He’s not your “furbaby”. He’s your friend.

He’s your buddy and he wants to hang out with you. Why not treat him like it?

Your dog is not your baby, or your “furbaby”, or a dress-up doll, or a social prop, or a member of your “pack”.  He’s none of those things.

He is your friend.  And if you simply appreciate that fact, he’ll be your best friend.  He doesn’t expect you to act like a dog or a parent.  And, although you might lose sight of this, he is perfectly aware that you are not a dog and that he is not a human.  He just doesn’t care about little things like that. He just wants to hang out with you, have some fun, and be part of your life.  So, please just treat him like your best buddy.   If you haven’t been, you’re missing out.

We take responsibility for our friends.  I mean real friends, people we care about.  We look out for them and try to keep them from being harmed or hurting themselves.  We keep track of their emotional state and make sure that they’re OK.  We share our belongings with them and make sure that they have what they need.

We have adventures with our friends.  We go places and have new experiences with them.  If we have a friend that enjoys doing something that isn’t really our cup of tea, we generally go along with him because he wants to share it with us.   And it usually turns out to be a good time.  On the other hand, we don’t make our friends do things that frighten them or that they don’t enjoy.  We want them to be happy.  The bottom line is that your dog is a friend from another country.  You can learn each other’s language, and each other’s likes, dislikes, favorite things, and things to avoid.

And when our friends are being inappropriate, behaving badly or are just embarrassing in public, we show them what they should be doing and how they should be acting.  When they’re occasionally annoying, we show them how not to be.  Because that’s what friends do for each other.

Your dog is your friend.  But he is a friend who is isolated and whose activities are limited to the things that you do with him.  He only leaves the house when you are with him.  You control his exercise, his mental activity, and his simple playtime.  You are his only source of comfort, closeness and emotional connection.   Why not give him the simple respect of treating him like that?

If you get a dog as a puppy, even though he is small and adorable he is still your friend.  He knows that you are not his mother or a littermate.  If you chose the dog wisely, he has been socialized with other dogs and humans to some extent, but it’s up to you to teach him the skills that he needs to function in the human world that we inhabit.  You can do this just by engaging in the classes and activities that will give him the skills that he needs and help you to understand him.  These puppy classes and training sessions will help you to communicate with your buddy and guide him as he makes mistakes and awkwardly bumps his way to adulthood.

If you bring a dog home from a shelter, it’s like making friends with the new kid at school.  You don’t know much about his background or what he’s learned and experienced, and its up to you to show him around and teach him how things work where you live.  He will be unsure of himself and may even act out a little, but that’s expected.  It will be a while before he knows “the rules” but you can help him along with it and involving him in the things that you enjoy.  ( Keeping your dog out of trouble when meeting people | The Animal Nerd   )  Pretty soon, he’ll be reciprocating.

If you got a dog, it’s probably because you wanted a friend.  You may have felt lonely or isolated, particularly during the last couple of years and you wanted a close companion.  Now that you have him, don’t deprive yourself of that friendship.   Treat him like the best friend that you wanted to have all along.

Keeping your dog out of trouble when meeting people

“He just came at me, with no warning!”, “All of a sudden, he just lunged at the other dog!”, “One minute, he was fine; and the next minute he was attacking!”   Whenever I hear statements like this, my response is usually “No, probably not.  He was probably giving off plenty of signs that he was scared or stressed, and he wanted to get away from whatever was bothering him.  You either didn’t see those them or didn’t understand them.”

In an earlier post, I addressed the topic of dogs being overly reactive to each other Dog-to-Dog Reactivity | The Animal Nerd.  But what about dogs reacting to people?

Most so-called dog aggression problems are completely avoidable.   They want to avoid conflict with people or other dogs, and they want to avoid frightening situations.  But we often do not give them the ability to do so, or we inadvertently prevent them from getting away from the thing that’s bothering them.  The entirely predictable result is that the dog gets even more stressed and is pushed over his behavioral threshold, resulting in him being labeled “aggressive”.

There is a simple, common-sense way to prevent any injury, drama or fallout from your dog becoming overly stressed and acting out:  Be aware of what signals your dog is broadcasting, and remove him from the situation that is stressing him out.

The fact is that dogs are communicating all the time.  They are a pretty darned intelligent species with sophisticated non-verbal communications abilities.  Not being handicapped by a spoken language, they are constantly communicating with us, with other dogs and with the world in general.  They fill every waking moment with indications of two things:  How they are feeling and what they plan to do in the next few minutes.   And make no mistake, they understand and react to the non-verbal messages that we are constantly broadcasting.  They’ve been living with us for over 20,000 years and they read our facial expressions, posture, gait and our other unspoken signals like a book.

Your relationship with your dog is unlike the ones you have with your human friends and family.  You control where he goes, what he encounters and limit his options for what to do in the situations in which you place him.   Since you control everywhere he goes, it becomes your responsibility to learn canine body language, particularly your own dog’s non-verbals, so you can avoid putting him in danger or in highly stressful situations from which he cannot escape.

When your dog meets a new person, it is up to you to control the situation.  This means that you are responsible for watching your pup and making sure that he is not anxious or overly excited:

Is his tail held at a neutral height, relaxed and wagging?  Or is it lowered or tucked, indicating anxiety?  Is your dog holding it stiffly with a slight wag?  That can mean stress or a warning to other dogs to stay away.  What are his ears doing?  Are they relaxed and held closely to his head? Are they held tightly back, indicated fear?  Are they held alertly in a forward position?  What about his back?  Is it held stiffly or even slightly rounded?  Or is it relaxed?  Is he turn his head away from that person, indicating that he wants to avoid contact?   Several illustrated examples of stressed or relaxed behavior can be found here:  Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu).

And what is the other person doing?  Is he or she approaching you dog head on, locking eyes with him?  Is he or she bending over your dog in a threatening posture?  It is up to you to watch your dogs’ responses to that person’s actions and determine if your dog is becoming alarmed or anxious.  Remember, whether the other person knows it or not, he and your dog are having a body language conversation and your dog is responding to everything he does.  For example, I recently worked with a shelter dog who was extremely wary of new people.  It took me a little while to accept me and to be relaxed and comfortable with me on or off leash, and we became friends easily.  The next day, I saw her react to the presence of a particular volunteer (a large, bearded man), during which she engaged in distancing behaviors, growling and barking.  I had him change his approach to her:  Instead of approaching her head-on and looking directly at her, I had him walk towards her at an angle without making eye contact then stand facing 90 degrees away from her.  She immediately relaxed, slowly approached him and accepted treats from him.  Following that meeting, he was able to leash her up and take her for walks without any drama.

The bottom line is that it is up to you to know how your dog displays stress, anxiety or happiness before you put him in situations were he can potentially get in trouble.   You need to understand that he is constantly telling you what his emotional state is and take that into account when you are taking him places or putting him in contact with other people.  You need to understand when he’s telling you that he wants to approach or avoid something or someone.  When you with your dog and other people are involved, look at him from time to time and ask yourself “If it were up to him, what would he do right now?  Stay?  Leave?”  Because that is exactly what he is saying to you.

There are several very good sources that can help you get a better understanding of your dog’s body language:

Rugaas, T. (2005).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals 2nd Ed .  Direct Book Service.

Abrantes, R. (1997).  Dog Language.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Aloff, B. (2005).  Canine Body Language:  A Photographic Guide.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Handelman, B. (2008).  Canine Behavior, A Phot Illustrated Handbook.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Dog Parks: What to know before bringing your dog to one.

Dog parks can be a great place for well-socialized dogs to play and have “doggy-time”.

Dog parks are a place where dogs and their owners can spend time outdoors and off the leash, doing “dog things” with other dogs.   They have become very common in our urban and suburban landscapes, and are places where owners can take their dogs to play, have some enrichment and get some exercise.   In an environment where dogs (and their owners) are increasingly isolated, they are a place to socialize and have some time in the fresh air and sunshine.  They can be either publicly owned and maintained, or can be managed and funded privately.  Some are even private membership-based clubs for dog-owners.  They are very popular and surveys have shown that the majority of Americans consider them to be a benefit to neighborhoods.  The New York Times reports that dog parks are among the fastest-growing social amenity in the United States.[i]

There are varying opinions about dog parks, based on peoples’ experiences in them.  The internet is full of emotionally-charged articles about dog parks, many of them highly negative and verging on hyperbole, including claims that “Dogs die violently at dog parks all the time.” [ii]  A simple Google search of “Dog Park Horror Stories” will provide endless accounts of dogs being brutalized by other dogs or people at these parks.  In reviewing a sampling of these anecdotal and unverified accounts, I found that they were all related to dogs being over-aroused and stressed, and/or their owners behaving irresponsibly.

There are very few quality studies of dog-to-dog behavior in dog parks.  However, the consensus among them is that actual dog-to-dog aggression in these parks is very rare and very seldom result in injuries.  In fact, a 2018 study by Howse, Anderson and Walsh found that “there was little to no evidence of dog-dog aggression, with the possible exception of “lunge approach”, which occurred infrequently. This finding is consistent with two other published studies… which reported low prevalence of aggressive behaviours in two different dog parks, and no incidents leading to injury. Thus, overt aggression is rare in direct observational research despite apparent widespread concerns among trainers of high risk for conspecific aggression at dog parks.”[iii]   An earlier study cited differences in dog’s interactions based on individual personalities but found that all the dogs were in a highly excited and/or stressed state while in the park.[iv]

Based on the available behavioral studies and on reputable newspaper or internet articles, we can conclude that dog parks can be a pleasant environment that allows well-socialized and extroverted companion dogs with a means of exercising, playing with other dogs and getting some enrichment in the terms of new experiences.  But this all depends on several factors:  The dogs’ personalities, the health of other dogs in the park and the knowledge and attention of the dogs’ owners.

There are some simple facts about dogs and dog parks that many owners fail to understand:

First, all dogs are not the same.  They have varied personalities and experiences and have different preferences.  For instance, I’ve had three smooth collies in my adult life.  And I’ve had each of them in safe well-run dog parks.  The first one was overjoyed by the park.  She was the queen of whatever group of dogs she socialized with and always managed to get a pack of dogs to join her in a “chase me” game using every square inch of the fenced area.  She also made sure that she met every owner and invited new dogs to socialize.  We were frequent visitors and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My second collie hated being in the dog park.  He was socialized with other dogs and wasn’t fearful of them, but he was completely overwhelmed by the experience of being in the park.  He spent the entire time trotting around the fence perimeter, looking for a way out.  After that one experience, we never took him back.  The third collie is socialized with other dogs and meets them politely but is completely indifferent to them.  She loves to play with her human family and the people she knows, and she loves to go for walks in her neighborhood or on the local beach but has no interest in other dogs.  We’ve taken her to a dog park, and she spent her time exploring and investigating new smells, much as she would in her own yard, but didn’t spend a single minute socializing or playing with other dogs.    The point I’m making is that some dogs just won’t like being in a dog park and some are just not interested in other dogs.  There’s nothing wrong with that, its just the way they are.

Second, a dog park is not a place to get to train your dog, or to help them get socialized.  You can safely take a dog to the park after they are well socialized and after you are confident in their training.  For example, I once worked with a shelter dog a shelter dog whom I spent month working with, rehabilitating her, and socializing her with humans.  Over time she progressed from being fearful of people to accepting and bonding with me, after which I got her to accept new people, play nicely and interact well with people and other dogs.  She was adopted out to a man (I had a bad feeling about this guy, but it wasn’t my decision) who was given all the usual instructions to take things slow, let her get used to him and his home, gradually introduce new experiences, etc.  But… The day after her adoption, I found her back in the intake section of the shelter.  I found out that less than six hours after adopting her, he brought her to a crowded dog park and let her off leash.  So, naturally, there was a complete meltdown.  Rather than learning from his error, he blamed the dog and returned her that day.  The good news is that, once we got her settled down, she was adopted out to a nice young couple and that last I heard she was living a great life in a loft in Boston.

Third, the dog park is an unfamiliar place full of new smells, new and excited dogs, new people, etc.  This is a stressful situation for dogs to be in.  Ottenheimer et al, found that dogs in these parks are generally stressed state, regardless of their outward behavior.  And not all dogs handle stress well, many have limited communications skills.

Fourth, a lot of dog owners are clueless about their pets’ behaviors.  Some of them are too busy chatting or flirting to pay attention to what’s happening around them, and some of them are just jerks.  They will not always pay attention to their dogs, won’t understand that their dogs are becoming overstressed or over-excited, and may not intervene when their dogs act inappropriately.

Fifth, dog parks are not for puppies.  Although a puppy can safely interact with other dogs once they’ve had all of their vaccinations, when they’re about 17 weeks old, they are still forming their personalities and can be very negatively impacted by any negative experiences.  They should be socialized with people and other age-appropriate dogs in positive and controlled settings.  Any negative experiences, such as overly rough play by other dogs, bullying, or anything that is intimidating or frightening that a puppy experiences can adversely affect his still-developing social skills.  Many experts recommend against taking dogs to a park if they are under six months of age, or even less than a year old, depending on the dog.[v]  My own recommendation is to hold off on bringing a puppy to a dog park until he is well past his second fear impact period,  which will fall between five and twelve months of age Developmental-Stages-of-a-Dog.pdf (animalnerd.com).  between A supervised puppy playgroup is a much better option for pups who are still developing social skills.

Sixth, and very importantly, do not bring a dog to a park who has not been spayed or neutered.  The presence of a female dog in heat will cause unnecessary drama among the other dogs, particularly among any intact males.  In many cases, dog parks specifically prohibit any male or female dogs who have not been spayed or neutered.[vi]

So:  Should you take your dog to a dog park?  Sure.  Absolutely.  That is, if, and only if, you do the following things:

Get to know your dog.  Does he really like to play with other dogs?  Is he nervous around them or avoid any dogs at all?  Does he try to engage with them and invite them to play?   Also, how to they react around him?  You need to determine whether he has good manners and doesn’t play too roughly or overwhelm other dogs?  If you have any doubts about this, don’t take him to the park.  Find other ways to socialize and exercise him.  If your dog mature enough to be there, and are his social skills sufficiently developed?

Next, check out the park you’re thinking about using.  Visit it during the time of day that you are most likely to bring your dog.  Get to know the other owners and watch them with their dogs?  Do they keep an eye on their dogs and act responsibly?  Do they pick up after their dogs?  Are they people that you want to hang around with?  How are their dogs acting?  Is the play too rough for your dog to be part of, and do the other owners intervene?  Trust your gut on this.  Is everyone there a dog owner, or do dog walkers show up with a bunch of dogs and turn them loose inside?  (Yes, this happens.)

What about the park?  Is it securely fenced?  Is there a double gate at the entrance to prevent dogs from escaping?   Is there fresh water inside?  Is it maintained in a clean and safe manner? Who is responsible for the park?  Is it privately funded or is it a municipal park?  Also, are there separate areas for large and small dogs?

Once you’ve checked all these boxes, there are a few other things you need to do:

Make sure that your dog is completely vaccinated and is protected against parasitic diseases.  Talk to your vet about his heartworm preventative and make sure that it includes protection against intestinal parasites.  In addition to his rabies vaccination, your dog should also be immunized against parvo, distemper, Bordetella, canine influenza and leptospirosis.[vii]  The simple fact is that dogs relieve themselves in these parks, and they are frequented by nocturnal wildlife, making them playgrounds for parasites, bacteria and communicable viruses; some of them transmissible to humans.  And many of the parks have communal water bowls that are shared among the dogs, which provides another route for sharing diseases and parasites.  Make sure that your pet is protected.[viii]  Also, wash your hands thoroughly when you leave the dog park.

I strongly recommend that you do not bring small children to a dog park and, if there are small children present, do not bring your dog inside.  Aside from the health issues mentioned above, this is not a childrens’ playground and it is not safe for them.  Having little kids excitedly running around among a group of excited off-leash dogs is never a good idea, particularly if the particular dogs from the childrens’ family tend to be protective of them.

I recommend that you do not bring any food or dog treats to the park.  The dogs are already in an excited state, and you have no idea how they will react to the presence of food or of other dogs receiving treats.  There is a strong potential that this may result in dogs either aggressively guarding the food or becoming overly excited.

If you bring any toys to the park, be prepared to go home without them.  Once you throw a ball in a dog park, it can become the property of any dog that wants it.  Also, you risk the possibility of a dog deciding that the ball is a resource to be guarded, resulting in a fight.  If you do bring a toy and manage to leave the park with it, completely disinfect it right away.

Be a good citizen.  Familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations that are posted at the park, and abide by them.   Bring waste bags and promptly clean up your dog’s poop and dispose of it properly.  Bring hand sanitizer and share it with other dog owners.

The bottom line is that dog parks are a great place for some dogs and some people to enjoy off-leash time, socialize, exercise and have some fun.  But they are not for everybody.  Your dog may be much happier just going for a walk, playing with known human or dog friends, or just hanging out with you.

 

[i] Lowery, S.  (February 6, 2020).  The Dog Park is Bad, Actually.  New York Times.  Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/smarter-living/the-dog-park-is-bad-actually.html

[ii] Retrieved from Dog Parks Are the WORST. – Overdale Kennel

[iii] Howse, M. S., Anderson, R. E. and Walsh, C. J. (2018).  Social Behaviour of Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris) in a Public Off-Leash Dog Park.  Behavioural Processes 197 (2018) 691-171

[iv] Ottemheimer Carrier, L., Cyr, A., Anderson, R. E. and Walsh, C. J. (2013).  Exploring the Dog Park:  Relationships Between Social Behaviours, Personality and Cortisol in Companion Dogs.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 146 (2013), 96-106

[v] Anderson, T. (October 5, 2018).  Why Puppies and Dog Parks Don’t Mix.  Modern Dog.  Retrieved from moderndogmagazine.com/articles/why-puppies-and-dog-parks-don-t-mix/101482

[vi] Brent, L. (April 28, 2019). How to Avoid Aggression (and other problems) at the Dog Park. Parsemus Foundation News.  Retrieved from www.parsemus.org/2019/04/how-to-avoid-aggression-and-other-problems-at-the-dog-park/

[vii] Nicholas, J. (June 24, 2021). What You Should Know Before Taking Your Puppy to the Dog Park.  Preventive Vet.  Retrieved from www.preventivevet.com/dogs/what-you-should-know-before-taking-your-puppy-to-the-dog-park

[viii] Nelson, S.  (May 16, 2013).  Dog parks offer fun, but veterinarian says a few precautions can make visits even better.  K-State News.  Retrieved from Dog parks offer fun, but veterinarian says a few precautions can make visits even better | Kansas State University | News and Communications Services (k-state.edu)