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— April 3, 2012 —

Doggie Parks. Fun or Folly?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Going to the doggie park might be the most dangerous thing you ever do with your dog.

This is an article that I hate to write. It seems that once again, a dog has been killed at a Chicago Dog Park.

What most people don’t realize is that this happens once or twice every year. I personally avoid dog parks. I have not taken my dogs to one in years and I recommend my clients use extreme caution if they visit dog parks.

This advice holds especially true if they happen to have a pit bull type dog. Now, I know I have said in the past that pit bulls are great dogs and they should not be banned and they have a bad rap and all that. I still stand by that. What I have also said is that even if you have a dog-friendly pit bull, you need to be cautious in how you socialize your dog.

I consider myself an advocate for the American Pit Bull Terrier, the “pit bull”, and any other short haired muscular dog that gets judged based on its looks. I have a couple of pit bulls currently and have owned and rescued many other pit bull types that have gone to be great companion dogs. What I am NOT is a member of the “Pollyanna Pit Bull Brigade.” These are the people who claim that a pit bull is just like any other dog. Well, they’re not. Every breed has specific requirements that have to be addressed through training. The pit bull is no different. Specifically, I accept the fighting history of the breed. There are variations within the breed, from dogs that would not fight unless truly provoked, to dogs that fight over anything or nothing at all. It is the owner’s responsibility to be educated on this and handle their dog accordingly.

The owner of the pit bull in this instance said (paraphrased), “The other dog started it.” Well, that may or may not be true, but his dog finished it. This is the main reason for my concern with pit bull types at dog parks. The pit bull has been selected for hundreds of years to not back down from a fight.

I also believe that this individual dog probably had some history of dog aggression. I know what assumptions are worth, but I’d bet any amount of money that this dog had been in fights before. Generally, a well raised pet dog doesn’t kill another dog the first time it has an altercation. A responsible pit bull owner knows their dog. If it has begun to show dog aggression, the dog park would be the wrong place to take the dog. I myself have a 10 year old pit bull mix who is dog aggressive. Gunnar demonstrated to me, many years ago, that he should not go to dog parks. He didn’t have to kill a dog for me to “get it.”

Lastly, many of the dogs at the park are likely getting their only taste of real exercise and stimulation for the week. It makes for a very excited dog with low impulse control and possibly bad “dog manners.” This hyper-stimulated mental state is the main behavioral issue that I have been writing about. Imagine a bunch of those dogs thrown into a dog park together. You can now see how it only takes a small spark to set off a major incident.

Even knowing all this, I’m sure that many people will continue to take their dogs to off leash parks. If you are one of those people, I’d like to recommend the following things to help keep your dog safe.

1. SUPERVISE YOUR DOG! Too many people drink their latte and read the paper instead of watching their dog. Remember, not all dogs at the park are as nice as your dog. You can only be responsible for your dog, but you can watch out for other dogs that shouldn’t be there.

2. Learn to recognize problem behaviors BEFORE they turn into a fight. Resource guarding, humping, stare downs, overly excited wrestling and intense tug are a few of the things that can evolve into a real fight quickly. In our daycare, we train our employees that if two dogs are playing and they cannot be stopped verbally, it’s too rough. At that point, we break them up and have them take a breather.

3. Your dog must recall immediately, every time. If you see a problem starting, you should be able to call your dog away from it. If your dog doesn’t recall reliably, more training is in order. I was once told by another owner that doggie park was “their time” and that I shouldn’t expect my dog to listen there. Please re-read the opening line for this Tail.

4. Don’t ever, “Let the dogs work it out.” It’s just a bad idea. Someone said this to me at a dog park many years ago. Moments later I found myself pulling his dog off of my dog as he stood by frozen. I had recognized that his dog was about to become aggressive and asked him to get control of his dog. This idea of letting dogs work out their differences means we are trusting animals to behave like humans and discuss issues in a rational manner.

5. Dogs should be separated by size. I know of one dog park in Chicago (Wiggly Field) where there is a small section fenced off. Owners of very small breeds should seek out these separate areas and use them, especially if there is a less social dog at the park that day.

6. Learn to recognize the less social dogs. Avoid them. If you see the dog at the park who is walking around stiff, head up high, tail very erect, (possibly un-neutered) being a tough guy, pick a different park. After seeing these displays many times, it’s like a neon sign. I can walk to a dog park fence and pick him out in a second. Learning to recognize if he’s there can be a life saver.

7. If you have a dog that has been in a couple of fights, SEE A TRAINER! You may be unintentionally encouraging aggression, or you may have a dog that is growing into a less social dog, like my own dog. A qualified trainer can help you decipher what is happening and be able to help modify your dog’s behavior.

8. Exercise caution if a dog walker shows up with 10 dogs. Not only is this illegal, it’s dangerous. There is no way one person can properly supervise that many dogs.

I hope that I never read about another dog being killed at a dog park again. With better understanding of dog behavior and an honest assessment of our own dogs temperament we can avoid another family loosing their dog to a fight at the park.