The good, the bad, and the “please take control of your &^$% dog! “

“…They snarl and snap and sound real fierce. Their teeth they gnash, ready to pierce. But when, at rest, as the day ends, You can tell they are the best of friends. “
~~Lizzy Tomlinson

If you own a dog, and you consider him part of the family, you have most likely heard of dog parks, and have probably visited at least one. They are popping up everywhere, it seems. On any given pleasant day, dog parks teem with canine energy as urban and suburban dog owners hang out nearby. The dogs get to play off-leash with each other, and owners get to feel as if they are allowing the dogs something they sorely need. Plus, regular park-goers who are not crazy about dogs can stay far away from them. Everyone is happy…or not.

Dog parks are like many philosophical and social movements: they sound great in theory, and even look good on paper, but the reality often fails to measure up. This becomes patently obvious when one goes to a dog park on a crowded day. On the surface it seems harmless enough, but upon closer observation, one might be tempted to skip it altogether.

I’d like to examine some of the pros and cons of open, legal, secure spaces for off-leash dogs:

Pro: they provide a safely-fenced area for dogs to play and socialize, unencumbered by leashes
Do dogs need off-leash play and exercise? Most do. The vast majority of the dogs owned in this country today are simply not getting enough physical exercise. It can be difficult for the average person to adequately exercise Fido enough every day on a leash to tire him out. A dog with too much energy is a training nightmare, while “a tired dog is a good dog.” So if one does not own a fenced yard, having a dog park nearby can save the dog owner’s sanity, at least as far as exercise is concerned. Playing with other dogs will burn some energy. ( BUT, physical release of energy is not all the dog needs! Without mental stimulation, the dog is just getting more physically fit without practicing discipline. )

Furthermore, the need for proper socialization cannot be overemphasized. Fearful tendencies and aggression in dogs are often at least partially caused by lack of early socialization. The best socialization happens off-leash, in a larger area where dogs can move about freely.

Sounds reasonable, right? But there are definitely some negatives:

Con: lots of dogs playing together without proper supervision is an accident waiting to happen
While the need for proper socialization cannot be overemphasized, the key here is the word “proper.” Some dog experts believe that the socialization window closes at 12 weeks of age; most others agree that 3 weeks to 12 weeks of age is the optimal socialization window, but experience shows that dogs can still be socialized to their own benefit for many years. Whatever the case, “proper” socialization is supervised by a competent adult who is aware of the risks and knows how to maximize the potential of the encounters. Public dog parks, which make up the vast majority of local dog parks, do not have competent supervision (“swim at your own risk”). So the dog owners, most of whom have untrained dogs with a lot of pent-up energy, do not know what proper socialization is, and how to keep their dog out of harms’ way–or from bullying other dogs.

Most of the time, owners are either lax in their supervisory roles (engaging themselves with other owners or talking on cell phones), or are too vigilant and become concerned (to the point of removing their dog or chastising other owners) with how the play is going, even when dogs are playing appropriately.

Bad encounters with bullying, overexuberant, or communication-deficient dogs at dog parks can cause severe setbacks for the pet dog, whether it is your dog doing the bullying or the one being victimized. These issues can take months, or years, to fix.

Con #2: Any yahoo with a dog–untrained, aggressive, or a bully–can come in the dog park
If you were to sample the population of your local dog park on any given day, the vast majority of dogs you’d find there would be largely untrained. Now, they may know some commands, and owners would probably tell you that Fido can do all manner of things at home. This could very well be true-but being able to sit and lie down inside the home does not a trained dog make. Most of these dogs go ape at the sight of other dogs, and many have no idea how to play correctly. This is because they are largely sequestered in houses or yards all day, and do not come in contact with that many dogs…except at the park.

And when a dog is rarely exposed to things except in situations where excitement and arousal are prevalent, he will become quite adept at becoming energized quickly and will have a hard time calming down. For instance, if Fido only gets to be with other dogs at the rowdy dog park, he doesn’t realize that he can be in the vicinity of other dogs and remain calm and attentive to his owner. He acts the only way he knows how.

The untrained dog at the dog park is, at best, an annoyance, and, at worst, is a menace. Without proper greeting skills and play know-how, he can terrorize other dogs. Unfortunately, this type of dog is often owned by the less-than-concerned person, who makes excuses for Rowdy and refuses to acknowledge that his dog shouldn’t be there. He may be talking on a cell phone, or even chatting with other humans, but he ain’t paying attention to his dog.

Con #3: Owners are often uneducated about what good dog-play looks like
It is the owners’ responsibility to monitor their dogs while in the park. You need to know your dog’s play style, which is often based a lot on breed, and/or prior play experience. If you don’t know how to read your dog, you won’t know when he’s telling you he’s anxious and would like to leave, or he’s getting aroused and wants to knock someone around. You may have a bully for a dog, and not know it. I’ll bet many of the more aware owners know it, though. You don’t want to be the reason everyone packs up and leaves the park.

Certain breeds, and certain personalities, have distinct play styles. The “bull” breeds (pitbulls, bulldogs, Boxers, etc.) often play roughly, with lots of body slamming and “hard” mouths. They will bite at other dogs’ necks and backs and legs during “wrestling” matches, which often come after a chase sequence. If 2 or more bull breeds are playing together, this is not a problem as long as they are switching “roles” often, and will respond to their owners’ commands.

Non-bull breeds are often perplexed by this sort of play, and may become frightened of it. They may mistake the exuberant bulldog’s attempts at play as threatening, and may snap or snarl to defend themselves* against an “attack.” Or they may attempt to get away from the offender, which may not work.

Non-bull breeds like hounds, Shepherds, spaniels, and terriers often do more chasing than wrestling, but they will wrestle, as well. They tend to “feint” with air snaps or quick “bites” to the neck or ears, then dash away to be chased. They don’t do as much slamming into each other as a rule.

“Guard” breeds like Rottweilers, Dobermans, Mastiffs and even Chows engage in both types of play, but lean toward bullish play. Retrievers often fall in the middle; some of the least body-conscious dogs I’ve ever known have been Labs, who are bred to withstand heavy brush and frigid water and will knock the unsuspecting human over without even slowing down!

Herding breeds like to herd the other dogs, often nipping at heels or flanks in the process. Their main objective is to Make The Other Dogs Move.

Con # 4: Owners who don’t know better overlook their bullying dog, or do not notice that their dog is being bullied by another, or jump to erroneous conclusions about normal dog play
Many people tend to overreact to what amounts to regular dog play. Since dogs don’t have hands with which to “tag” each other, they use their mouths and their bodies. They may snarl and growl menacingly, bark obnoxiously at other dogs, or look as if they are going to do some serious damage to the other dog. I’ve seen dogs at play grasp other dogs’ ears, necks, legs and backs in their mouths and hang on-all in the name of fun.

Often this is all harmless and normal, but owners may not know that. They may get bent out of shape if they feel that their dog is being victimized, when in fact he is egging on the other dog! Or, they may ignore their dog as he refuses to play nicely, thus allowing someone else’s dog to be a victim.

It’s pretty annoying to be upbraided by the uneducated owner when it is obvious that the dogs are having fun with each other. 

Fido and Rover are playing chase-and-wrestle. All is well until Fido bites on Rover a little too hard, and Rover gives Fido a good “talking to” by snapping and lunging at his face (but not connecting). This maneuver is the standard “back off” signal used by millions of dogs. Fido’s owner runs over, alarmed, and glares at Rover’s owner. “Your dog is aggressive! He just tried to bite my dog!”

Sorry, lady, but Rover was justified in his display, especially if he checked himself as soon as he saw Fido backing off. If someone got in your face and you felt like it was too much, you’d push him or her away, wouldn’t you? That’s all Rover was doing in the above scenario: pushing Fido away a bit. He was saying, “I’m having fun, man, but that hurt! Not so hard next time!” Fido probably got the message just fine, too, and then they started playing again as if nothing had occurred. The only one who is upset in this scenario is Fido’s owner, who doesn’t understand dog play, or aggression. She may become annoyed and mutter something about “aggressive dogs shouldn’t be allowed in here” as she stomps off with her dog.

She’s right-aggressive dogs should never enter a dog park. But what she witnessed was NOT aggression. Too bad for her, and her dog.

Here’s another scenario:
Rowdy is a large, bulky dog who doesn’t listen to his owner very well, even at home. Every time a new dog comes in the park, Rowdy makes a beeline straight for him, often slamming into the hapless newcomer head on. On this day, Squirt has just entered, and though he likes coming to the park, he is not an “in-your-face” kind of dog at all. He looks up to see Rowdy barreling straight for him! In an attempt to ward off what he perceives as an imminent attack, he hits the dirt and gets as low to the ground as he can. Rowdy pounces on him anyway, completely ignoring this common doggy signal for “please don’t hit me!” Squirt is plainly frightened, and goes belly up in an attempt to appease the bully. Rowdy, body stiff and in high arousal mode, stays on top of Squirt, biting at his face and neck (in what he considers “play mode”) and won’t let him up.

Rowdy needs to be removed from Squirt immediately! He has ignored Squirt’s plain communication and is terrorizing the poor dog. Poor Squirt will now be a bit more anxious about entering the park, and this incident could create other problems, too. Not only that, but Rowdy has furthered his own education in bullying, and practice makes perfect!

What about this? Instead of cowering and showing appeasement, what if Squirt saw Rowdy coming straight for him (an extremely rude behavior–polite dogs approach from the side, or in a curved path) and gave a loud snarl, snapped, and lunged at Rowdy to back him off? Squirt would be absolutely justified in such an act, but Rowdy’s owner would probably erroneously perceive this as an “attack,” and become angry.

If Squirt’s defense worked, and Rowdy backed off, then there would be little harm done. If Rowdy ignored even this very loud signal, there might be a nasty fight, and it would be Rowdy’s fault-although his owner would think differently.

Dogs, as a general rule, do not want to fight. They do many things, most so quickly that the average person doesn’t even notice them, to avoid confrontation. When a fight occurs, it is often because one dog ignored the other’s signals, or doesn’t know what those signals mean. (The presence of resources around other dogs, and several untrained, dominant dogs gathered in a small space can also trigger fights, but that’s for another article). The “ignorant” dog attacks, and the victim tries to defend himself. It’s the last thing you want to have happen at the dog park, or anywhere.

Con #5: Proper human etiquette is often ignored at the public dog park
Proper dog park etiquette states, in part, that:

  • Dogs should be exercised some before entering the park, so that they will become less aroused with the play; overexuberance can cause fights
  • Picking up after one’s dog is NOT optional! No one likes to step in feces.
  • Owners should be aware of their own dog and his actions at all times.
  • Leashes and training collars MUST be removed as soon as the dog and owner are inside! (Leave buckle collars with I.D. on–See below)
  • Children should stay close to their parents, be calm, and not try to pet the dogs, or run around, or scream and holler. These behaviors scare/excite dogs, and the child is likely to be bitten or ganged up on (and who will be blamed for that? It’s not the dogs’ fault.)
  • If children cannot obey these rules, they should not go in the park.
  • Treat-giving is a no-no. Many dogs can be aggressive around food and other dogs.
  • The same goes for toys. You can play fetch with Fido at home, or where there aren’t other dogs. If fetch is the only thing that Fido wants to do while he’s in the dog park, then why bring him?
  • Close the gate promptly, please! If your park has a double gate, make sure one gate is ALWAYS shut.

Con #6: Huge size discrepancies can be a real problem.
Small dogs should have their own space to play where the big dogs can’t go. If your park lacks a separate space for the munchkins, then don’t take your small dog there. He is in danger of being hurt, and/or scared out of his mind.
Whatever you do, if your little dog is being picked on, don’t pick him up and stand there! The other dogs will try to attack him, and he’s very vulnerable. Get him out of there, pronto.

Con #7: Leashes are a hindrance inside the park, and can be dangerous.
It is patently unsafe to leave a leash and/or training collar on a dog once he’s inside the park. He cannot communicate properly to the loose dogs when he is leashed, and he may be attacked. If he is attacked, he will not be able to defend himself.

Training collars and devices such as head halters and harnesses should only be worn during training sessions, and not left on inside the park, because they can get hung on fencing, or on other dogs.

The dog’s regular buckle collar that holds his tags can get hung up during play, too, but it’s more unsafe to leave him without his primary I.D., even if he is microchipped. Leave that collar on. It also provides an emergency “handle” if needed.

If you are worried about the dangers of everyday collars, invest in a “breakaway” collar for use at the dog park.

Wow. Lots of “cons,” and only one “pro.” Kind of depressing, isn’t it? If public dog parks are so bad, what is the pet owner supposed to do to socialize their pooch?
If you can, find a private dog park. These will have a fee to join, but they should be a safer bet for your dog. Most are heavily supervised by competent people, who understand dog play and play styles, and can restrict the membership to dogs who pass an evaluation. So you will be dealing with a smaller pool of dogs, and the chances of any of them being truly aggressive is slim. Also, you’ll know they are all vaccinated, which is important.

A good-quality doggy daycare is like this, too. Not all doggy daycares are created equal. Some of the more prominent ones may actually have practices that put your dog in danger. Caveat emptor!

Become more sociable in your neighborhood or apartment complex. Meet people with dogs and get to know them. Build a cadre of like-minded dog owners to socialize your dog with. This is best done in someone’s fenced yard, but can be done during “off-peak” times at public dog parks.

If there are no private dog parks near you, you have few dog-owning friends, or doggy daycare is not feasible, but your dog loves to play with other dogs, what can you do to make the public dog park work for you?

  1. Learn your dog’ play style (consult a trainer if you are not sure), and do your best to see that he pairs up with dogs of a similar style. Try to go at times when the park is less crowded, and you may be able to build up a small cadre of like-minded dog owners so that you all can coordinate your visits.
  2. Keep your dog safe. If some nitwit and his bullying dog come in, leave. No, you shouldn’t have to. But standing on principle is meaningless if your dog becomes a basket case because of an untrained bully dog with a clueless owner.
  3. Leave untrained dogs, shy dogs, small dogs, and easily-aroused dogs at home. The park should be reserved for genial, affable dogs–preferably trained–who generally enjoy playing with other dogs and do their best to avoid confrontations.
  4. Train your dog to respond and come to you, even amidst distractions. This is not always easy, but it is vital. Most owners have virtually no control over Fido as soon as he’s inside that park. This could be a disaster.
  5. Walk your dog for a minimum of 15 minutes before you get to the park. This will tire him some and make him more congenial, and less threatening. Work on his obedience commands during that walk, too.
  6. Try to learn what is acceptable dog play behavior, and what isn’t. As I stated earlier, overweening owners who freak out at the slightest show of teeth are not suited for the park. I would be happy to meet you at a local Atlanta dog park and show you what is good and what is not.
  7. Observe your dog so that you’ll know when he’s ready to leave. Take him home when he’s had enough.
  8. Limit your visits to 2-3 a week, or less. Too much play with other dogs is not a good thing. It is a very rewarding activity for most dogs, and you are typically not much of a part of it. You need to be the obvious source of all good things in your dog’s life.