Spring is on the horizon and with it are warmer temperatures. Many of us will be heading off to the park as soon as possible to end the winter-long cabin fever we and our canine companions have been enduring. I, myself, have found time to take my new puppy to the park for some socialization on the few warmer days March has already given us. As a result, I found my experience to be powerfully motivating in writing this article.
Dog parks are still relatively new in most cities and towns. Most “dog lovers” (I use that term loosely because most dog lovers don’t educate themselves about dogs. They just too busy with everything else in life. They’re really just “dog likers”) just bring their dog to the fence and let ‘em go. The only concern on everyone’s mind, and rightfully so, is breaking up or preventing fights. Though we will never be able to stop all fights before they happen, I have a few tips on how to lessen the tension and take away some of the motivating factors to fight from a dog’s perspective.
- Do not have a leash on your dog in the main area. A leashed dog has more reasons to be aggressive. Some feel restrained and may be more threatened. The feeling of having the option to escape when they have several dogs bearing down or inspecting them is vital to them as a defense. There is something we call the “fight or flight” response to stress. By keeping a leash on, you may be taking the “flight” option away even with a lot of slack on a long leash. Without flight, fight is all they can do. Remember, it’s about the perception of the dog, not you, and that’s how dogs see it.
- Before entering the main area, if dogs are crowding the door, wait until they disperse, then enter quietly with your (off-leash) dog. This is a big issue. I see it over and over again and wonder why people constantly put their dog in harms why and terrorize them by throwing them into the middle of a bunch of strange dogs that are surrounding them. What a frightening thing for them to deal with and what a great reason to lash out in fear and/or defense. Most dog parks have a double door entry. Even if there is just a single entry, why must we enter immediately? Let the crowd dissipate, then calmly walk in. Besides, your dog can safely sniff and be sniffed through the fence before entering to raise their confidence first.
- Do not bring food into the main area. I’m confused how some people don’t get this one – SOME DOGS FIGHT OVER FOOD!
- Don’t scold your dog for growling or dominant behavior. Growling is normal and socially appropriate and could be your dog trying to back off another dog from being rude, or actually trying to prevent a fight. DOMINANCE IS NOT A BEHAVIOR PROBLEM. IT IS A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TWO INDIVIDUALS AND, AS A HUMAN, YOU AREN’T ONE OF THEM! It would be more ethical to try and get your dog’s attention, or distract their attention and redirect them onto something else. Sometimes just 2-5 seconds of their attention is all you need to get them back into play mode. IT’S A HIERARCHY- SCOLDING A DOMINANT DOG MAKES THEM ASSERT THEIR DOMINANT STATUS MORE (USUALLY OUT OF FRUSTRATION) ON THE MORE SUBMISSIVE INDIVIDUALS LATER. In every group, someone has to be more dominant. As long as things don’t get rougher than a growl or a quick snap, leave them be. If you’re worried about it, get a dog trainer to go with you to the dog park and evaluate your dog to see if you should be concerned.
- If your dog has been a few fights (for any reason) at the dog park within a year or less, YOU SHOULD NOT BE TAKING HIM TO THE DOG PARK. It’s not so obvious sometimes. We think we know who started the fight, but it’s not always the dog that growled or bit first. If you go to the park (approximately) once a week or two, and your dog is involved in a few fights within a year’s time or less, it may be your dog that is starting trouble. Shoulder bumps, mounting/humping, plowing into, jumping on, staring, stalking, and bullying are all behaviors that look like he is playing when, in fact, your dog is a schoolyard bully who is starting fights. This tends to be a problem for bully breeds when they (innocently) try to make friends. Boxers, pit bulls, bulldogs, and many terrier breeds mean well, but to some of the other groups (shepherds, hounds, spaniels), these behaviors are threatening. Your dog may think they are playing, but the other dog may not share his “gamey” nature. Once again, early socialization is the all-mighty answer to prevention. If your dog is a year old or more, try finding dogs that share his love for the rough stuff and schedule a “play date”.
Those are some things I have picked up over the years. The idea here is not to have more rules, but to raise awareness about ethical handling. Do you have any suggestions? Do you agree or disagree? Send comments to email@example.com or just comment below. Play safe!