My Dog Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

How often have I heard those words? Especially right before sweet, friendly Poopsy, on her first visit to the dog park, lit into one of the regular mutts?

The weather has been awesome lately. The first T-shirt weather of the year, with mornings that make you want to forget you have anything to do for the rest of the week. Far cry from last winter’s record snows.

People who would never romp outside with their dog when it’s ten degrees in the sun are now waking up with the notion that it’s a great day to go to the park. There’s an influx of newbies up at Mt. Airy Dog Park, most of whom have not been to a dog park in over six months, if ever.

don't be fooled by appearances. Any dog will bite under the right circumstances. Even darling Julia.
don’t be fooled by appearances. Any dog will bite under the right circumstances. Even darling Julia.

Most people who own breeds with tough reputations know to be alert in a strange environment. Owners of Golden Retrievers and other family friendly dogs are often convinced their babies are harmless, regardless of how little socialization the dog has had.

Last week a pretty Golden/Sheltie mix showed up with her mom. It had words with one of our regular pups as soon as it came in the gate. My friend John suggested to this woman that the dog was not suitable for the park and brought his three dogs back to the rear of the park where a number of us were hanging out.

The stranger followed with her dog, about 15 yards behind. As soon as she got within 20 feet of our pack, her dog began milling in with the regular crew. When it got to the center of the pack, it went after a grey hound, then after Penny again. Whereupon John waded in, grabbed the offender by the haunches and lifted up its hind end (SOP for ending dog fights).

The dog ceased attacking Penny and bit John several times instead while her owner stood there and did nothing. The dog was wearing a pinch collar. Pinch collars are not a substitute for a regular dog collar. You can’t grab a pinch collar, so no one could haul the dog off John.  Most of us were consumed with keeping our dogs out of the fray and could not help.

John had many unkind things to say to the newcomer, which I will not repeat. I will say he was loud and his face was purple.

It doesn’t matter who your dog is. If you go to a dog park, there is a good chance your dog will get into a fight at least once.

Sometimes a dog just doesn’t have the temperament for social behavior. Sometimes two dogs that get along well with everyone else, despise each other for inexplicable reasons. Mostly it is a result of owner ignorance of canine behavior and can be prevented.

Chances are I’m preaching to the choir. but I’m going to tell you what I know about preventing dog fights anyway.

First things first. If you nave never been to a dog park before, consider your dog’s level of socialization with other dogs. How does it act when you meet other dogs on a walk? Does it ever have dog visitors or play dates? How does it respond to other animals at the vet? The less exposure your dog has to other dogs, the more careful you need to be.

What is your dog’s temperament? Is it ever food aggressive? Does it challenge you, or is it submissive? The best dog for dog park visits is somewhere in the middle: not a bully, and also not likely to be threatened by overtures from other dogs.

If you dog tends to bully other dogs, it may not be suitable for dog park visits. Fearful dogs can be socialized, but it’s best to go slow.

If you pull into the dog park and you see 50 cars in the lot, perhaps save your first visit for another day or a quieter time. There are too many unknowns when there is huge crowd.

Do not make your first visit when you get home from work. Most of the dogs at the park after work have been cooped up all day long, and they are wound up. Meanwhile, their owners are exhausted and perhaps less alert.

Early in the morning is a better bet (that’s when I go). People who tend to their dogs before breakfast are generally knowledgeable owners. Many are older and have older, more settled dogs. And the park is likely to be emptier.

Dogs at the fence line will display a variety of behaviors
Dogs at the fence line will display a variety of behaviors

Whenever you approach a dog park, watch the dogs who come up to the fence carefully. Are they making bright, happy yips and bouncing? Are they trash talking? Or are they menacing and throwing themselves at the fence? Dogs love mock battles. Learn the difference between “Yo’ Mama” and “I’m going to rip your lungs out and eat them.” If you’re not sure, ask the owner.

The most opportune place for a fight is at the gate. Dogs are territorial, and may see the park as their domain with the gate as the portal. Dogs think it’s their duty to guard portals if they are anywhere nearby. Guarding may just mean standing on the other side of the gate and sniffing the new guy when he comes in. Or it can involve the aforementioned lung-ripping.

For this reason, I like to hang out in the rear of the park. It reduces guarding behavior. If you are in the corral, and a dog inside the gate is menacing, do not hesitate to call the owner and ask them to remove their dog from the gate so you won’t have any problems when you enter.

If there’s a crowd of dogs just inside the gate, go around the pack, not through it. Dogs that frequent the park will form packs. Pack behavior is more volatile than one-on-one behavior with dogs.

You may see a crowd of happy, friendly dogs hanging out and think, “Oh, good, lots of pups for my little Fido to play with.”

Dog-Pack

DO NOT APPROACH A DOG PACK.

I can’t stress this strongly enough. Fido is likely to stick close to you, at least until he feels comfortable. If you approach a group of people (who are incidentally surrounded by their dogs), he will go with you and may feel obligated to check them out for your protection, no matter how uncomfortable he is. It’s the equivalent to walking into a biker bar on Saturday night. Anything can happen.

Walk around the park with Fido in areas where there are no dogs, or single dogs with their owners and let him get his bearings. Let him meet new dogs one-on-one. After he’s used to being there and is familiar with some of the dogs, he is going to be more comfortable around a group of the same dogs, and they will be more likely to accept him into the pack.

Let your dog proceed at a speed he is comfortable with. Don’t try to force him to meet dogs if he is uncomfortable. If he displays aggressive behavior (not play fighting), remove him immediately.

Some dogs with dominance issues will attempt to hump every dog in sight.  Some dogs will accept this behavior and some dogs go ballistic. Some dogs are possessive with balls and toys, some are food aggressive (the reason food and treats are banned in many dog parks). Get to know the temperaments of the dogs around you.

My Shadda only lets Max dominate her. If anyone else tries to mount her, she gets snappish. If a new pup is bouncing all over her, she will sometimes start a low growl that tells me she’s upset. I’ll try to shoo the other dog off and keep it away from her. Meanwhile, the owner of the big, friendly lug is waving it off, saying “Oh, he’s just a big baby, he’s really friendly.” Meanwhile, I’m desperately trying to keep a fight from breaking out because the “friendly” dog ignores boundary signals.

When a bouncy dog with dominant tendencies runs up to a strange dog, you have no clue how the other dog is going to react. If the other dog has been previously attacked, it will feel threatened and act accordingly. If the owner is freaking out over your big, friendly lunk, they may not be afraid of your dog. They may be responding to the level of anxiety their own dog is feeling.

Never disregard another owner who is trying to keep their dog away from your dog. They know something you don’t. Never disregard your dog’s signals. If they are uncomfortable, remove them to another part of the park.

The “sweet” Golden mix that attacked Penny was probably very nervous when it walked into the pack. While we didn’t see exactly what happened, it is likely that “Goldie” was on edge when the Greyhound, a known butt sniffer, checked her out. Similar to getting bumped in the previously mentioned biker bar, it set off a chain reaction.

Goldie probably would have been just fine if the Greyhound had sniffed her out without the crowd around. Or maybe not. But it would have been easier to intervene without a dozen other dogs around.

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