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Kids and small dogs at dog parks

child and puppy wiht flowers
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.
boy and dog
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.
lucy annie still3
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.
lucy annie still2
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.
Annie check back
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.