just following a survival sequence in their genetic makeup.
  • The high, anxious sounds that a small dog makes when stressed or frightened can trigger prey-drive in larger dogs which, depending on the pursuing dog, could end with the smaller dog being run over, or badly mauled.
  • The small dog could be run over, or stepped on inadvertently.

Tips

  • Leave children at home if you decide to take the risk of going to the dog park. See my blog on “Dog Parks? Why not?”
  • Learn canine body language.  It will help immensely with your understanding of your dog and how he’s feeling.
  • Find a “small dog” dog park for your little dog.  Some dog parks have fenced areas marked specifically for small dogs.
  • Find other people with small dogs who would like to play together in a safe place.  Check with your vet, pet stores, and local trainers for ways to get involved in small-dog play groups.  Talk to people on trails.  I’ve met many people on trails who were overjoyed to share contact information to get Annie together with their dogs to play.
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Dog parks vs off-leash trails

Since before we lost Vera (of Finding Vera), I have tormented myself with the safety of our “next dog”.  Annie is our “next dog”. I know too much now to be complacent and trusting of dogs, or the decisions of their people.  On the other hand, I’ve asked myself if one should limit the experience of a child or dog because of parental fears–I’m sure parents struggle with this question worldwide.

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Finally allowed to run off leash!

I’ve also asked myself how dog parks are different from off-leash trails. After all, in both situations the dogs are free to do more or less what they please.  And in both situations, dogs need to be well-socialized to be comfortable and successful.

I am cagey of dog parks for the reasons cited in my last blog, “Dog Parks? Why not?” However, for the past seven years I’ve literally itched to have a dog who could run like the wind on the expansive field of the Sudden Valley dog park, cavorting with her friends, laughing, dancing, doing all the things that dogs do. So we took Annie there– twice–and Don took videos. Annie had a blast!

Annie having the time of her life at the dog park.
Annie having the time of her life with her friends.

However, I’ve spoken to two separate neighbors whose dogs have had bad dog-park experiences within the past week. I’ve read my “Dog Parks” post over a time or two, and now I ponder the wisdom of taking Annie there again. I don’t want her to get physically hurt…or become fearful of dogs.  After our experience with Vera, that would be devastating.

Annie on trail
Annie practicing recall.

There are good and bad things about off-leash trails.  Unlike the dog park, you can’t always see who’s approaching, and there’s no guarantee that the approaching dogs will be friendly. The direct face-to-face greeting is a potential problem for dogs if the trail is narrow. However, the good thing about trails is that the dogs are not crowded together for an extensive period of time.  They can choose to interact–or not. Our goldens, Lola and Sascha, would choose to just arc around the dogs they’d approach on a trail and continue on. But even if the dogs choose to play, it is often only a group of two to three dogs playing for a very short period and they move on before they tire of the social interaction, or become physically exhausted from the intense activity of play.  Watching Annie play at the dog park, I noticed that she started to tire toward the end of the session, and began to get irritable.  This doesn’t seem to happen on trails.

So which scenario is best?

It depends on the culture of the dog park or the culture of the trail, your dog’s temperament and level of socialization, your mood that day, your dog’s mood that day, and who is at the dog park at any given moment. In other words, there is no “right” answer.

Training tips to help keep your dog safe:

  • Read “Dog Parks? Why not?”  There are several tips at the bottom of the blog on how to navigate dog parks more safely with a well-socialized dog, and there are tips throughout the article on how to tell if your dog is appropriate for the dog park–or not.
  • Learn canine body language so you can evaluate the approaching dog. Are the dogs exchanging calming signals? Are they relaxed? Are they approaching each other at an angle? Being polite? Rapid, direct approaches with direct eye contact is considered by dogs to be rude and confrontational.
  • Only walk dogs off leash on trails that are designated “off leash”.
  • On-leash trails are fair game to dogs who may not care for other dogs and, being hampered by a leash, these dogs will often be reactive, or at least very intimidated by your dog. There is nothing more terrifying for the handler of a leashed, fearful dog than to be approached by a loose, friendly dog. A fight could ensue where your dog gets hurt.  Also, many people don’t like being jumped upon or even sniffed by strange dogs. I’m a “dog person” through and through, and even I dislike being jumped on by exuberant dogs.
  • Approach each walk as a training walk. If your dog is clicker trained, use the clicker. Treat your dog every time your dog looks back at you, waits for you, or returns to you. Use high value treats (chicken, steak, apple etc–whatever your dog LOVES), but put treats away when you encounter another dog.
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Annie checks back with me on the trail.  I would praise (or click) and treat her.

Praise both dogs for appropriate dog encounters calmly, tell them what good dogs they are. Have an excellent recall (“come”)–even when a dog is approaching or there are deer or wildlife near by.  Practice every walk, rewarding with HIGH value treats when they come to you. NEVER correct your dog for “eventually” coming to you, no matter how frustrated you are.  It just means your dog isn’t ready to be off leash yet and your recall needs more work in distracting environments. For the best recall ever, check out “Recallers” by Susan Garrett. Teach your dog to sit behind you on cue, so you can protect your dog from any strange dog you don’t trust. Practice it at home with few distractions, then on the street, then on trails and in more stimulating settings. Reward your dog for doing this correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with a trail, be cautious. Keep your dog close (the further away your dog is, the less likely he is to respond to you), or leashed. Always do your very best to keep your dog safe.

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.