This blog is a tribute to Belle, and all the dogs who have come before and after. They are my friends, my companions, my teachers and my students. They bring me both joy and heartache, laughter and tears. There is nothing as sweet as the smell of puppy breathe, and nothing as sad as the final goodbye.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dog Park Etiquette

I am not a fan of dog parks. I have seen more out of control dogs and clueless owners at dog parks then I care to remember. I did not always feel this way. Years ago I took advantage of them, often bringing the labs to a few local parks to engage in some intense and strenuous tennis ball retrieving. They loved it and so did I.
I often recommended dog parks to my clients with high-energy dogs. I believed dog parks were a great place for dogs and older pups to go for canine socialization, especially on Long Island, where most dogs live in isolation, confined to their backyards. Many of those dogs grew up to be fearful of new environments and new experiences. I thought dog parks, while not ideal, at least provided for some of their needs.
Then things began to change. I saw owners standing around coffee klotching while their dogs were bullied. I saw owners interpreting aggression as play. I saw a golden mauled by the pack shortly after entering the park. (I ran over to help the owner break it up, the owners of the other dogs…they never noticed). The final straw for me was when a dog that had just entered the park attacked my sweet Belle, who was lying next to me. I had to punch that dog to get him to release her. The owner said he always attacked when he entered, but calmed down after a while. He offered to pay for vetting. Others told me this happened regularly with this dog and that some of his victims required stitches. And yet the owner continued to bring his dog to the park.
I was lucky that I had alternative places to go with my dogs. If you decide to use a dog park, (I am sure not all are bad), the “Tips for enjoying the dog park”, provided by WOOF – Worthington Organized Off-leash friends, offers some good, practical advise for pro-active dog owners. While these tips were written for the dog park that WOOF was instrumental in developing in Worthington, OH, they are applicable for all dog park users everywhere, and for wherever unleashed dogs congregate.
Tips for enjoying the dog park
1.          Recognize that your dog may not get along with ALL other dogs, and that some combinations simply don't work.
2.               Educate yourself on dog body language and canine communication so you can recognize the difference between safe play and aggressive play. 
3.           Safe play is a “give and take” between dogs - not one dog continually pushing, jumping on or mouthing the other dog If your dog is doing this to another dog, go get him, or call him to you and get him under control.
4.            Make sure your own dog is actually playing with another dog, and not just responding in a defensive, deflective way. Call your dog to you, and when you release him to go back to "play," see if he indeed does return to engage with the same dog(s).
5.            Be willing to leave a dog park if you feel that your dog is either being a bully or being bullied, the play is getting too rough or your dog is just not having fun.
6.          Break up loose packs.  Packs of dogs will gang up on weaker dogs and may even physically attack them.
7.         Be sure to take your dog’s temperament into consideration and don’t assume your dog is having a good time – watch your dog’s demeanor and make an informed judgment about how happy s/he is to be there.  Some dogs will have no desire to play, yet will love to sniff all the bushes and trees; other dogs will be thrilled to race from one end of the park to the other.  Both can benefit from the dog park – they just enjoy it in different ways.
8.         Call your dog to you frequently, not just when it's time to leave. By calling him over to you frequently, praising him and then releasing him back to play, you can avoid the difficulty many dog park users experience: the dog who can't be caught when it's time to leave.
9.       Turn your cell phone off, or don’t take calls or text, unless it's an emergency. This is a good time for you and your dog to be together, and doesn't your dog deserve your undivided attention?
10.      Keep Moving!  Don’t allow yourself to be part of stationary group of people, which could result in too many dogs gathering in one place. Move around so your dog knows it will need to keep an eye on you.  It’s a big park, why not explore it with your dog!
11.       Small dogs (under 25 lbs.) should use the small dog area and should absolutely not be in the large dog area. Even if you’re small dog is used to playing with larger dogs, not every large dog is used to playing with small dogs. It’s so easy for a little guy to get overwhelmed or bowled over by larger dogs. The large dogs may not mean to hurt the smaller dogs, but play may be too rough, or they may see the small dog as a prey animal, pick it up and shake it, which can be fatal.
12.   Check out the entrance before entering to make sure dogs aren’t congregating there. If they are, try the other entrance. 
13.      Leave if you start to feel concerned about anything going on. Help to resolve the situation if you can, but your first responsibility is to keep both you and your dog safe.

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