What are dog parks for? Well, for exercise, of course! Some people believe dog parks are good for socialization as well. This is not a good reason to take your dog to a dog park. I understand that your pup may be good with other dogs. What about everyone else’s dogs? What about that one time when your dog wasn’t good with other dogs. Can you pick up on every single cue your dog is giving you when they are in distress, scared, or starting to be aggressive? Is every person who goes to a dog park educated in canine behavior and psychology?
Unfortunately, the ‘average’ dog owner cannot identify these signals, nor have they studied the basics of canine psychology. They also do not take the time to actually become the pack leader, and instead think their dog is just ‘out of control’. So, taking the dog to a dog park will ‘get rid of that excess energy’, right? Wrong. It will make it worse, and this puts the dog, along with any others at the park in a very bad situation.
Also, when dogs are let off leash, and no ‘leader’ is established between the dogs since the human is no longer there, the dogs naturally try to establish rank. This can eventually lead to a fight. This entire situation should never take place, and no dog should be put in a position where they need to fight between themselves to establish rank. You should be the leader, and putting them in this position is forcing them to try to be the leader.
Being a pack leader, the human needs to be assertive in making the decisions, controlling resources, and also protecting their dog(s). When a dog feels threatened by another dog or person, the dog will run behind their ‘leader’ (usually the human)
Germs, Parasites, and Illnesses/Diseases
These are all a risk if you take your dog to a dog park. Can you be certain that all worms, parasites, or nasty diseases like parvo have never been present at this location? Most worms contaminate soil through feces or fleas, so even if a previous owner picked up after their dog, can you guarantee this dog didn’t carry anything that can make your dog sick? Eggs in certain types of parasites can live for years in the soil. What about vaccinations? Can you guarantee every dog your dog has played with was vaccinated for parvo, distemperment, and/or rabies? Here is an article about potential risks of illnesses your dog can get at a dog park.
Obviously, you shouldn’t bring a female in heat to a dog park. Unfortunately, people do. There is the obvious risk of unwanted pregnancy (this only takes a few moments after insertion) and sexually transmitted diseases. Yes, canines can get these as well. Unaltered females also can cause unnecessary attention for males, and end up causing a fight due all the ‘fighting over her’. An unaltered male dog can cause unwanted attention as well. High testosterone levels can make him a target for harassment or aggression from other male dogs. They tend to ‘zone in’ on unaltered males.
The average dog owner has no idea how to break up a dog fight. Thus, resulting in injury. This could be the person breaking it up, or one of the dogs. Why not check out a free social class in your area? This is free, supervised, and your dog gets to actually learn while in class. I go every Saturday to a social called Pack to Basics. There are 2 facilities in my area who offer this course, and many more around the United States.
Now, if you have already been going, or continue to go (which I don’t recommend), here are some tips.
1-Notice the signs of a tense, uneasy, possibly aggressive dog: Stiffness, tail will be straight up, or straight back (depending on breed), dogs will stand tall with their head up, ears perked or back, possibly lip licking or panting heavily, and hackles raised. These are some very basic things to look out for anytime you are around dogs. You can also look out for this on ‘play dates’ or just when you are observing more than one dog at at time. If you have multiple dogs at home, use these tools to help prevent a fight as well. ‘Out of the blue’ attacks are not out of the blue, and there is always a reason. If you can pick up on the signs before a fight happens, you can learn to prevent fights altogether.
On this same note, notice signs of a fearful dog: Head will be low, tail low or in between its legs, dog seems to be trying to get away or to hide. Fear also presents itself sometimes with lip raising while cowering, snarling/growling while shrinking into the ground, running (usually a dog is chasing) in a manner that says the dog is not comfortable.
2 – If you notice any of these signals, tell the owner to get control of their dog. If this doesn’t work, or the owner refuses, it is time for you to leave. If there was severe aggression, you may want to file a police report or file a complaint. Make sure to mention you were concerned for your safety as well as your dog’s safety. Obviously, don’t call the police if ‘that dog looked scary’. Severe aggression can be anything from lunging at a person with an intent to bite, a dog biting a person, a dog fight where there were wounds on the underbelly, chest, or neck, and/or the wounds were deeper than 3″ deep. Scratches and bites on the face, legs, feet or ears are minor, and usually mean the dog was ‘warning’ the other dog to back off. Even if a dog bit a human, and the bite was on the hand, arms, legs, or face – this is less serious than if the dog went after the stomach, sides, or neck.
*Obviously: Always report if a dog bites a human, and go to the hospital (or Instacare).
3 – If the situation has escalated and the dog is now ‘bullying’ your dog, you need to take things into your own hands. This is usually where the dogs are ‘getting physical’ and it is not play. (signs include: Ears back, hackles raised, jumping or mounting on each other, etc. This is never acceptable.) Verbally, in a serious deep voice, tell the aggressor to back off or get out of there. If the aggressor stops and walks/runs away, determine if the situation will escalate again. If so, error on the side of safety and leave.
4-ALWAYS carry a SprayShield citronella spray or a walking stick to a dog park to defend yourself or your dog if there is a fight. The walking stick is not meant to beat a dog at all – just to get something in between you and the dog, or to distract the dog while attacking another dog or a person.
5-Never get in the middle of a fight if you do not have the experience to break it up. Someone will get hurt, and often the dogs are fueled to fight harder if someone is not experienced/strong enough to break it up. Prevent the fight from happening before this happens. Bites that are inflicted on humans when breaking up a fight are usually because the human who got involved lacked experience and tried to break it up the wrong way.
NOTE: Handling an aggressive dog is never something to be taken lightly, and usually if the dog feels it is ok to be aggressive, there are other problems going on as well. Dominance, leadership, and complete lack of respect are some to list here. Hire a professional who specialize in aggressive dogs. Correcting a dog who has aggression is not fun to watch, and not everyone is cut out for it. However, it is necessary to correct the dog with enough meaning that they will think twice if they choose to do it again. There are at least 2 local training facilities in my area who specialize in aggression. I’m sure there are a few in your area. Check out the IACP website to locate a trainer in your area if you have a dog with dominance problems or aggression.
Now, obviously, I just touched on a few different aspects of dog parks, and there are many more. I hope this helps and educates. However, I am all for socialization and think this is one of the most important things you can do to help your dog. Check out the Pack To Basics program to see if there is a training facility near you who teaches this class, or any other supervised social class where you and your dog can go have fun safely! What’s nice about these classes, is that you know you and your dog are completely safe, and you don’t have to worry about a thing. If your dog is ‘questionable’ around people or other dogs, or considered ‘out of control’, talk to the trainer first to have your dog evaluated. Keep in mind if the trainer says your dog is fine to start off leash – trust them. They know what they are doing, and would not jeopardize the class for the other people or dogs in the class. If necessary, your dog will start out on leash or on a muzzle, if aggressive. If you want to know more about dangers of dog parks, check out the below articles. I go to K9 Lifeline and Wasatch Canine Camp’s socials, as a reference, and you can check out their websites for info on their facilities. I have been going for 8 months, and I have seen 3 fights total. All lasted below 10 seconds, and in all cases, no one was hurt. It was all controlled, and safety was the trainer’s first priority. Never once, was I worried that it was too much for the trainers. One fight involved 2 pitbulls and a cocker spaniel. Another fight included a St. Bernard and a Bernese Mountain Dog. No fight is too much for these trainers, they are the best.
Some day, I will be one of those trainers… some day.