In an earlier blog this month I discussed dogs who should not be at dog parks. You have owned your dog for a good time and watched his behaviors in a variety of situations. You have decided your dog may be a good candidate for a dog park and you want to visit one. However, your dog is not the only dog you need to worry about. No matter how well your dog would do at a dog park, there are other dogs to consider. Before you enter the park observe dogs and humans closely.
Good play, or green lights, will include dogs that look relaxed and “loose.” Do you see dogs exchanging roles during play? (Not all dogs may exchange roles but if they are giving each other a chance to stop and determine if they want to keep going as they are, that is OK). There may be play bows, air pawing and a general relaxed look to everyone. Are tails held relatively level with the back (dog build allowing – some breeds have tails that are set higher, over the back) and wagging loosely? If a dog signals he does not want to play, are the other dogs respecting his space? Are dogs taking time to stop playing and relax? Do the faces look relaxed? Is the mouth open and soft with teeth covered? These are all positive signs. It does not mean things will not change if something happens but these are good signs.
What about behaviors to use caution around? Stressed dogs are ones I would not want my dogs around. Pinning ears, lowered tails, cowering and trying to look smaller, dogs are things I do not like to see. Dogs who are lip licking, showing the whites of the eyes and yawning when not tired are displaying stress. Look for hyper-vigilance or as I call it “Looking like a cheerleader in a slasher movie.” Do you see dogs frequently rolling over and exposing their bellies? Are there dogs pacing or looking for escape and avoiding people and other dogs? Stressed dogs are more likely to end up in trouble. Their tolerance levels are low and they are afraid. If you see stressed dogs in a dog park, it may be prudent to rethink visiting that day. If you begin to see these behaviors, I would seriously consider leaving – honestly, when I went to dog parks if I saw this happening, I left. Now let’s look at dog park red flags.
When you see dogs mounting each other this is not necessarily dominance. Mounting is also done when a dog is confused or stressed. This behavior can become problematic. A pack of dogs chasing a smaller dog is very worrisome. If I see dogs giving hard stares, using stiff body language, repeatedly laying the head across the shoulder of another dog and tails up high (when not part of their normal build or dogs whose tails are naturally up high due to breed now held low), I am going to leave. Dogs that are hovering and pouncing on entering dogs, guarding water bowls or people, etc., are things I do not like to see at dog parks. Do I see bullying in play: dogs not respecting requests to back off from other dogs, lots of body checks and harassment, constant slamming other dogs to the ground? It can be a short step from rude play to an all out fight. Do I see owners punishing stress behaviors instead of removing the dogs from the park? Punishing stress increases stress and the chance of something happening. I would not enter a dog park or I would immediately leave if I see these things occurring.
Other red flags I will leave if I see are dog walkers/trainers bringing their dogs to parks or if I hear people talking about bringing newly adopted dogs to parks.
If the overall behavioral environment at a dog park is good, then for the right dog, carefully used dog parks can be beneficial. However, when the atmosphere turns, dog parks become riskier. Be vigilant as what looks like a fun time can turn fast to not so much fun.