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Karen B. London
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Culture of Dog Parks
A change is in order

Dog parks have always been controversial, but they’ve also always provided opportunities for dogs to run and play off leash in wide-open spaces. It’s hard to deny the cliché that dog parks create both the best of times and the worst of times. To me, the overall issue is that the culture of dog parks is a work in progress and I have strong feelings about the direction I’d like that progress to take.

If I had my choice, there would be big changes in the overall behavioral norms for people at dog parks. Specifically, I would love to see a world of dog parks in which:

1. People would always be attentive to their dogs, watching them and monitoring them.

2. People would know when and how to intervene in dog-dog interactions and they would do so. This would require that people understand dog body language and behavior in general, and know their own dog’s limits and comfort zones specifically.

3. Only people and dogs who are social, friendly, and capable of handling a huge range of interactions would attend. In other words, it would not be considered reasonable to bring dogs with aggression issues to the park in order to “socialize” them.

4. People would set their dogs up for success at the dog park. For example, if a dog is fine around other dogs with a ball but acts possessive around the disc, then people would only bring a ball and save the disc play for places with no other dogs.

5. It would be standard practice to train dogs to respond to cues that are useful at the dog park. That is, dogs would reliably sit, stay, come, and leave it in response to cues from their guardians.

6. People would interact with their dogs, playing with them and enjoying time together along with allowing their dogs to play with other dogs. I’d like it to become taboo to come to the dog park to hang out with human friends while ignoring the dogs.

At your local dog park, are people behaving in ways that are conducive to positive experiences for both people and dogs or are some changes in order?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by abby | April 12 2013 |

I think your standards for a public dog park are a little high. Maybe good for a play date for your dog and his friends. To ask the general public to be more in tune with dog behavior is ludicrous. Most people at the dog park we go to can barely recognize breeds much less read their dogs body language. The park we go to is nice but there are too many young kids running around with no pate ts in sight. Somebody is going to get hurt as most of these notepads ts havent taught them about how to approach a dog.

Submitted by Nina | April 16 2013 |

How is it in anyway "ludicrous"to ask that dog owners learn a bare minimum about dog behaviour? It's incredibly irresponsible and selfish to have zero interest in understanding how your dog behaves and then forcing it on other people and their dogs. But yeah, let's keep pandering to the lowest common denominator who make dog parks generally unpleasant places to because they're too stupid and lazy to learn about their dogs.

Submitted by Kate | April 13 2013 |

I think this is great. I am always wary of going to the local dog park with my two dogs because of the people there and not the other dogs. More fights break out because people have no idea how to monitor their dogs or how to recognize the signs when their dog is getting anxious and stressed and is therefore more prone to attacking other dogs. People also are the ones who get offended when someone chooses to remove their own dog from a situation because they take it as a snub to their own dog (who more often than not is steadily increasing its anti-social behavior and their owner is clueless). Hopefully dog owners will continue to become better educated about canine body language and training in general so that dog parks can revolve around canine socialization and exercise rather than inappropriate altercations (both canine and human!)

Submitted by CJ | April 15 2013 |

I think that the list of expectations for dog park behavior for people and canines is right on the mark. I disagree that expecting the general public to be more in tune with dog behavior is unrealistic - just look at the viewing numbers for dog training shows on television. While people may not be getting correct behavioral information from most of those shows, to me it shows a definite curiosity by people who want to understand. Knowledge is power, so I believe that if more people had scientific info about what dogs are really saying to each other, it would be easier to change dog park culture (at least at the ones in my city, where it's a smaller number of people who are proactive about keeping their dog engaged and out of trouble).

Submitted by Ginny | April 16 2013 |

I agree with CJ. Education is key! It would be so great if every time a new dog park opened or every first Saturday of the month, a dog trainer and/or behaviorist would give lessons on "reading" dog behavior, training, and proper intervention. While there will always be people at the dog park who are clueless and uninterested, the more educated dog owners you have at the dog park, the better the dog park experience for everyone.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 24 2013 |

I also agree with this. How else are people to learn if they aren't going to these environments. That is exactly how I learned about general dog behavior, and even my own dogs. Now I know what is too much, or how my dog(s) will react to situations or other dogs, but I probably would never have known this had I not started visiting the park in the first place.

Submitted by Eden | April 24 2013 |

I think it's a bit optimistic to believe that the general public are watching these shows because they are interested in dog training and behaviour. Whilst some are genuinely interested in that, I would say most people watch for the drama factor and the miracle "before and after" effect.

Submitted by Petra | April 15 2013 |

I totally agree. I have two deaf Bull Arabs (very large dogs) and we are so careful to make sure they play well or if very small dogs arrive they are put on a lead (so they don't accidentally squash someone!), but so many people don't extend the same courtesy and allow their dogs to fly over to ours without having a minute to just introduce them. Makes me crazy. And the ones who bring their dogs then ignore them while they wreak havoc....don't get me started : -)

Submitted by Diana | April 15 2013 |

Given that many people don't even clean up after taking their dogs for a walk, I doubt that all people would follow such guidelines. Luckily where I live, there are several trails where dogs can be off-leash as long as the human is in control of the dog. I always carry a leash and if another dog is on a leash, I assume there's a reason and put mine on a leash too. However, I wish every community or group of smaller communities would create a large dog park. I am very impressed with the one Provincetown created on Cape Cod.

Submitted by Lisa | April 24 2013 |

Thank you for this. One of my dogs can be aggressive among other dogs and it bothers me to no end when I have him on a lead because of his behavior and another owner is walking with their dog off leash relatively close to us. I think the polite (and correct) thing to do is to also put their dog on a lead.
I always try to anticipate how my Charlie will react in different situations to avoid any issues that might pop up.

Submitted by ddezign | April 16 2013 |

This MUST become the norm for all off leash areas especially number 1.
I believe dogs benefit graetly from running free, swimming and meeting, passing and sometimes playing with other dogs.

When my dogs was a puppy (for 3 years!!!!!) the monitoring and correcting of behaviours was constant and intense and the interactions at dog parks and other friend's dogs allowed my puppy to be reprimanded properly by the older dogs and some of the training was done this way and very quickly because obviously the dogs know how to 'speak' and 'listen' to the older 'tutor.

There are two things that frustrate me and are extremely dangerous.
1. when dogs charge towards my dogs (or other dogs) as this body language suggests aggression and the momentum some dogs gain on approach makes for a serious injury, and
2. on the beach (dogs and 4WD cars are permitted) when owners let their dogs out to run beside/behind/infront as they drive along as they are to lazy to walk their dog and miss out on this special bonding time. Also the owners that let their dogs out and sit in their cars (thus not monitoring behaviour) or go into the water to surf etc leaving these dogs to fend for themselves.
The most atrocious thing I witnessed recently was a dog owner letting the dog out of the car on the beach and the dog runnung beside the car still on a LEASH - one slip of the wheel and the dog would have been under the car and run over! Just stupid and irresponsible.
I can appreciate dogs are unpredicable but they are the owners responsiblity and as an owner we need to train ourselves to be the best leaders and controllers of our dogs behaviours and needs.

Great post Karen, thank you

Submitted by Anonymous | April 16 2013 |

I concur. If I had my way about it everyone would be required to show that they have at least a basic competency in understanding canine behaviour (not the two episode of the dog whisperer that they watched) and they would understand that dogs play in a variety of fashions. I've had to really cut back on how often we go to the dog park for my own mental health because they uneducated people are convinced that my mastiff will harm their medium sized dog without any reason to think so. In grad school I would talk with the behaviourists housed right across the street from my programme (animal science) about how they handled dog parks. They responded that they didn't. Dealing with people who refuse to educate themselves is just too much.

Submitted by Laura | April 16 2013 |

Another peeve that I have are people who bring their dog's toy, ball, whatever, to the park, and then get upset (sometimes very angry) when another dog takes it. Come on, it is a DOG park. Dogs don't know that this particular tennis ball is the precious property of your Fido. To them it is just a ball. If you don't want other dogs touching it, leave it at home.

Submitted by B. | April 24 2013 |

Thank you for this comment! May I add:

You should not expect others to leash up their dogs so you can play undisturbed with your dog.

If you don’t want other dogs to play with your toys, then it’s best to go to the dog park during the off peak hours. If you arrive on a sunny Saturday or after work hours, you’re going to have to share or you have to leave the toys at home.

And if you have a dog who is toy possessive – then consider working this out with a professional dog trainer. It’s important that the experience be fun for everyone, including your dog.

Submitted by Anonymous | April 24 2013 |

While I totally agree and understand the sharing of toys thing and that dogs don't get that they are taking your dogs toy, it is incredibly annoying when you come out to the park with 4 balls and there is one dog in particular whose owner finds you every time, that dog takes your dogs ball, is bigger then your dog so it can put as many as 3 of your dogs balls in it's mouth, the owner then gives you some of his balls, but that owner's dog just keeps coming back and stealing whichever ball you happen to throw and you spend the entire time retrieving so that you can try and play fetch with your dog - usually going home with balls that now don't squeak and you got no play time in with your dog. And the worst thing is when the owner just does not get it and insists on finding you every morning so the same thing can happen over and over again (is this groundhog day) it has become so annoying that I just don't go anymore I play fetch in the house!

Submitted by Anonymous | April 24 2013 |

Dogs want to PLAY at a dog park, and that includes playing with toys that their owners have purchased, just as might happen at a playground for children. Every dog owner should teach their dog the command, "Drop it" for this exact reason. I am not offended when a dog steals my dogs toy. I AM offended when an owner tells me that they cannot get it back from their dog. This is basic, basic, basic obedience.

Submitted by Karen London | April 27 2013 |

I completely agree that "drop it" is an essential and basic skill. I should have included it in the list of skills that dogs who go to the dog park should be able to perform on cue, and I thank you for kindly pointing out that it belongs there!

Submitted by Karuscz | April 24 2013 |

I couldn't agree more.

Submitted by Christine Bandy | April 16 2013 |

I love this post.

Submitted by StriderMom | April 24 2013 |

My favorite incident is when we were at a community park with our dog trainer and 2 dogs walking along the outside fence of the dog park area, and someone's small dog started to dig underneath the fence to get to us, albeit apparently playfully. It took me yelling out "Whose dog is this?" just as the little guy was about to go under the fence before its owner came over and picked it up only to put it down a few feet away and walked away again. He didn't even bother to repair the hole that his dog had begun to dig, so the dog came right back and it took me yelling "Hey! Get back here!" that he picked the dog up and left the park. I suggested to other owners there that someone push the dug up dirt back in the hole so theirs or other dogs don't escape again, then hurried up to catch up to the dog trainer and my dogs. I felt more responsible to those other dogs than some of their owners.

Submitted by Jen | April 24 2013 |

My beef is with people who don't have dogs yet bring children to sled at our dog park, then get upset when a dog runs up to their kids and licks their ears, and the kids cry because they are scared of dogs. This happens all the time in winter. There are numerous parks and places to sled in my town where dogs are not permitted - that's where the families with young children belong.

Submitted by Art | April 24 2013 |

I have had the most positive experience at 2 local dog parks in New Milford and New Fairfield, CT. I do agree that the majority of problems at the parks are with the owners and not the dogs. That said, any problems I've experienced have been few and minor and for the most part the owners engage with and keep an eye on their dogs and are responsible for pickup. Owners are friendly and interact with each other, but I've never seen it become a gathering of friends who ignore their dogs.

My dog has become beautifully socialized from his experiences at the park and he romps with joy when he's with the other dogs. I get the gift of watching his joy and seeing his post-park sleepy bliss. On one occasion, I brought his favorite toy, a red Kong frisbee, into the park and every dog wanted it and he didn't want to give it up. At one point, 4 dogs had latched onto it and were in a tug of war which got a little out of hand, so the only time the frisbee comes into the park is when he's the only dog there.

I agree with all the points in the article and I think they all represent common sense and courtesy.

Submitted by Pete M | April 24 2013 |

I agree with pretty much everything Karen London says here. Unfortunately for us, my dog Hobbes does sometimes have aggression issues. This was something we discovered over time, and now we never bring him to dog parks. It's sad, because he so loves playing with other dogs. I had hoped that I would be able to learn his signals and just prevent asocial behavior, but I found I was not able to always recognize his signals in time (he sometimes seemed to go from happy to fighting in an instant, while at other times I was able to recognize warning signs like a change in posture or raised hackles or the like). But, we have not figured out how to train him to avoid fights entirely, and we weren't always able to step in to prevent them, so we can't be good participants in these contexts. It's ok - we still go on lots of fun hikes.

Submitted by George | April 24 2013 |

The solution can be expensive, but is much better option. Think about a quality doggy daycare. Unfortunately it is just unrealistic to expect everyone to abide by even the most basic dog etiquette.

Submitted by Ann | April 24 2013 |

Texting has added a new distraction at dog parks. At least when talking on the phone one can watch their dog, but the texting totally takes the owner's focus away from their dog. Of course I see parents doing this at playgrounds with their kids too. A bad habit.

Submitted by Luann | April 24 2013 |

I would never bring my dogs to a dog park. There are to many unresponsible dog owners.
#1 dog owners who do not clean up their own dogs poop
#2 dogs that are not vaccinated
#3 dog owners who do not know anything about dogs
#4 dog owners who do not supervise their dogs
#5 aggressive dogs I heard lot's of horror stories of dogs fighting at the dog park and some dogs are injured or dead

Submitted by Emily | April 24 2013 |

Sadly, I am one of those owners with a dog that behaves badly at the dog park. It is horribly embarrassing. In fact, we no longer go to dog parks, and the very thought of returning causes me great anxiety. My dog has lost the priviledge of this type of socialization. The most frustrating part of the matter is that he was well socialized for years, active at the park without any problems, but over the course of three consecutive visits he was attacked by other less-socialized dogs each time, and that seemed to cause a change in his "dog park" behavior. The trust and training we had developed within the park evaporated almost immediately. It's like having a tenacious, disobedient toddler. I have no idea how he will react to other dogs now. I don't know how to fix the problem, so we stay away. I can work with my dog's behavioral issues, but I can't make a lick of difference with other people's pets and their unpredictable behavior. For me, dog park = stress.

Submitted by Leslie | April 24 2013 |

I agree with most of this article that in a perfect world, people would know how to read a dog's energy or body language and prevent negative interactions between dogs. I spend a lot of time at the dog park as I own three very active golden retrievers and I feel that socialization with other dogs from a very young age is very important in giving dogs the confidence they need to meet any new dog. Two of my dogs are therapy dogs and this socialization is imperative to what we do as many times we will be in very close quarters with other dogs. By going to the dog park from the time my pups were 3 months old, they have learned to read other dogs and thus know what dogs to avoid at the dog park. Yes, I run into dog owners who think that when their dog growls when my dog goes up to greet their owner that their dog is being protective. Others consider humping just a part of play and get upset when I put a stop to it. (yes it is natural, even for fixed dogs but it is not a part of play and you can train your dog to not do it). Lastly, I give classes once a month at the dog park for people wanting to get into pet therapy and it is the perfect opportunity for me to teach pet owners about proper dog park etiquette. For a therapy dog, just being social with grandma and grandma's 10 yr old toy poodle is not enough.

Submitted by Deborah | April 24 2013 |

This article should be posted by law at the entrance to all dog parks nationwide. Actually, it should be required reading/training/practice for all current dog owners and those about to adopt a dog. The items Dr. London lists here are, in my opinion, common courtesy, as well as best practices for dog ownership and our relationship with our pets. Unfortunately, it seems like humans aren't all that courteous a lot of the time.

Submitted by Sharon | April 24 2013 |

Great points. As usual; it's not the dogs, but the humans who cause the issues!!

Submitted by Gracie | April 24 2013 |

So far my experiences at dog parks have been positive. We take our dogs to a variety of dog parks in southwestern OH. Our dogs belong to a private dog park, with a daily, seasonal or yearly fee, where the dogs are pre-screened to test for aggressive behavior. Exercise equipment and tennis balls are on site for everyone, and there are 2 spring-fed ponds, with a deck for diving. Daycare is an additional option at this park. You agree to be with your dog at all times, and children must adhere to strict rules of behavior while at the park. We have not been members for long, so I don't know what kind of human behavior I should expect during the upcoming, peak dog park season. There is a Jumbotron at the site and beverages are available, including beer. It remains to be seen if this is a bad mix. The few people I have seen with beverages have been seated in spots near to, or overlooking, the area where their dogs are playing and frolicking in the water. Park staff members are in the area, and people tend to be watching one another's dogs at play due to the group interactions. My husband and I tend to be near our dogs at all times because it's so much fun to watch them play. We also go to several area public dog parks, ranging from fenced in farm land, with thickets full of critters, a woods, trails, and natural ponds, complete with frogs and snakes and snakes eating frogs, to flat, fenced in fields with few amenities other than poop bags and trash cans. Overall, most dogs and people are well-behaved, and when they are not, they are "reeled" in by other regulars at the park. Another observation I have made when a dog park is very busy is that owners need to pay attention to all of the dogs at play. The moment they are distracted by gossiping with friends, the dogs plow into their knees and everyone goes down in a heap.

Submitted by Kate | April 24 2013 |

I agree in spirit with this post but find it kind of judgmental. The definition of "social" behavior is somewhat subjective, and no one is perfect. I have a medium-sized dog with a number of issues who refuses to go for walks. I also have a small yard. Thus, fetch and frisbee at the dog park are a major part of our exercise program. Sometimes, our herding-mix dog can be obnoxious, chasing and barking at other dogs. My husband and I monitor the situation at every trip; our dog has a strong recall, and if it seems like he is frightening or aggravating another dog, we leave. We have been through several obedience class levels and have had at-home sessions with a trainer. We go to agility class regularly. We are planning to see an animal behaviorist and even to buy a house with a bigger yard. Yet, I am keenly aware that our dog has special needs and we have not made the kind of progress I would have hoped for (we are not professionals). It is a constant challenge, and some sympathy and understanding are always appreciated.

Submitted by Amy | April 24 2013 |

I would also like it if dog owners would pick up their dog's poop and not leave it for someone else to either step in or have their dog step in.

Submitted by Leslie | April 24 2013 |

I completely agree that people bringing their dog to a dog park MUST be engaged with their dogs. Too often dogs are brought in and their people walk away to congregate with other humans leaving their dog(s) unattended. It is really not fair to their dog who may be encountering "foul play" by other dogs and oftentimes not fair to other dogs if your dog can be aggressive in that environment. I found a GREAT iphone app called Dog Park Assistant that helps explain what to look for in dog behavior at the park and how to read your dogs and other dogs. Lots of good info. It's not all fun and games out there - trust me!

Submitted by Laurie King | April 24 2013 |

The suggestions are perfect but people aren't. This would be like expecting people to monitor their own driving. Dog parks are too often a social club for their owners; a place for dog walkers to exercise a group of dogs and or a place where well intentioned dog owners bring their dogs without a clue of what to watch for or what to do if there is a problem.
Sadly, there is no simple answer. All is takes is one unsupervised or badly supervised dog to harm or ruin the experience for another dog. There can be very knowledgeable dog owners present but unless the owner of a problem dog is willing to listen it won't help.
How about creating a "Pay for Play" park or area with the money paying for a knowledgeable person to be onsite during all park hours. That person needs to have the authority to eject a person and their dog if they are causing a problem. Maybe some locales can do this with volunteers who have demonstrated they have the necessary knowledge.
Dogs need exercise and rarely can humans walk fast enough, far enough to give them what they need so I would love to see a workable solution.

Submitted by Kelsey Bezaire | April 24 2013 |

I agree. My favorite dog park has most of these qualities. It's an urban city park that is off-leash friendly. Since there are no fences, the dogs must have a reliable recall. That knocks out those people who have a pent-up untrained dog and are too lazy to exercise. Since it's a courtesy to have the dogs off leash, everyone is vigilant about picking up poo (yay!). We do gather and talk, but there's always an eye on their dog to make sure they stay in close range. The downside is that some people let their off-leash dog greet a dog on leash. Sometimes this causes defensive/fearful behavior or, in the case of leashed dog-aggressive dogs, a bite. Almost every time this happens, I see the off-leashed owner get their dog away when the leashed one is upset. (Still, don't like this happening.) But I couldn't agree more on the importance in having everyone be aware of what their dog is doing and where they are. I feel good that if my dog isn't comfortable around another, either they or I can just walk further away or recall our dogs. There's more courtesy in a public park than a typical fenced dog area. Do accidents still happen there? Yes, but I've seen much fewer dog-dog issues here than any other dog park we've been to.

I do agree with the body language, but misinformation (eg tail wag always mean happy) doesn't help the populace any. I'd like to post a graphic of dog body language poses and see if that helps.

On the flip side, one dog park I went to banned treats within the park. I refused to go there after reading that rule. My dog loves food and I want to be able to reward her. Plus if someone's dog is so bad that it can't be around a person with food, they shouldn't be at a dog park.

Submitted by Sharyn | April 24 2013 |

There is a beautiful dog park near me and I have taken all my Dobermans over the years there. I find that certain times of day pretty much dictates the type of owners that show up. Everything listed above has happened to me and my dog at one time or another. Then I discovered that if I take her early in the morning on either or both weekend days everyone there not only looks out for their dog but your dog, too, and vice versa. We even point out to an owner that may have turned their back for a moment that their dog just pooped. No one gets insulted or mad. Everyone says, "Oh, thank you. Where was she?" We know everyone's dog's name, but not all the owners names. And no one cares. We know who we mean jut by the dog's name. I never go after work. Too many weirdoes.

Submitted by andilee | April 24 2013 |

This article is SO TIMELY!. At my local dog park, I will admit that most of the pet parents (the regulars) are VERY observant of their furkids at all times. We engage in play with our pups. Big and small dogs play well together.

NOW what I despise most is when children/teens bring dogs to the park; or when walking through the park on the way to the dog park children are being pulled along by the dog. And it's getting worse! Today on my walk from the bus stop I pass by a teen hanging out with his friends and his pit puppy OFF LEASH. I prayed nothing happened while he was standing outside allowing his dog to parade around.

When I began my walk with my hyper two, we happened upon a nice teen who had his mini poodle off leash (with no tags, and no neutering!!!!!!!). Of course he had to chase the dog out of the street a couple of times.

Im sorry to rant and rave, but I take issue with children walking dogs in large urban areas without supervision - for safety reasons only. Yes I do know some teens are able to handle dogs better than some adults, but public safety is the concern and not convenience.

Submitted by Laura | April 25 2013 |

In addition. Playgrounds are for kids and dog parks are for dogs. Don't use the dog park as an opportunity to kill 2 birds with one stone in order to entertain Junior. Even kids who may have been taught proper dog ettiquite tend to interrupt the dogs natural pack instinct while playing. I can't take my dog to the playground, keep your kid out of my dog's playground.

Submitted by K9HappyGal | April 27 2013 |

I agree with your suggestions for a perfect dog park experience. Unfortunately, that's not reality which is why I don't like dog parks. I see them as "a fight waiting to happen." I work with dogs for a living and am a big proponent of training. I think that many people bring their high-energy dogs to dog parks because they don't have the time or interest in working with their dogs at home. I know that many wonderfully trained dogs come with their responsible owners, too, but it only takes one unruly dog to spoil the fun. Just not a chance I choose to take.

Submitted by michelle | May 1 2013 |

small dogs need to be separated or have different use times than large dogs. These standards mentioned are NOT high! Fun can easily turn into disaster in this arena.

Submitted by Jean Wirick | May 20 2013 |

I have been to Lakeshore East Dog Park twice, and will NEVER return. The people there are rude and do not welcome people and their dogs who do not live in one of the surrounding buildings. This is the nicest dog park in Chicago, we have been to others where the water source is broken, and another where the fence has rusty holes in it. Obviously Chicago handles their dog parks the way they do everything else, bow down to the wealthy & make sure they have the best! Just ignore the needs of every body else.

Submitted by Lar_Dog | November 6 2013 |

GREAT read! As a "veteran" of only one dog park (for 3½ yrs) I've learned with only 2 or 3 exceptions that ALL "dog" problems are really people problems - some of them WELL represented here by those who have microscopic "rules" they wish to apply universally. YES to much of it; NO to them! Most of the problems we experience are caused by the same 2 "Issues::
[] overly protective owners, who interpret EVERY play attempt as ATTACKS!
[] those who insist on bringing/keeping their dogs ON leash while in the OFF leash park!

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