Is Your Dog a Social Butterfly or a Shrinking Violet?

Now that spring is here, it’s time to quit hibernating, get outside to enjoy the fresh air and meet all your dog park buddies that you haven’t seen during the long, cold winter!  Be aware, though, that not all dogs are as anxious to go to the dog park as their owners.  Some dogs find dog parks very stressful and would rather not be there at all!  Other dogs, like gregarious Golden and Labrador Retrievers, tend to be very comfortable in a social situation and should do just fine, although there are exceptions.

Before talking about some of the problems inherent in dog parks, be assured that most dogs do just fine, and dog parks can be a wonderful place to take your dog.  However, owners should have at least a minimal understanding of dogs and parks so they can do what’s best for their dog.

How can you tell if your dog is happy or unhappy at the local park?  Dogs are quite sophisticated social animals – like humans, they live in groups and have highly developed body language with which to communicate.  If you notice a dog yawning, lip licking, sniffing, barking or sitting, that dog is giving out signals that indicate a level of discomfort.  Unless these signals are excessive, it does not necessarily mean that the dog is unduly stressed or frightened; however, it does mean the dog is not entirely comfortable in this particular situation.  This dog can remain at the park and, if regularly taken, should eventually learn to relax and have fun – perhaps he’ll find a particular playmate that suits him.

Some indications that a dog is actually afraid and in over his head are: hiding, trembling, panting, constantly avoiding other dogs, or showing the whites of his eyes.  I would recommend removing this dog from this particular situation and doing some remedial socialization work – gradually expose the dog to higher levels of dog-related activity.  Some dogs may never feel comfortable in a dog park environment, and they shouldn’t be required to go. If you have any questions about your dog’s comfort level at dog parks, think about hiring a certified dog trainer (www.ccpdt.org) to do a short session with you at the park.

There are also other issues to be aware of at dog parks.  One of the biggies being “dog park bullies”; these are often adolescent dogs who are testing their new-found physical prowess.  Owners don’t always recognize the signs of a bully, and have the “let the dogs work it out” attitude.  Sometimes this is acceptable, but if a particular dog is being picked on, the dogs are packing up on one dog, or a particular dog is bullying everyone, that issue needs to be addressed – it will not “work itself out.”  The point of a dog park is for the dogs to have a good social outlet and have fun – if they are being bullied, that isn’t happening.  If the owner of the bully will not control his dog, the other owners must intervene to protect the dog being bullied – all dogs should be removed from the vicinity of the dog being bullied so that the owner can get her dog and take him out of the park.

If a dog is actually starting fights, this could be an indication of an aggressive dog, rather than a bully.  Aggressive dogs should not be at the dog park at all.  The owner of an aggressive dog should consult with a qualified, certified dog trainer and behavior consultant for advice.  To find a certified trainer in your area, go to the Certification Council for Professional Dog Traners (CCPDT) web site at www.ccpdt.org.

Sometimes play looks like fighting; however, the dogs have signals (such as play bows, prancing, etc.) that indicate they are about to engage in play.  Humans do the same thing – imagine if you were walking down the street, minding your own business, and someone tackled you!  But, if you’re on a football field, that behavior is totally acceptable.  These signals are called “precursors.”  Another way to tell if dogs are playing is to separate them, hold the dog you feel is the aggressor and see what the other dog does – if he comes back and tries to engage the “aggressor,” then it’s probably play.

Finally, owners of small dogs should be aware of a behavior called “instinctive drift.”  This means that a larger dog sees a small dog run by and mistakes it for prey; the large dog will grab and shake the small dog, which can result in serious injury and even death.  Instinctive drift does not mean that the large dog is aggressive – he simply clicked into prey drive instinctively.  This dog probably doesn’t even realize the small dog is a dog – he just thinks it is prey.  Small dogs can also have instinctive drift; however, it’s the size difference between a large dog and small dog that creates a dangerous situation.  If your dog park does not have an area exclusively for small dogs, you might consider talking to the Parks department about creating such an area – after all, small dogs need to socialize, too!

In summation, some of the advantages of dog parks are the opportunity for both canine and human social interaction, mental and physical stimulation for our dogs, and a safe place for dogs to play, exercise and meet other dogs.  Although it is not a good idea to bring food into a dog park, it is an excellent opportunity to work on basic obedience with your dog.  You can practice calling your dog to you – sits, downs, stays and so on.  Just remember that the distraction level is very high at a dog park, and you need to start with very simple behaviors and work up.  Some of the disadvantages of dog parks are the potential for disease and parasites, aggression toward both humans and dogs, potential for dogs to learn inappropriate behavior, and dogs becoming overly aroused and out of control.

If you would like to have more control over your dog park, consider petitioning your Parks department to allow the regular, responsible owners to set and enforce rules and regulations in exchange for maintaining the park.  Another option is to have a “closed” park with members who pay a fee to have access.  Regardless, all dog parks should have a set of posted rules at the entrance to the park and owners should do their best to educate themselves about dogs.  For a list of excellent books on dogs, go to the Animal Ed  web site at www.animal-ed.com.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.