Dog Parks: Merriment or Mayhem?

August 29, 2019

Group of dogs at park smelling each other.
In my last blog, I described a fight that took place at my local dog park. Since then, I’ve witnessed an even more violent attack where two dogs belonging to one man latched on to another dog and literally tried to pull the poor dog apart. I’ll save you the trauma of the details. The dog lived, but it was horrific and is something that will stay with me for a long time to come. No doubt it will stay with that poor dog as well.

Most owners consider dog parks fun places to let their dog play with others while they socialize as well. Dogs, like us, are social creatures, and it can be fun for them to romp  and make new friends. But ask any professional trainer whether dog parks are a good idea, and we’ll advise you against ever attending one. Why? Are we killjoys? Worrywarts? Over-the-top protective of our and our clients’ dogs? Nope. We just know too much and have seen too much. We’re all too aware that when a dog is attacked, even if no grave physical injury results, there is damage in the form of serious emotional distress. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but it can also result in the dog becoming fearful of or fear-reactive toward other dogs. That can happen even if a dog isn’t attacked but is simply bullied, which happens constantly at dog parks. Imagine the cumulative and lifelong impact, especially on a young puppy.

I don’t have kids but I if I did, I can’t imagine I’d let them play with a group of assorted marauding kids of all ages and temperaments, especially without checking things out first. And yet that’s exactly what happens when someone blindly enters a typical dog park. More often than not, dogs run toward the newcomer, surrounding the dog, sniffing, jumping on, humping, or snapping at him. Welcome to the park! Even if there’s no overtly aggressive behavior, that forced attention can be overwhelming and some dogs don’t do well with it. There are also many dogs who, once inside, don’t find the experience fun at all. I’ve seen dogs hide behind their owners or climb or jump on their person repeatedly in distress, only to be told to go play. And I’ve seen many dogs who repeatedly target other dogs and bully them or get into fights over and over and yet are never reprimanded, because their owners aren’t watching, don’t realize what’s going on, or don’t care.

Now, I’m aware that there are some dog parks that are different. There are private parks that charge a membership fee, screen members, and have employees monitoring the action. I have no problem with those, assuming the monitors are knowledgeable and responsible and the operation is well run. Other parks are public but are so large that much of the tension is averted. Lastly, some people visit dog parks at such off hours that they barely encounter other dogs. These are not the scenarios I’m talking about. The vast majority of public dog parks, at least in the U.S., are not private, huge, or sparsely populated. Instead, it’s a free for all, with owners who range from being responsible and knowledgeable about dog body language and behavior to people who have absolutely no clue and/or just don’t care. Common sense is, unfortunately, anything but common. Given these facts, is it really worth it to expose your dog to others who could injure him physically or emotionally, along with possibly causing a lifelong fear of or reactivity toward other dogs? (There is also the chance of exposing him to disease as well, especially if he’s a young pup.) As trainers and behavior specialists, we are called in to address fear and aggression problems after the damage has been done. Behavior modification is time-consuming, can be challenging, and is an expense for the owner. Just imagine if, instead of exposing your dog to random dogs who might or might not play nicely or even be friendly, you set play dates for your dog as you would with a child. You meet, you screen, you arrange times, you monitor. Or, you find a well-run doggy daycare where everyone can be safe and happy.

I realize that some of you will read this and think I’m being overly cautious. Maybe you take your dog to crowded, unsupervised parks and have never had an unpleasant incident. You monitor your dog carefully and know your stuff. That goes a long way, but you can’t ever fully control the behavior of others, canine or human. You’ve been lucky so far. An acquaintance I had warned against dog parks early on when she got her pup recently relayed a story of how the pup was almost killed by another dog, and how she wished she’d heeded my advice. Sure, it’s all fine…until it’s not. And when it’s not, it may be too late. Please, please, please avoid typical public dog parks. As a trainer and behavior specialist, I would much rather have less business due to there being fewer traumatized dogs in the world. Our dogs give us their trust and unconditional love. Isn’t protecting them the least we can do?
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The Most Dangerous Breed

August 7, 2019

Danger sign in : beware of the dog - naughty dog - guard dogA man and his German shepherd were alone in the dog park one early morning when another man with three dogs appeared. The three were overly aroused and snarking at each other in the airlock. As soon as the group entered the park, the shepherd ran up to them. The largest of the three, a malinois, immediately attacked the shepherd. It was noisy. It was horrific. It was terrible to see. Fortunately, the shepherd’s owner had the wisdom to pull the attacker away, rather than grabbing his own dog. The malinois’ owner then restrained his dog by the handle on the dog’s body harness. I shouted at the shepherd’s owner to grab his dog as well. Instead, he called his dog to him. The shepherd did not listen, and began walking back toward the malinois. Once again, I urged the man to get his dog on a leash. Instead, he called the shepherd to him. Again, the dog did not listen and this time, he approached the malinois, who pulled free of his owner and once again attacked the shepherd. This time the malinois’ two housemate dogs joined in. Now there were three dogs attacking the poor shepherd, who is not a dog that fights back.

Between the two men, they got the dogs separated and away from each other, although both parties remained in the park. The shepherd was limping badly, not able to put any weight at all on one of his back legs. Since my dogs and I were in the empty, enclosed small dog side of the park, I left my dogs to walk over and see if I could help. By this time the shepherd was on the ground, lying on his side. A few people I normally encounter during weekday morning walks were passing by. I stopped them and asked the owner of a Lab if he could stand by in case the shepherd needed to be carried back to his car. Instead, the Lab owner walked into the park to inspect the shepherd himself. While he was examining the dog, I told the shepherd’s owner the dog should be taken to a vet. But the Lab owner stood up and pronounced, “He’s fine. He doesn’t need to be taken in.” Good thing this man’s a veterinarian. Oh wait, he’s not. (He is, however, the same man who once, upon hearing that my dogs were on leash in a high-brush, rattlesnake-infested area because I was concerned about rattlesnakes, said, “You worry too much.” Yep, that’s me.) The shepherd was finally standing again and as he left, his owner called to the man with the three dogs that he’d see him the next day. These men are normally both in the dog park on the weekends at the same time, and although this is the second time their dogs have fought, they planned to allow them back together again the very next day. What could go wrong?

Have I mentioned that this same malinois has attacked at least four other dogs that I know of? It’s true that he does get along with many dogs, but then…well, there are some he just doesn’t. Interestingly, I was chatting recently with the woman who cuts my hair when something about this man and his dogs came up. She said, “Oh, I know him! His malinois attacked my puppy!” According to her, this very same dog had attacked her six-month-old labradoodle to the point that the mal had the pup’s entire head in his mouth. When it happened, she said, the man had sauntered over and in a baby voice said, “Oh look, he’s playing with the puppy.” Seriously.

You might be wondering if I’m going to say malinois are the most dangerous breed. I’m not. They’re certainly serious, driven dogs, but they are not the most dangerous. Nor are German shepherds. The most dangerous breed is, hands down, the Irresponsible Owner. If you run into one, you can certainly attempt to reason with them, and I give you kudos for trying. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work. This particularly breed is unlikely to be swayed by logic or even experience. Often seen allowing their dogs to participate in unsafe activities, members of this breed may also appear to have gone completely deaf and blind in instances where their dogs are bullying others. They’re also the ones yelling, “He’s friendly!” after you shout to please call the dog, who is off-leash and making a beeline for your own dogs. In a perfect world, members of this breed would walk around wearing shirts that say, “Don’t worry, it will all be fine!” so they could be instantly identified. If you encounter this dangerous breed, beware! The best course of action is to avoid, avoid, avoid, and do whatever you need to in order to keep your own dogs safe.
Subscribe above to be notified of new postings. Nicole’s books, seminar DVDs, and blog can be found at You can also find Nicole on Facebook and Twitter and in Santa Clarita, CA running Gentle Guidance Dog Training .


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