A Morning at the Dog Park

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.

21 Responses to A Morning at the Dog Park

  1. Karen says:

    Oh, boy, can I relate to this! It is so hard to keep my mouth shut sometimes. I just want to go up to some people and smack ’em up the side of the head. Of course, I do not do that. I take a deep breath and try to engage the person in a friendly conversation about dogs. I know these people are not bad owners, just uneducated about dog behavior or they are given very bad advice. I am always kind and diplomatic. Sometimes I am successful in educating the owner, sometimes not.

  2. Jerry says:

    The abundance of myth and misinformation out there is why I don’t go to parks. Other than my own of course. There is always a behaviorist standing there though and their word is law. Each dog is tested before entering. Of course people pay me for it. I would most likely know what happened, because I would have seen all the body language leading up to it. My eyes would be like a hawk on my dogs if I did go to a dog park with my dogs. Then there is the trust issue. I don’t trust others have taught or even understand their dogs. No, it is not okay for your dog to continue to pester my dog when she has told him repeatedly to leave her alone. It kills me to see dogs left in the back of pick-ups in parking lots too. That leaves your dog very vulnerable to would be idiots and people who are just down right mean. Lastly, there are times when even behaviorists don’t agree.


  3. Frances dauster CPDT says:

    oh dear doG, this is sooooo true!
    and i can’t to ever seem to keep my “opinions’ to myself (after all, i board hundred of dogs a year in my home and see dog-dog language all the time, so i can’t possibly know just a fraction more than the general dog owner who has seen, maybe, a couple of dozen dogs play. riiight? (said facetiously! LOL)

    looking forward to seeing you in new orleans ocotber 2012!!!

  4. Veronica says:

    Great post Nicole, sadly it sounds like a typical dog park visit to me – and is why I avoid them. You probably got some great video though.

  5. fearfuldogs says:

    While it would be possible to ‘teach’ (though I hate to imagine how it would be done) a dog not to ‘fight back’, I find it hard to believe she was actually successful at it. Many pet owners can’t get their dog to perform behaviors the dog would actually be ok with, nevermind allow themselves to be attacked. I would have told her that that was fabulous trick and that I have had equal success convincing 16 year old boys not to think about sex.

  6. As for barking, I know the neighbors near our local dog park (urban area, so people don’t have yards) complain about the barking, even though there is a school next door with a sports area that creates noise most of the day.

    Somehow, normal dog barking seems to bother them more.

  7. Christine B says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I always stress about going to the dog park a little because my dog isn’t the ‘happy-go-lucky-i-love-everyone-and-every-other-dog” type of mutt. And I feel a little bad when he growls or snarls at a dog thats pissing him off. Keep these bad boys coming.

    also, do you never take your dog to dog parks? does your pooch(es) play with doggie friends in other venues? I’m just curious…

  8. dave hala says:

    Yeah, right, like a mastiff is going lay on the ground while its being attacked. That just doesn’t happen. My guess is that their mastiff lays down when its grabbed by the scruff. This is a common behaviour in a number of lines of pure breed Neapolitian Mastiffs.

    For me personally, if I have a giant breed, I always start with a ten week old puppy, I focus heavily on bite inhibition and teaching the dog to “release” when its highly aroused. Bite is inhibition is the #1 priority from 10-18 weeks, socialization is #2, then continued “take it, tug, release” from 18-24 weeks. (lots of other stuff going on from 10-24, but these are the priorities.)

    Secondly, when giant breeds are fighting in the dog park you can’t physically intervene, especially if one of the giant breeds is an unfamiliar dog. Its likely you will be severely injured and possibly killed. Its easy for a 200lb man to get knocked over by a pair of 200lb dogs. If you’re on the ground in the middle of mastiff fight, you’re in big trouble.

    Best you can do is practice a release and recall when your dog is engaged is highly aroused play -with known other giants. This generally takes a year or two. Seldom are average people able accomplish this. Keep your english, neo, bull, benard, cane corso,dogo, american bulldog, gsd out of the dog park with unfamiliar dogs. Period.

  9. Yeah I had a moment at the dog park where a lady calling herself a dog trainer, kneed her dog in the face when he barked at my dog behind the fence. Then as explanation told me her dog needed to be put in his place, so she was thinking about getting a dominant bitch to help her with that…. so wrong on so many levels.

  10. Oh, so true. I avoid the local dog parks all together to help keep my sanity!

  11. Amanda says:

    Thank you for a great post. I just wanted to respond about the man with the baby at the park. I agree that it’s not the best situation for the baby or the dogs, but perhaps we should be happy that they didn’t get rid of the dog when the baby came along? I see so many craigslist ads for dogs that need a new home because they don’t have time now that they have a baby, or the baby has allergies or whatever excuse they want to use.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom 🙂

  12. Kelli says:

    When the dog park I would take the boys to on occasion was moved to a different/more populated location; idiot dog owners came in abundance! It went from a decent group of regular dog owners with well behaved dogs to a cluster of idiots and unbalanced/aggressive dogs. Unfortunately I learned the hard way when my pit was attacked by another pit whose owner had never even been to a dog park before, and was completely unaware her dog was dog/dog aggressive, and my RR mix who I use in rehabilitation was annoyed beyond reason, and reacted (not normal for him…he’s a rock).
    The regulars pleaded with me not to leave as I was the one who helped them keep the group of dogs calm by setting up a system where owners nearest a dog that was called out would impose a time out if they got too excited. (these were regular dogs).
    I begged their pardon as I loaded my harassed and injured dog into my vehicle, and bid them a fond farewell. I’ve never been back once with my dogs, and never will. It’s just too risky.
    I do go on occasion by myself to watch the other dogs interact, and learn…though I think myself more of a masochist for going since everything…like you…pisses me off.

  13. Mel says:

    Even at the ‘better’ dog park I hear so much nonsense. My boy is a young German Shepherd. Certain folks believe he’s aggressive just due to the shepherd look. There have been a handful of incidents where I could hear bystanders talking about my dog behind my back. He’s not ‘vicious’, he’s responding to another dog that snarled at him first (usually for violating an invisible territory boundary). Snapping and posturing isn’t a fight. He has never been in a fight and I’m not looking to change that record, ever! They never seem to notice that he quickly responds to me calling him away from the fray to move to a quiet area and calm down. Nor do they notice that he actively avoids and throws calming signals at dogs that snapped or snarled at him before. They see what they want to see.

    My favorite ‘steam-out-the-ears’ incident involved my senior Lab mix. A nice gentleman had been sitting and giving out biscuits (with permission of the owners. Still not something I would do at a dog park…) He dropped crumbs everywhere. My dog began happily tracking and searching for all the crumbs, head down and tail wagging. A woman nearby thought she was abused because ‘her head was down in a submissive gesture the whole time’. I didn’t even know how to respond to that. The kicker is that her own dogs were ‘rude greeters’ and were bothering several others, but she was oblivious.

    A few months ago a speaker from the SPCA came in to do a free seminar on canine body language, dog styles of play, and differentiating play vs fighting. I had a calendar conflict, but I really wonder what the attendance was like.

  14. CJ says:

    Sadly at the 3 dog parks in our city, children a regularly brought in with their parents. My dog is very nervous about younger children, and her way of reacting (which I am sloooowly working on with cc & ds) is to charge, barking at scary things. We leave as soon as kids come in but it scares me the number of parents that let their kids literally run around that park, and it’s frustration because it should be child-free since it’s not a playground. I’m crossing my fingers that no one gets bitten, but it’s a matter of time. At least with the running kids I go straight to the parents and politely explain that all the furry ones have teeth that are at the same level with their kid’s face, and it is not worth the risk The idea of something going terrifies me.

  15. diana says:

    nicole wrote:

    “It’s really a credit to dogs, considering all the myths and nonsense people believe, that they behave as well as they do.”

    and, to me, that pretty much says it all.
    humans could learn so much from canines, if only we would leave our egos behind.

  16. S. says:

    Ugh. I see this soooo much, too! People leashing their dogs for their first visit to the dog park, people punishing their dogs for barking or growling, and the children, oh my GOD. If I see another 5-year-old running around with a ball in its hand, in the air taunting the dogs I will seriously lose my mind.

    Sometimes I wonder why I even go there, it upsets me so much. But despite the proliferation of misinformation, most of the times I go to the dog park, it’s a positive energy and good learning and socialization for my only-dog. I’ve stopped going any time except the early mornings, and I only go to one dog park that I feel has a better mix of owners and dogs than others…

  17. wildewmn says:

    Thank you all for your comments. Keep ’em coming! I see that the dog park post really hit a nerve with a lot of you. It would be great to have parks that are fee-based where dogs/humans are carefully screened, and larger parks with acreage so the greater space would translate into fewer scuffles. But for the rest of us, we’ll just have to keep on being hyper vigilant and being advocates for our dogs.

  18. Thank you so much, you are so right I always have people in my classes that listen to strangers with no experiences and then we have to try to fix it. I do not like dog parks either, there was an event at our dog park once and our table was across from the entrance when I seen a guy drop off his dog and leave for 3 hours while his dog was fighting in the park.

  19. Erin Carrington says:

    While I admit this is typical of most free running dog parks its not always the case, I take my two dogs to a Seattle dog park called Marymoor, which is anything but typical in my opinion. When you first enter the park there is an open space for people to meet up and gather in groups and dogs to play on a set area…however this area is almost always empty or soon to be empty as groups meet up. The dog park is made up of 30 acres of walking trails, wooded areas, fields and river access. It’s a dog park that instead of encouraging you to have your dog running around insane with other dogs encourages you to walk around the park with your dog off the leash. To play fetch in large open fields, to swim in the river and retrieve water toys. Honestly if I could make every dog park into an example of this I’d be thrilled…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a problem dog, a fight, or a owner causing problems at this park. And on weekends you’ll find thousands of owners walking and playing with their dogs there. =)

  20. […] Nicole Wilde describes some of her frustrations while at the dog park. […]

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