I have just gotten off a live webinar hosted by the APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) with Sue Sternberg: “A look at interactions between dogs in public dog parks”. Living in an area where dog parks are very much the norm and seem culturally like the “THE place to take your dog”, I thought I should share some of my notes.

It was a very informative and enjoyable 1.5 hours, hearing Sue talk and watching video that she used to illustrate her talk with. Sue has dedicated considerable time and effort to shooting video across the US in public dog parks and collecting, editing and now presenting this footage in a very educational and also highly entertaining presentation. 

First off, she discussed some design related things that make for better or worse interactions between dogs as well as between people and their dogs. Things like footing makes a difference – sand being better footing in a dog park, because it slows dogs down, and makes them work harder for each step they take. Having more physical interruptions/ bushes, trees etc is better as it naturally will interrupt the dogs – rather than an open field, which grants no physical interruptions. Sue has observed better all-round behaviours in parks that have NO Fence around the perimeter. Dogs tend to display better behaviours (possibly because to be able to go into an un-fenced area they probably are under better control to begin with) and people in un-fenced areas are more in tuned with their dogs, according to Sue. Again – maybe simply  because having no fence means they cannot afford to disconnect from their dogs – they need to keep an eye. A video snippet from a Seattle dog park displayed a sign at the entrance (to a fully fenced park) saying: “Off leash does not mean out of control.” 

Having access to benches in a dog park is according to Sue not the best thing, as people then tend to sit down to chat and socialize and do less interacting with their dogs. In general – the more walking and moving the person does, the more interrupting of dog-to-dog play and the more interacting with their dog – the better.

To summarize the beginning part – the 3 most important components for a safe and healthy experience are:
1. Owner Attentiveness
2. Interruptions
3. Lack of Congestion

Sue has catalogued a whole range of behaviors in dog parks, and if she is indeed on the right track with her findings (which I believe she is) sadly it sounds like people are not seeing what they think they are seeing when they take their dogs out “to play”. What the general public seems to believe is “play” in dog parks, very often can be classified within just a few categories – and it’s questionable whether any of them are actually play. According to Sue’s observations and extensive video-footage, these are the most commonly observed behaviors in off-leash parks:

  • Chase
  • Mobbing
  • Targeting
  • Bullying
  • Humping

She went on to identify the difference between healthy chase and risky chase, showing video footage of both and explaining how to identify the difference. Ironically – the video footage she showed of healthy chase was NOT filmed in a dog park, but within a play group at her shelter at a trainer’s course. She was saying she could actually not find examples of healthy chase in her extensive video collections from dog parks. Risky chase was a different matter and dog parks had provided ample examples of that.

For dog owners, the main point in learning to see the difference lies in being able to identify a few key differences in body language. Healthy chase involves ears back on the dog doing the CHASING, tail high or level on the dog being chased, and healthy chase is most often initiated by the chasee. In Risky chase the ears are forward on the chaser, the tail is TUCKED on the chasee, the chaser has an open mouth, and there is body slamming. 

Sue went on to talk about and define the other commonly observed behaviors as well: mobbing, targeting, bullying and also concluded this section by stating that dog parks largely are made up of groups of UNFAMILIAR dogs. And that unfamiliar dog groupings is not conducive to PLAYING. The healthiest play-interactions that she has observed and witnessed are dogs playing one-on-one with a familiar buddy or one-on-one play together with a Human Being!

As the presentation was going on, and questions were allowed in the chat forum, I had to ask a burning question…something I have certainly started to see as a Big correlation, not a coincidence – and something I seem to witness a lot in the dog-people I come in contact with. My question to Sue was “I am wondering if You see a correlation between leash reactivity (“Leash aggression”) and perhaps too much dog park time / too much dog-dog play / or inappropriate off leash play?”
Sue’s answer…”Absolutely; I see a correlation between too much play and leash aggression.” Dog-to-dog play can become addictive, and create out of control behaviours. Add a leash to that dog – and now you have frustration. “Socialization” does not make these dogs better. To help these dogs, the people need better control of their dogs.

Not too long ago, I “attended” a long 20 hour video seminar on Aggression with John Rogerson: another one of the Great’s in the dog training world:World’s Leading Dog Trainer/Behaviourist.
In his seminar he talks a lot about the dog park issue as well. He feels that perhaps in our atte
mpts to “socialize” our dogs, and especially through strong dog park culture – we are creating feral / dog-addicted-dogs / out of our “domestic” dogs. Echoing his feelings, Sue also said – one of the best gifts we can give our puppies and young dogs is not to try to “socialize” them (for the sake of being social), but teach them how to IGNORE other dogs; how to focus on their human. What puppies should be learning in puppy class is that their HUMAN is incredibly important! And when allowing free play and interactions; there should be a ton of interruptions. The basic rule of thumb being: interrupt! (Which I am happy to say I prescribe to and certainly am a big proponent of the idea that puppy training is about the pup-human relationship; and when allowing puppy play – tons of interruptions.)

Back to the Dog Park.
The culture of going to the Dog Parks is alive and strong, and probably won;t change much, at least right now. So – what to do about this information?

Well, for one; try to learn to Read your Dog. What is his body posture saying? Is the interaction a good experience for him? Is your dog feeling safe? 
Or maybe Safety is not the issue. Maybe he is having a grand time…but might it be that he is actually practising BAD behavior?  Maybe he needs to be interrupted, not so much because he is causing another dog suffering, but because REHEARSAL of a bad behavior is also not a good thing?

And as his guardian – if nothing else; one of the most important behaviours to be on the look-out for that Sue stressed is actually very simple to observe: WHEN (or IF) THE DOG’S TAIL IS TUCKED BETWEEN THE LEGS: YOU NEED TO INTERVENE!
Get the dog out of there (as in: leave!) or – get yourself in between him and the other dogs so you can help him out, put a barrier between him and the other dog or simply: Pick him up! Your dog needs your help! Sue spoke very strongly about taking a stand for your dog and helping him out by picking up if and WHEN needed: Your small, medium and even large dog – when they need your help. Pick them up! IT’s your job as a guardian to protect them and offer help. 

With those words I will close off and leave this as Food For Thought for you. I think the last paragraph really summarizes it for me: Is the Dog Feeling Safe? If not – we need to note the sign(s) of how he communicates that: EARLY (!) so we can intervene and help and also respect what the dog is saying. 
One of the most difficult client conversations I have had was with a woman who had a very submissive, frightened  “tail tucking” dog who clearly did NOT enjoy being forced to meet strange dogs in the off leash dog park daily. When I suggested to the woman that perhaps this dog is not a good candidate for the dog park and I would look for other was of getting the dog out for exercise, she responded with enormous frustration: “But we’ve had dogs before and the dog park is SO MUCH a part of our Life-style! That’s what we DO! Every day! That’s where we meet our friends!”

It made me very sad that there was no regard for the dog or what the dog was so clearly saying about the situation. We DO have it all wrong if the reason we go to the dog park is because WE want to hang out there!

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Comments ( 2 )

  • MtngrrlMar 07, 2012

    Thanks for sharing the great summary. I would do anything to be able to bring Ian Dunbar into the mix as some of this would be new to his more classic "socialize your puppy" approach. I appreciate and agree with the notes from Sue's webinar, but would love to see if Dr. Dunbar's perspectives have changed with the more current managed socialized puppy class movement. Thanks again 🙂

  • Annette Young, MA, CPDT-KAMar 08, 2012

    The Legendary Dr. Dunbar: the "father of socialization"…yes, it would be very interesting to have this discussion face to face with him, wouldn't it? and be able to ask him all these questions relating to puppy play directly. As it turns out – of course that may be possible (!) as he will be in Calgary in just a few short weeks. While I am not able to attend myself, I am hoping one of my friends attending may be able to shed some light on his latest points of view on this after his seminar. A couple of years ago, I did, however, email him and asked specifically about his views on puppy play in classes and interruptions. My understanding before emailing him was that his views on puppy play have evolved from the early days of tons of free play in the name of "you must socialize your puppy" and that he may do things a bit differently today. Indeed that seems to be the case; in training classes he now favours lots of short training sessions interspersed with very short play and he is now favoring more and MORE interruptions during play in puppy class. The words he used were "Yup, uninterrupted play produces a social hooligan."

    So – how do we get the word out there to the general public? I agree with one of my mentors, Chris Bach, that the word "socialization" is not the best choice of word – it makes one think specifically about things like "my puppy must learn to love being social and play with everybody person AND dog"…whereas words like "ENRICHMENT" or "EXPOSURE" or would put the puppy-raising process into a different framework.

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