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Anywhere that dogs and/or people come into close contact with one another, there’s the potential for conflict. The dog park is no exception. Fights at a dog park are usually dog-on-dog, but if humans don’t know how to get along or if they engage in behaviors that leave something to be desired, tempers can flare, and sometimes, things can get physical.
Fortunately, at the dog park where I take Janice and Leroy, everyone seems to coexist very nicely. We have certain rules (some stated and others just implied) that keep things running smoothly. If someone new comes to the park, there are always some of us who keep an eye out, and if it looks like the newbie might be in need of a little guidance, we provide it in a non-judgmental, encouraging way.
The following are 15 good strategies for avoiding dog park fights (both canine and human). They can go a long way to making a visit to the dog park more enjoyable for everyone involved.
I know that this might sound a bit strange. After all, a dog park is a place you go to exercise your dog! The thing is, a visit to the park shouldn’t be your dog’s only activity, and if he’s just been lying around all day, he’s going to be bursting with pent-up energy. He might be overly enthusiastic with other dogs and end up bitten for his trouble.
This is really just common courtesy. Nobody wants to step in dog poo, and if you just let your dog “drop and go,” that’s a really good way to end up in an altercation with other humans. The other reason you should pick up, of course, is that dog poo can contain parasites and diseases. Your dog might be perfectly healthy, but you should try to set a good example for others whose dogs might be a bit overdue for a worming.
In 5 Things You Should Know About How Dogs Interpret Human Body Language, I told you about a woman I once worked for who had the unnerving habit of maintaining eye contact for far, far too long. The other thing she’d do is stand so close to me that we were practically touching. She did it day in and day out, no matter how many times I asked her to respect my personal space. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer, and I bit her.
Well, okay, I didn’t bite her. I made that part up.
But you can see where I’m going with this. Dogs have “personal space,” the same as humans, so until your dog gets to know another dog, it’s up to you to make sure that he behaves in a mannerly fashion. Running at full tilt toward a strange dog could earn him a bite, as could allowing him to mount another dog, or sniff one that doesn’t want to be sniffed. It’s up to you to teach your dog proper social skills in order to avoid dog park fights due to poor manners.
New owners are the most likely to do keep a dog leashed for the first little while in an off-leash park. This is a bad idea. First of all, it’s a tripping hazard for humans, and there’s also a danger of the dog (or someone else’s dog) getting wrapped up in the leash. Legs can get broken that way. A leashed dog in an off-leash park can also feel threatened. He knows he can’t get away if he feels he has to, and that can actually trigger dog park fights.
Retractable leashes are the absolute worst. Those thin cords can cause terrible injuries when dogs run into them. I know how I’d react if someone else’s stupidity caused Janice or Leroy to be injured, so leave the leash at home. If someone else’s dog gets hurt because of something you do, you have the potential for human conflict.
First of all, if your dog needs a prong collar in order to be controllable, you shouldn’t be at the dog park in the first place. Choke collars should also not be used at the dog park. A choke collar is a metal training device, and there are a couple of problems with them. First, when dogs are playing, there can be a lot of nibbling and nipping around the shoulders and neck. If the play becomes vigorous, your dog’s collar could result in another dog breaking his teeth, and again, you’re not going to be dealing with a happy human.
The other danger is that a dog could end up with his paws stuck in your dog’s collar, and if he can’t get loose, he could break a paw or a leg. If he panics, and can’t get loose, other dogs could become interested, and then your dog ends up in the middle of the mother of all dog park fights.
The best choice for the dog park is a leather or nylon collar. Never a metal one!
Not all dog parks have separate play areas for large and small dogs. My dog park actually has three separate areas: one for big dogs, one for little dogs, and one where both big and small dogs can play together. If you’re not sure how your dog is going to behave with dogs of different sizes, then you’d be best off keeping him amongst his own kind.
What this means is simply that if your Rottweiler is likely to view a Toy Poodle as prey, keep him in the “big dog” section of the park. If your Toy Poodle is a yappy little nuisance, don’t give him the opportunity of annoying the big guys. Sometimes, when you mix up the sizes, small dogs end up getting hurt, and big dogs end up being labeled “vicious” for responding normally to behavior that causes them to be excessively stimulated. It’s simply not worth the risk.
If you keep your small dog away from the big dogs, you’ll never have to worry about this, but a lot of the time, people who have small dogs pick up their dog at the first sign a larger dog might be getting too close. If that large dog has a strong prey drive, picking up a small dog can result in the bigger animal jumping on you. Then you can end up knocked over, and helpless on the ground in one of the nastier types of dog park fights. Just control your dog, ask the owner of the other dog to do the same, and then leave. You shouldn’t have been in a mixed park in the first place.
Fights can erupt very easily if your dog isn’t recall trained. This doesn’t mean simply that your dog will come to you if you call him. It means that he will obey you regardless of the circumstances. If it looks as though play is escalating into conflict, you want to be sure that your dog won’t tune you out – that he’ll come back to you. This is vital for your dog’s safety, and also for that of the other dogs in the park. If your dog is not recall trained, don’t take him to the park until he is.
No, I don’t mean “bully breeds.” I mean dogs that are constantly nipping at other dogs. A little nip as a request to play is fine, but constant nipping is just plain obnoxious. This is another situation where recall training is vital. It’s your job, if it looks like your dog is stressing someone else’s dog, to call him back. If you don’t, or can’t, you could end up involved in two dog park fights: one between the dogs, and the other between you and the owner of the dog that your dog is bullying.
I was brought up in a time before kids were told “Use your words.” We’d regularly beat the living snot out of one another on the playground, and our parents and teachers would just look on and say, “Leave them alone – they’re working it out.”
I actually think we were, and by the time we were out of the primary grades, most of us were pretty civilized creatures. In fact, I sometimes wonder if some of the violence among youth today could be due to expecting impulse control from people who are barely old enough to tie their own shoes. I wonder if physical fighting among young children is actually perfectly natural, and shouldn’t be suppressed. But I suppose that’s a different sort of topic for a different sort of blog.
Anyway, back to the point. You simply can’t let dogs “work it out.” Think of it this way: there are probably some humans that you don’t like, and you’re simply never going to like. Maybe you show your dislike by “using your words.” Maybe you just avoid them.
Dogs can’t “use their words,” and they can’t always avoid dogs that they dislike. If you think letting them fight is going to be a good way of having them “work it out,” you’re very much mistaken. Sure, they’ll work it out. It will be all worked out when one of them is injured to the point of submission, or killed. At the first sign that there’s a potential for a fight, leave.
If your dog hoards treats, he may be aggressive toward other dogs that are getting treats. Dog treats are always going to be present in dog parks, and can be a source of conflict. Some dogs that are prone to resource guarding might even try to guard a dog that they’re playing with, and that can lead to dog park fights. Some dogs are also quite vigilant about guarding their humans. If your dog is a “resource guarder,” it would be best not to take him to the dog park until you’re fully confident that his behavior can be controlled.
This isn’t really related to avoiding dog park fights, but I’m throwing it in here because it’s important. Puppies under 12 weeks don’t have fully developed immune systems, and there’s a very real possibility that one could pick up a disease or parasite that could make him very ill, or even kill him. The same goes for older dogs that aren’t up to date on their shots.
If you want to see dog fights that look like WWE Smackdown, one of the better ways of achieving that is to bring a bitch in heat to the dog park. It’s a really, really bad idea. A pregnant bitch should also not be taken to a dog park. Her hormones are in an uproar, and she could be very hostile toward other bitches.
You might think that I’m flying in the face of all those stories I’ve ever told you, about the conversations I have with people at the dog park, and how so many of us have become good friends. I’m not.
It’s fine to converse at the dog park, but you should do it in a certain way. When I’m chatting with Al, Debbie, Joanne and the rest of the gang down at the dog park, we’re all lined up with our backs to the fence, talking like crazy but never taking our eyes off our dogs. We know that our dogs are our number one priority, and we’d no more look away from them than any responsible parent would look away from a child on the playground in order to talk with the other adults.
Chatting, of course, is not the only way you can become distracted. If you’re texting, or answering phone calls, or doing other things on your smartphone, you’re not paying attention to your dog, and you’re not alert to the possibility of dog park fights. The other thing is if your fellow dog owners see that you’re more absorbed in your phone than you are in your dog, some of them are going to feel that they have to supervise your dog for you, and they’ll probably feel resentful. Your dog also knows when you’re disengaged, and might use the opportunity to “act out” because he knows you’re not paying attention.
I’m not suggesting that you leave your phone at home – just that I don’t think there’s any call, any text, or anything else you can do with your phone that’s more important than looking after your dog.
Following these 15 strategies might not prevent all dog fights, but they’ll certainly reduce the likelihood of one occurring. Mostly, it’s just common sense and paying attention to what’s going on. Dog park fights are considerably easier to avoid than they are to break up, so be vigilant and make sure your dog knows his manners!