Miles Bensky, BA, CTC
Ideally, dog parks are urban oases where dog lovers can get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. A place for owners to converge to spend time with their free-running canine companions. A place where dogs get a chance to run around and socialize while owners watch and chat with one another about what makes each of their furry friends so special. And for many people this is exactly what happens, but unfortunately not for everyone. At least not every time. For many, a trip to the dog park is a proverbial crapshoot between dog owner bliss and a stressful fiasco.
The problem is you never know what you are going to get when you arrive at the park, and it does not take much for an enjoyable time to turn sour. Nothing kills the mood faster than a dog altercation and there are a lot of different elements that can lead to one (see my colleague Christine’s article about dog/dog aggression). Sometimes it’s due to an inattentive owner who is not controlling their bullying dog. Sometimes it is an owner bringing a dog to the park who really does not have the proper skills to deal with such a hectic environment. Other times a dog, be it yours or another owners’, is simply having a bad day. I have supervised enough dog groups through my work at dog daycares to know that even the most social and mellow dogs can be grumpy on any given day.
So what is a dog owner to do? Well, if you are an owner whose dog typically does well at the parks, but a couple of recent tiffs have made you hesitant about future visits, or it you are a cautious dog park newbie, here are some rules you can follow to increase your chances of having a positive park experience. In fact, if all people followed these rules it would go a long way to ensuring a more enjoyable environment for everyone.
The number one rule is to remember that you are there for your dog. This means your main priority should be watching your dog, and all other activities should be secondary. Feel free to converse with other owners, but don’t let it distract you from your dog. Avoid using your cell phone or PDA. The whole point of the park should be to get away from your daily responsibilities and just relax. If you are watching your dog you will be able to watch his or her body language, and how they are interacting with other dogs. Dog aggression is a ritualized behavior. Therefore, a lot of posturing goes on before any real scuffling occurs. Catching this early activity and interrupting it is the best way to avoid fights. So, if everyone does their part the chances of any serious altercations occurring will drastically diminish.
If you notice someone is blatantly breaking this rule, the best thing to do is get your dog out of that particular area. If you are in a small park, this may mean leaving altogether. This may seem unfair, but again your main priority should be to observe and protect your dog, and that means avoiding obvious potential dangers. There will always be another day to play. Don’t let your ego compromise your dog’s well being.
Avoid spending time near the entrances of the dog park. This is where the excited energy is typically highest, and this can cause dogs to be more on edge and reactive. Dogs are all excited to enter the park, and other dogs are all excited to check out any newcomers. It is best to just keep on moving until you get to a quieter spot of the park. Unfortunately, some dog parks are designed so that their main drinking water area is right by the entrance causing even more congestion. I suggest bringing your own water to these parks, or finding a secondary water location.
Do not make your dog a target. Avoid leashing up your dog while in the park. It is not uncommon for dogs to target and go after a dog simply because they are on a leash. Being leashed around loose dogs can also cause barrier frustration in your dog and lead to leash reactivity. If your dog if not comfortable with a loose dog approaching them, and their flight response is taken away due to the leash, they may resort to aggression to defend themselves.
Avoid using aromatic treats to train your dog while at the park. Other dogs will quickly swarm you when they get a whiff of what you have, setting up the strong potential for resource guarding. If you want to work on training and use a food reward, use something like Spray Cheese, which is kept under pressure and therefore will not attract other dogs so easily. Otherwise, use the Premack Principle and use toy play (as long as your dog is not toy possessive) or access to playing with other dogs as the reward.
Find parks that have special designated areas for small and shy dogs. If you have a dog that is shy, or a small dog that is not used to being around larger dogs you need to find these designated areas. Otherwise you are seriously jeopardizing the safety of your dog and those around it by increasing the chance of predatory drift. Predatory drift is when play quickly switches over into predatory behaviors such as chasing and pouncing. This can result in severe injuries. The likelihood of this behavior occurring increases as the size difference between two dogs increases, and the behavior is highly socially facilitated. This means that once one dog starts the chase it is likely other dogs will join in. There is nothing worse than a small toy breed that runs and screams when it encounters bigger dogs at the park. So unless your small dog is used to playing with much larger dogs, seek out these designated areas.
I hope these suggestions help and that you now know what to look for next time you are out at the park. Trust yourself. If you feel uncomfortable about a situation, don’t wait to see if something might develop. Get your dog away from situation altogether. Remember, you are there for your dog, so their safety should be your number one priority.