Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dog Parks and Dog Play

Morning glory is to slurp a whipped cream topped latte while heading to my favorite dog park. Although I like wearing the halo of an amazing dog owner because I allow mine to express her dogness unrestricted by a leash, the truth is that my reasons for visiting such places are self-serving: I love watching dogs, mine and others.
Proof that I am not the only person who does is the popularity of off-leash parks. Owners galore point to the many benefits, the exercise and real quality time spent with other dogs and people, when they push their municipal leaders to designate a space for dogs to run free.
True, dog parks are good for the human and canine mind and body, but bliss turns into nightmare when a dog is injured or killed by another. That happened recently in Calgary – a city and its off-leash parks very familiar to me. Here are the details: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/charges-could-come-against-both-dog-owners-in-calgary-pit-bull-attack/article6878160/
I don’t want to get deep into the pit bull debate, because I want to discuss dog parks and dog play, but let me say that I am against banning certain breeds. What I am also against, though, is that anybody can sell or buy any dog they wish, without required to know even the basics in dog behavior, communication and management, or care about their welfare. I’d like to see legislation that addresses that so that powerful dogs don’t continue to end up with people ill equipped to keep them and society safe.
Based on my experience, many pits are owned by the wrong people. I am not talking about just gangstas, but young males who get a tremendous ego boost when they adorn themselves with a macho-reputation dog and the looks that go with it; and even young and middle-age females who argue that “bullies” are but victims of media hype and deny that they, like any other breed, come with specific characteristics.
Pits were traditionally bred to have a heightened awareness of dogs, confront them, and follow through with an attack. Not all pit bulls attack dogs, but when they do they are serious about it, like the ones in that article who ripped a Pomeranian apart, and severely injured a powerful livestock guardian breed dog, a great Pyrenees.
The pit owner claims that his dog was provoked: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/dogs-fighting-in-off-leash-park-in-calgary-results-in-death-tears-accusations/article6837962/
I don’t care if he was or wasn’t. A dog who does such damage shouldn’t live.
The owner says that his dog would never hurt anybody. Evidently, that is not the case.
Such attacks result in trauma for all involved: The humans who witness their dog being harmed, the dogs that are injured, but also the attacker who is seized and forced to deal with a totally unfamiliar environment, and might lose his life.

Fortunately, attacks like that are rare, and they can happen anywhere, not just in off-leash parks. I never witnessed a dog seriously injured or killed, but I often do encounter socially inept dogs who shouldn’t mix freely with others: dogs timid and overwhelmed, or out of control wound up. In almost all cases the owners are oblivious bystanders.
A dog park, contrary to popular belief, is the worst place to establish social skills. Dogs who don’t have them get worse, and dogs who have to deal with dogs who don’t have them become irritated or fearful.
Social skills and obedience must be in place before off leash in the big distraction dog park is introduced. That means that the pooch is acclimated to a variety of park users, including children, feels fairly comfortable around them, and acts appropriately, including with small dogs. Multi-use trail parks don't have a small dog area sectioned off, but even in parks that do I see large and tiny ones mingle. So, there is no other way around it: Before a dog is allowed free reign, he must be all-around socially appropriate and owner responsive. Neither segregation nor a muzzle can replace that. Last summer I witnessed a muzzled greyhound relentlessly hunting down a toy-size dog. He couldn’t physically harm, but the little one was terrorized nevertheless. None of the other dogs at the park acted that way, so eeny meeny miny moe – which is the dog who should go? Hint, not the toy.
A dog who might do serious damage should not be in an off-leash park, leashed or not, muzzled or not. Sometimes an owner has no pre-existing knowledge of that level of aggression, but sometimes they do and expose their dog to others anyway.
An off-leash park is also the wrong setting for the scared dog. He will be overwhelmed when his need for personal space and time to observe and process what is going on aren't heeded, and chances are that he’ll become increasingly more sensitized, nervous and reactive, instead of more “socialized”.
A dog who is not dangerous but inappropriate and frightens most other dogs should be on the leash.
New owners of a rescue dog should not visit an off-leash park until they know more about the dog’s social skills, and until a certain amount of attachment has taken place.
Key to a successful park outing is that the dog switches his attention between person and the environment, because then it is more likely than not that he will respond to a command, including come when called. I admit, I didn’t always observe that rule. Our Newf Baywolf was so friendly with everyone that a reliable recall seemed unnecessary, but that was 15 years ago and since I learned a thing or two: even the friendliest dog can irritate another who wants to be left alone.
Now I call my dogs back when I see:
Another dog on the leash
A number of small dogs chasing each other
Rowdy dogs interacting
A dog who gives fear signals toward mine
A dog who irritates mine
Any unusual encounter, for example a child making snow angels, or a grossly overweight and snorting pug wiggling along.
In addition, my dogs have an emergency sit, which means that I can place them into a stationary position and walk away to deal with oncoming trouble myself if need be.
Oh, and don’t rely on the other person’s account of their dog’s emotion, intention and behavior. Recently, when trailing one of my favorite parks with a friend and her dogs, we encountered a dog on the leash who stiffly stared – the hard locked and loaded look – at my friend’s juvenile. When the owner sensed my hesitation, she assured us that her dog “just wants to play”. I told my friend to recall and leash her dogs.

Off-leash means that dogs can enjoy physical freedom.
Off-leash does not mean that every dog enjoys interacting with all other dogs. Many, especially mature adults, are quite content to mind their own business, play with a familiar canine buddy, sniff around, or have fun with their person.
When dogs do interact with one another, owners should keep an astute eye on their dog to ensure that play does not escalate in something more serious. Boisterous, competitive play can quickly change into aggression if one dog gets the upper hand. We see that in sports: As soon as one team is winning, the other initiates aggression or cheats to turn things around.
When one dog aggresses, the other might lose interest and stop the interaction to avoid an injury, but by that time the aggressor can be too pumped to break it off. You can see that scenario played out typically between almost equal or similar, often same gender, dogs. Here is a clip that illustrates that nicely.
Pay attention how the owner dealt with the situation: he was there; he was plugged in and understood his dogs; he split when he needed to in a calm and directive way, without force and corrections, and without taking sides. When the dogs were relaxed again, he praised them. Take note folks – this is how it’s done.

In play, everyone is a willing participant, and authentic play is beautiful to watch.
Canine buddies, so dogs that are familiar with each other, often joyfully play, and unfamiliar dogs can become instant friends when they are young or share the same play style.
Two is company and three a crowd seems to be true for dogs as well: often the best play sessions happen between two dogs attentive to each other, and things can get a little weird if a third one wants to join in.
In normal play, there are little pauses that prevent that the interaction becomes too heated, and then the dogs pick it up again, each one seeking to continue.
A trademark of true play is a loose and fluid body. Tension and hard-eyed staring can be part of a chase invitation between friends, with the staring dog characteristically the one who runs to be chased. Play tension is brief and combined with a “play face” – pulled back lips and an open mouth, contrary to prolonged tension with a clamped up, puckered mouth when a dog feels conflicted.
Tension when dogs first see each other is a sign of nervousness or aggression, not play.
During play, all signals and expressions that are part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire can be used, including bites in the neck/throat area. But again the body is loose, the mouth wide open, tongue visible and teeth covered. The bites are inhibited, and both dogs voluntarily stay in the game.
Here are two puppies playing – ignore the humans babbling in the background.
Normal play is reciprocal: dogs switch between chaser and chasee, and positions - sometimes one dog is on top, then the other.
Sometimes a more powerful dog will even level the field for his buddy, for example lie down or roll on his back.
When dogs truly play, they are still peripherally aware of stimuli around them. They can be interrupted by distractions, including the owner calling, and won't startle and overreact when a dog or person moves into their space. If your dog has you so tuned out that he doesn’t respond to his name anymore, he is too wound and fixated. Interfere.

The responsibility for a conflict free park lies solely with the humans. If we are responsible as a group, we will keep off-leash privileges, and if not, well – I’d certainly hate to lose the opportunity to watch my dog enjoy unrestricted fun. Self-regulation, in combination with legislation and education, might be the measures that prevent that, and prevent breed bans along the way.


  1. Once again an excellent article and straight to,the point. it is what it is and that is what the problem is. The wrong people with the wrong dog make for a bad situation. It is like a young male who, just got his licensed to drive and goes out and gets a muscle car to drive before he masters the skills to drive which is not right. Instead they should get a k car style but that is not cool. It should also be the same for when they get a dog. They should get a more calmer breed that is easier to work with until they have more knowledge, understanding and confidence.

  2. EXCELLENT POST! Silvia you are so bang on. We all need to be acutely aware of what our dogs potiental capabilities are for good and for bad. I am also not in favour of breed bans, but I do feel that many advocates and rescue groups for pitt type breeds need to pull their head out of the sand and be much more responsible with how they portray these dogs in the media, as being "just fiendly goofs" and "nanny dogs." No dog should be put in a nanny position of having to look after children and it is foolish, irresponsible and dangerous to state this. These dogs were NOT selectively bred specifically to attend to children, they were initally a poor man's dog who had the job of being a general all round farm dog, and who were used in bull baiting and dog fighting, the poor man's recreational sport. They can be great dogs with the right people, but the ones who are putting them at the greatest risk are those who refuse to acknowledge all of their capabilities, and resort to blaming their victims and projecting the problems onto other breeds/size of dogs.

    I also love what you have to say about who should and shouldn't be in the park and why.

  3. Ah, just getting caught up on your blog, as usual a wonderful post.
    My guys actually play quite rough, enough that some people are quite shocked when they see it (and hear it as they vocalize quite a bit), but they now easily self-regulate by taking pauses and "shaking it off" (often in unison) and then start up again right away (but calmer). I do have to be careful as my older guy will still play rough and loud even when there's about eight shelties around, who do not appreciate that level of arousal so he gets to practice his sit stay in an exciting environment (with lots of rewards of course) while his younger brother socializes.
    The weird thing is, my older guy closely monitors the younger one's behaviour with me at home and other dogs when they're on leash. The younger dog is still working through some resource guarding, and if he grumbles at me the older one gives me a hard stare and a few warning barks or whines. If we meet a dog in our building that is especially hyper my younger guy gives what I consider "alarm barks"--short, sharp barks that aren't aggressive, but like he thinks that other dog is doing something wrong and he doesn't quite know what to do about it, and it it goes on while my older guy is next to him, the older one will correct the younger one. Yet while off leash the older one is the first to go up to another dog and bark in their face to try to get their attention for a chase, and he invariably singles out the one dog in the park that's looking the most tense. I try to put a stop to it (if he gets in another dog's face I recall him and give him a time out, after about two or three reps of that he stops trying gets his off-leash privileges back). I'm hoping he'll give up on it since some day I expect he'll run into another dog that can actually catch him. (PS: older dog is an almost three-year-old BC/lab mix and the younger guy is a 10 month old GSD with maybe some husky).