I spent two hours at the local dog park yesterday. No, I didn’t have my dogs with me—I’m not a fan of allowing them to run around like little fur-covered maniacs with unfamiliar dogs—I was filming some video for an upcoming seminar.
I’ve learned the hard way that when the camcorder is engaged, my mouth shouldn’t be, lest my videos end up containing unintentional commentary. And yet it was a definite challenge to keep my mouth shut. There was the woman who commented that she had to leave the park because the batteries in her dog’s shock collar had died. Strangely, it seems to be a common belief among certain owners that dogs shouldn’t bark while at the dog park. I’ve encountered it a number of times, including yet another time yesterday morning when, during the very same park visit, a woman stood on the large dog side (our park has separate enclosures for small dogs and larger ones, joined by a common chain link fence) holding her small dog in her arms. The little dog kept barking. The woman kept telling the dog to shush. Bark. Shush. Bark. Shush. Whether the dog was barking out of excitement, frustration, or fear, I don’t know. What I do know is that expecting a dog not to bark at the dog park is like expecting a child to remain perfectly silent while running around playing with other kids.
While I was on the small dog side, a man walked in with a Shiba Inu, and a baby—no, not a puppy, a baby. In a stroller. Sure, it’s the small dog side, and it’s not like a 90-pound Lab was going to take the kid out—but do I really have to elaborate on what a pack of out-of-control Chihuahuas and other little dogs could do to an infant? The man did remove the kid from the stroller and hold him in his arms, but still. Really?
Next, I overheard a woman complaining that when at the park, her dog totally ignored her and wouldn’t come when called. Her friend said her trainer told her when that happens, to put the dog on leash and walk him around inside the park. This comment came during a break in filming and I couldn’t stay out of it. I asked if maybe the trainer had meant she should walk the dog outside the dog park on leash, effectively giving the dog a time out. The woman said no, not only had the trainer said it, but she’d showed her by putting the dog on leash and walking him around the perimeter of the playing dogs. I explained about the fight or flight reflex and how, if another dog were to jump on the leashed dog (a given, really), that with the dog’s choices limited by the leash, there might be a fight. To her credit, the woman considered the information and seemed to reconsider the wisdom of the trainer’s advice.
Last came the comment that upset me the most. A woman and her husband stood on the large dog side with their four dogs. One was a South African Boerbel (a mastiff breed), and the others were large mixed breeds. A minor scuffle broke out that did not involve her dogs, but which did prompt her to turn to me and say, “We never let our dogs fight. We taught them to lay down and stay there. Even if they’re being attacked, we don’t let them fight back.” I have to admit that my first instinct was to want to blurt, “Great! Let’s bind your hands behind your back and put you on a New York subway. Don’t worry if someone tries to grope or mug you…you’re not allowed to retaliate.” Yeesh!
I don’t expect the average dog owner to understand body language or behavior the way trainers do. But the amount of misinformation and just plain garbage that’s out there boggles the mind. It’s really a credit to dogs, considering all the myths and nonsense people believe, that they behave as well as they do. We expect them to squelch their natural instincts, be able to focus and respond to our requests in super-high-distraction environments, and understand what we’re trying to tell them, even when our communication skills are sorely lacking. Oh, and we’d also like for them to never get angry, regardless of what another dog does to them, and to love every person and dog they meet. Not very realistic, is it?
I heard years ago about a trainer holding free informational sessions periodically at her local dog park. I don’t know how the attendance was, particularly because the sessions are free, and people tend not to value what they get for nothing. But who knows, maybe it helped. The truth is, most people love their dogs and just don’t know any better. For myself, whenever possible, I’ll continue to try to approach people with friendliness and a respectful attitude, and get the information out there. And when I can’t, there’s always the outlet of venting in a blog that reaches people who I know feel the same as I do.