A local dog park. Twenty people stand chatting as dogs play. One woman notices that, with 15 pooches interacting, the animals are getting very excited. Suddenly, a smaller dog attacks a larger one. Instantly several other dogs react, going after the instigator. “As far as I know, no dogs were badly hurt,” the woman reported in a call to my office later that day. “I encouraged people to get moving and break up the group.” She then suggested dog park behavior as a topic for a column. Good idea.
For certain dogs with certain owners, dog parks can be great, but in the words of Dr. Laurie Bergman, a board-certified veterinary behavior specialist, “Dog parks, like mosh pits and singles bars, are not for everyone.”
Canine social structure is based on establishing stable social groups with a dominance order that is maintained and respected. Meeting up with constantly changing populations of adult dogs is not a natural social situation for Random, the retriever, and can provoke undesirable behavior. If you’re a dog park kind of person, let’s talk about how to make it an all-around positive experience.
For puppies, visits to dog parks should wait until after a full series of vaccinations. Puppies are more susceptible to infectious diseases and parasites, a good reason to avoid high concentrations of dogs — and dog feces. Besides medical considerations, interacting with many unknown dogs can be confusing and overwhelming for youngsters.
“Taking a puppy to a dog park is like taking a five-year-old to a singles bar,” Dr. Bergman says. Better to socialize Random in a structured puppy kindergarten with others of similar size and age, or with play dates with one or two familiar dogs in a supervised environment, like your backyard.
Once Random is slightly older, be sure he has mastered basic obedience skills before visiting the park. He should reliably obey Come, Sit, and Stay. Begin with times when the park is less crowded. Maybe join a friend with a dog Random already knows. Now watch carefully.
Unfortunately many owners don’t really understand canine behavior and miss trouble brewing. How does Randy interact with new dogs? Is he comfortable? Or excessively anxious? Is he getting over-stimulated? Watch the other dogs, too. An approaching playmate with wagging tail, head held low, wiggling happily all over, is probably coming to play. Herding breeds sometimes have trouble at dog parks, as their instincts to “round everyone up” can be unwelcome by other animals. Breeds with protective personalities may be more prone to aggression. And any individual dog may respond poorly to the complex, shifting relationships.
A dog park is an exciting place, full of exciting smells, sounds, and activities. It is not the place for animals with behavior problems. But not every owner appreciates this, nor does every owner have a clear assessment of their pet’s temperament. There may be dogs running loose who have no business being there. Observe body language. Aggressive dogs often walk stiffly, tails erect and rigid, bristling fur along their backs, and have a direct stare. Learn to recognize this aggressive stance. But even normally affable pooches can get overexcited, causing play to shift abruptly to fighting. Some parks have separate fenced sections for “quiet play” versus “active play,” allowing dogs to interact with compatible buddies. We don’t have that here on the Vineyard, so you need to supervise closely.
If Random is getting too riled, quietly redirect his attention back to you, using those obedience skills you practiced at home. Come prepared with your pouch of yummy treats so you can simply command “Randy, come!” and remove him from the situation.
Even trained specialists sometimes can’t tell for sure what is play behavior and what is aggression. When in doubt, gently and calmly slow things down. Anxious behavior on your part can exacerbate the situation, so try to stay relaxed.
What about keeping Random on a leash? That gives you more control of Randy, but doesn’t prevent other dogs from approaching. Leashed dogs may be more protective of their owners, especially if the human is tense and holding on tightly, and may result in increased aggression from either dog in the equation. But each situation is different and requires you to be alert and read the signals.
What if there is a fight? The first rule is don’t get hurt. Grabbing either dog may cause “redirected aggression.” In other words the dog bites you instead of his opponent. Distracting them long enough to intervene safely is the ideal approach. If available, spray them with a hose or dump water on them. Make a loud noise with an air horn or emergency whistle. (Screaming and yelling, however, may just inflame tensions.)
If you insist on putting yourself at risk (which I do not advise), the best technique is probably grasping your dog by his hind legs and quickly lifting him up and out of the fight. Grabbing collar or scruff is likely to land you in the ER with bite wounds yourself. Don’t do it. Instead throw a blanket over one dog, or put anything you can find (besides one of your body parts) between them — your coat, your backpack, a big stick.
You and Random may fit in beautifully at the dog park or it simply may not suit your respective temperaments. It’s not just about canine aggression. Some dogs are inherently more timid or anxious or just don’t enjoy this kind of unpredictable social interaction. Your job is to know yourself, know your dog, and know dog behavior.
Personally, I don’t go to dog parks. Having treated too many pets with severe fight wounds, I get tense around groups of unknown dogs and do not enjoy myself. It’s me, not my dog. My husband is more relaxed. He eschews the dog parks on my request, but will take our dog, Flower, to the beach off-season, where she encounters the occasional playmate and has a ball. It works fine for them.
Me? I’d rather be in a mosh pit.