Thursday, October 4, 2012

Are dog parks great places for dogs?

Dog Parks are often considered a great place for dogs but is that really true? Recent studies have shown that dog parks are actually not such a safe environment for your dog. Sue Sternberg, well known author and dog behaviorist, who has spent the last few years filming and observing dog interactions recently revealed that she identified 5 behaviors in dog parks throughout the United States:

  • bullying
  • targeting
  • group chasing
  • mobbing (ganging up)
  • hunting

These behaviors have been identified among groups of unfamiliar dogs such as dogs that happen to meet in dog parks. Dogs are often no different then unsupervised children on a playground and tend to engage in mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically abusive behavior.

Is a dog park a risky place? Generally a dog park is a very risky and unsafe place for you to take your dog. There are always exceptions of course. Those exceptions are dog parks that provide more than just a hang out place for humans. Dog parks such as Fort Funston, Carmel Beach and Point Isabel just to name a few in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. What makes these places a better place for your dog? Dog owners usually tend to be on the move, are more likely to engage with their dog and beaches are simply hard to beat when it comes to wearing out your dog. Water and sand will provide what a small and enclosed area in a city cannot.

When visiting places like these ensure you respect local laws. Do not let your dog off-leash when leash laws are in place. You are not only setting yourself up to fail. Respect fellow visitors with our without a dog. It is not a right but a privilege to have your dog out and about.

Sue Sternberg has some great off-leash park rules:
  1. Recognize that your dog may not get along with ALL other dogs, and that some combinations simply don't work. It is fine to leave the dog run and come back another time, or take a personal, one-on-one walk with your dog in the neighborhood and come back in a few minutes to see if the run has emptied out a bit.
  2. Consider leaving your cell phone off, or not taking calls, unless it's an emergency, during your dog's time at the dog run. The more attention you give your dog, and the more you participate, the better the relationship. This is a good time for you and your dog to be together, and doesn't your dog deserve your undivided attention?
  3. Make sure your dog's play partner(s) are playing fair, and that your own dog is playing fair, too. This means that each dog takes turn pushing and initiating physical contact (being on top) and that neither dog is pushing another dog relentlessly. There should be frequent role reversals in healthy play.
  4. Make sure your own dog is actually playing with another dog, and not just responding in a defensive, deflective way based on fear. 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). If not, he may not have felt that what he was previously experiencing was really playful or fun for him.
  5. Watch your own dog, and make sure he is not targeting ONE other dog exclusively and going after that particular dog relentlessly - even if you think your dog is "just playing." Playing is a balance between the dogs, a give and take - not one dog pushing and jumping and mouthing the other dog over and over and over again. If your dog is doing this to another dog, go and get him, or call him to you and get him under control. The same holds true if your dog is the target of another dog's obsession. Go and rescue your dog from the situation.
  6. Watch out for "ganging" up; when two or more dogs "gang up" and relentlessly chase or surround another dog. Have all the owners call their dogs, and probably one or more of the gang members should leave the run for that time, as they'll usually start back up again.
  7. Toy dogs should play with other toy or smallish dogs, and should absolutely not be in the run with the big dogs. A predatory attack can happen instantly and without warning. The risk to toy dogs is too great.
  8. Beware of high-speed games of chase. Alone, two dogs playing chase is probably fine, but if other dogs join in, then a high-speed game of chase can arouse other dogs, and in an instant this can turn into a predatory attack. It's hard to get control once dogs begin this high-speed chase, which is why you want to catch it early, and why you want to spend a lot of time training your dog in the run. You want control when your dog starts to get out of control. But you can't wait until he is out of control to train your dog to listen to you. Train him while he is relatively calm.
  9. Participate in your dog's playtime. Interrupt every few minutes by calling your dog to you, rewarding with at least one treat every two seconds, and keep your dog with you for at least 10 seconds. For this entire 10 seconds, praise, pet and reward your dog often enough so that he doesn't have a chance to look away from you. This encourages attention, and allows your dog to calm down and focus on a human in between aroused playtimes.
  10. Playing with other dogs is very, very fun for your dog, sometimes more fun than being with people, and sometimes more fun than being with YOU. This puts you at a disadvantage in every other situation with your dog. It is important to include yourself in your dog's play activities. Watch your dog, encourage your dog, interrupt your dog, play with your dog.
  11. Call your dog to come to you frequently, not just when it's time to leave. By calling him over to you frequently, rewarding him with something valuable, and then releasing him back to play, you can avoid the difficulty many dog park frequenters experience: the dog who can't be caught when it's time to leave. Make sure that calling your dog to come to you doesn't just signal the time to leave. By calling him and having him sit by your side, receive your praise and petting for a brief time before releasing him with permission to go back and play teaches your dog that coming to you is merely a pleasant interruption, and not an end to his fun.

Info from: Sue Sternberg's book, Out and About With Your Dog available from


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