You’re at the dog park playing Frisbee with your favorite dog. You throw the Frisbee and your dog retrieves it and in this version of the game the dog does not drop the toy at your feet, instead the way you play this game is that you tug the Frisbee out of the dog’s mouth with much pulling, smiles and cajoling. Everybody loves it. Until the Frisbee that goes sailing through the air and is caught by your dog belongs to another dog and you absolutely need to get that foreign Frisbee back for another dog and your dog is not letting go, no-way-no-how. Sound familiar?
I just saw this very game play out at the dog park my students and Daisy frequent. The harder the owner tried to extricate the Frisbee from the dog’s mouth, the more resistant the dog became to releasing it. While the owner had stopped playing and was now no longer smiling at all, a very confused dog was still trying valiantly to keep things going. All eyes in the dog park were now on this exchange. I had met the owner before and knew her to be open to conversation so I ventured over to the now agitated tug of war and handed her a treat to offer the dog in exchange. The dog was so very not interested. I handed her two more. Still no go. OK, time to bring in the heavy artillery—I called Daisy over and told the owner to offer Daisy the treat in front of her Frisbee latched dog. Bingo! We had reached sufficient value to exchange the Frisbee for the treats.
While the rightful dog now got to take possession of the Frisbee in question the dog who relinquished it for a treat now got banished to the small dog area for a time out. As I asked my students later, what was wrong with that picture? The dog had only been playing a game he had played all along, holding with all his fangs was what the games was all about, he had never been taught to release the toy and once he did release the toy in exchange for a treat he was punished. How to confuse a dog in three easy steps, these teaching moments are not just for dogs they’re for people too. While the owner may have been upset that the dog had not “listened” when she stopped playing, the opportunity to see it from the dog’s perspective here was invaluable as well as going forward in working on rewarding that release behavior.
Field observations at the dog park are a necessary part of learning about dog behavior. Watching dogs interacting with each other teaches us how dogs greet each other; display interest in socializing or increasing distance and how they ask for play and conduct it. And because dogs don’t take themselves to the dog park we learn just as much about how humans interact with dogs and if we are paying attention we learn how to do it better.
Frania Shelley-Grielen is a behavior consultant, trainer and the author of Cat and Dogs; Living with and Looking at Companion Animals from their Point of View. Contact her at www.animalsbehaving.com