What People Don’t Know…

Socializing a dog is an act of love by a person who wants their dog to be comfortable and confident around people, other animals, and in daily life.  Sometimes, these well-intentioned attempts backfire and do more harm than good. What people don’t know can hurt their dog, and other dogs. 

Today I was training with a client on the outside of a dog park.  This is a common place for me to train as it allows us to practice either ignoring other dogs or polite greetings through the fence.  I’m going to tell a story of what we saw there today. 

An hour at the dog park

The park is divided into two spaces, one for small dogs and the other for big dogs. The small dog side was very busy with a dozen or so dogs milling about, playing chase, and overall being appropriate and having a good time.  On the big dog side, it was fairly quiet with two lovely beagles and a young golden retriever were playing nicely.   My client pooch did great, greeting a few of the littles and the beagles and retriever very appropriately. I’m so proud of how far he has come! 

A few more dogs arrived on the big dog side and I noticed a young giant breed dog enter. His behaviour was markedly different from his fellows. He was clearly uncomfortable with frantic appeasing body language and piloerection (hackles) visible from the top of his neck to the base of his tail.  I pointed him out to my client and explained why the dog park was not an appropriate place for him. He was overwhelmed and not coping in a healthy way. 

 

Just then, from up the hill, we see another young giant-breed dog approaching. He was an intact male mastiff and his people were trying hard to do the right thing: stopping every step, asking him to sit before taking another step towards the park, trying to teach him self-control. When he reached the park, very excited, he and the other large breed pup have a good go at it through the fence. The owners pulled them apart and tried to introduce them a few more times, but the fighting through the fence just got louder each time.  Eventually, the owners of the new dog gave up and walked away, complaining about the aggressive dog inside. 

After a bit, the dog inside the park leaves and the young mastiff goes inside. The barking inside the park increased significantly. The young 100+lb dog jumped on the other dogs, harassed them, and generally ignored any and all social cues asking for space.  Bluntly, he was being a bully – a real jackass. 

 

Sadly his owner doesn’t see it that way. The other owners are left to pull him off of their dogs, step between him and their dogs, and try to navigate the situation.   The mastiff owners looked on, apparently confident that their dog was behaving appropriately or that the other dogs were capable of changing his behaviour. 

I saw a number of frustrated owners trying to figure out what to do, or even if they should intervene. One very obese retriever is being harassed by the mastiff.  He ignored her snapping and snarling, giving her no space or respite. Unfortunately, the people around her also ignored her pleas for help as she would try to move behind people to escape him. 

Now, if you asked all of these dog owners whether they were doing their best to raise their dogs to be well-socialized and give them the best quality of life, they would probably all say “Yes!”.  If you asked them if the dog park was a great way to socialize their dogs, they would all say “Absolutely!”  If you asked them if their dog enjoyed the dog park, they would say “Definitely!” 

Are they right though?  

Yes. No. 

That’s the problem. The dog park can be a great place. People who go there are probably great people. Dogs can have a great time. 

But.

Only if the people understand dog behaviour, only if they respond to it, only if they respect it, and only if they recognize their role in shaping it. 

The dogs who were being bullied needed an advocate.  The young overwhelmed pup needed to be taken out to observe and meet dogs from out side of the fence.  The bullying mastiff needed someone to step in to teach him how to greet politely and to interrupt him when he ignores signals from other dogs. 

 

This is not a post telling you not to visit the dog park. My heart breaks for the dogs who were unwittingly put into this position, for the dogs who are put into this position every day.  I feel for that overwhelmed giant-breed pup, that marauding unguided mastiff, the frustrated and scared targets of his bullying. 

I would bet that none of the owners saw what I did. Instead of the potential harm and future problems, they likely thought their dogs could figure things out on their own.   They thought they were setting their dogs up for success.