October 9, 2020
Often, owners unwittingly contribute to dog park dangers because they don’t recognize—or don’t interpret correctly—what their dogs are actually doing and learning. Some of the problems cause difficulties only when dogs are meeting and interacting with other dogs. Others can cause future behavior to deteriorate. And still others directly impact dog/owner relationships.
Below is a list of common problems caused by dog parks that trainers see regularly. While some dogs will get lucky when going there, many will not. As you read the common fallout of dog parks below, ask yourself– is the HIGH RISK worth it?
Problems Caused by Owners
Owners often don’t accept the responsibility they should– including legal liability when their dog bites! Many don’t pay attention to their dog, and many have no idea what constitutes proper behavior, or what a dog may be signaling to another dog. Some defend their dogs when the animal exhibits poor or inappropriate behavior. Some overreact to a normal interaction, in which one dog discourages the attention of another. Occasionally, some owners use parks as babysitters, even leaving their dogs unattended while they shop. And most owners have far less control over their dogs than they believe!
Dogs are social animals, but they—like us—tend to like familiar faces. Just as we do not routinely meet and chat with everyone we meet on the street, dogs do not need to meet with all other dogs. It often takes some time for one dog to feel comfortable with another; and they need that time to decide how they should react. As we know, time is not always available in a dog park situation. If an overly exuberant Labrador Retriever, for instance, approaches a herding mix too strongly, the latter dog may snarl or air bite to make the Labrador retreat. This is a bad learning experience all around. The Labrador hasn’t learned to inhibit his greeting style—and the herding dog has learned that a) normal warnings don’t work; and b) her owner won’t back her up. Once a dog feels that the owner won’t back them up, they take matters into their own hands and escalate into aggression.
Another form of aggression occurs when two or more dogs in a family visit the dog park. The two may well gang up on a third dog, possibly frightening him or her—or worse.
When owners are not careful, dog park play quickly teaches a dog that the owner has no control over him. I’m sure we’ve all seen an owner following her dog, calling vainly as the animal stays just out of range, looks at her from afar, or just totally ignores her. And this is after the dog has learned to bark hysterically in the car all the way to the dog park, followed by pulling the owner through the parking lot, and then bolting away from her as soon as the leash is off.
Resource guarding can become very problematic in a park. Some dogs will guard their own toys, some will try to take items from other dogs, and others will guard natural resources like sticks. Some keep the items, others just want to taunt the dog who “owns” the toy. Squabbles over resources, including humans sitting at a picnic table or on a bench, can easily erupt into nasty fights.
Often times owners think their dog is “protecting” the, by growling, barking, or otherwise trying to ward off other dogs or people. However, many times these dogs are “resource guarding,” which is the same thing as guarding a bone, their food bowl, toys, etc.
Many times these dogs are also fearful of the other dog or human themselves, with zero concern for the owner. It looks like they are protecting their owners with an outward display of barking & growling, but once they are off-leash, they tuck tail and run.
Interestingly enough, leash frustration—a canine temper tantrum—is sometimes an offshoot of dog park experiences. There are a couple of reasons for this. Leash frustration often begins when a dog is so excited at the prospect of playing that he pulls his owner all the way to the park, lunging and barking—sometimes for blocks. His agitated owner pulls back and yells at the dog, thus increasing the arousal. By the time the dog gets to the park, he’s all fired up for something very physical—like a fight.
Leash frustration also occurs because dogs that frequent parks mistakenly believe that they can meet any other dog they see. Once again, when thwarted, they tend to pull on the leash, and the owner yanks back. As the frustration builds, the dog appears to be aggressive, thus causing other owners to pull their dogs back in fear. Eventually, leash frustration can lead to real aggression. Often, owners of these dogs will be very confused because their dogs are so good off leash, and holy terrors on leash.
Trauma, Learned Helplessness & Shutdown
A traumatic experience can make an impact on a young dog that cannot be fully understood nor erased. A puppy or adolescent who is attacked may well show aggressive behaviors that begin after that incident. Sometimes a young dog can be traumatized by what the owners think are minor events. I liken that kind of trauma to that suffered by a child who is traumatized, perhaps by getting stuck in an elevator. After the first experience, all elevators are bad—even though she knows intellectually that all elevators are not bad. If the event is bad enough, a dog can crossover into learned helplessness. To the human, this looks like shyness, when in fact the dog is too scared to do very much other than hunker down by the owner.
Dogs playing in parks sometimes are unable to calm down, and some can get into a state of sustained arousal that gets them into trouble. A dog that has been involved in an incident in which the excitement level is very high, might inappropriately and uncharacteristically start other incidents, often with un- wanted outcomes.
Often times people with over-aroused dogs wonder why other dogs are always barking at their dog, because they don’t see a problem. Some dogs might even be behaving themselves while being barked at. However, these dogs are internalizing the over-arousal and ready to burst at any minute. Other dogs are able to see the instability in the dog, whereas the owners are not, which causes other dogs to bark at them. This is not the case with every dog that barks at another, but if it’s happening a lot, it’s generally the dog being barked at that’s unstable.
Dogs learn that their owners cannot keep them safe from harm when owners stand by and allow other dogs to play overly roughly, and to body slam and roll them over. When discussing this point, it’s important to understand that the dog’s perception of safety matters even more than the human’s. This can be difficult for owners, who may dismiss their dog’s obvious fear as unwarranted, since they “know” the other dog(s) mean no harm. A dog that is chased or bullied by another dog is not only learning to avoid other dogs, he is also learning that his owner is completely ineffective. The Chihuahua in the photo above may very well be thinking he’s destined to be a meal, but his owner doesn’t seem concerned. This can have a serious impact on the human-dog relation- ship.
Problematic Play Styles
Dog play styles can be radically different, and sometimes they are not compatible with each other’s. This can cause misunderstandings, or even fights, and it can also exacerbate certain play styles. Dogs that tend to be very physical in play often overwhelm other dogs. No one is inhibiting their play style. In fact, owners often laugh at concerns with “don’t worry, he’s only playing.” Playing he may be, but he is also learning, and what he’s learning is not necessarily what we want to be teaching. When bully type dogs play with similar dogs, it can also escalate into aggression. If they bully weaker dogs—which often happens—they learn that they can overpower other dogs, and they tend to repeat the behavior. The weaker dogs learn that cut-off or appeasement signals do not work, and they learn to be afraid of other dogs … sometimes all other dogs, sometimes just dogs that look like the bullies.
While many dogs enjoy playing with others throughout their life, a substantial number do not, once they have reached social maturity. These dogs will slowly lose interest in other dogs, and may signal them to go away. Some dogs become very reluctant to go into dog parks, which—as we have noted—can be out of control. Others will snarl or snap to indicate their displeasure.