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Close Encounters in Dog Parks
How to handle trouble at dog parks.

The dog gave her a bad feeling even before he charged at her. Later she would say that she felt the fear in her body before it reached her mind. That can happen when a dog stiffens, stares intensely or runs right at you, and this dog did all three. Once he picked up speed, a low growl in his throat, her “bad feeling” became definable as fear. She was worried for her own safety and even more scared for her dog. The out-of-control dog’s guardian was either not paying attention or was utterly unconcerned with the terror her dog was causing. She did not react at all when she was politely implored to call her dog (“Will you please call your dog?”), and continued to do nothing when the terrified woman finally screamed, “Stop your dog and put him on a leash, PLEASE!” As the dog got closer, and with no idea what to do to prevent an attack, the frightened woman’s only thought was, I have to keep my dog safe!

Whether you consider the dog park to be an indispensable part of your daily routine or no better than a gladiator pit, chances are that if you’ve spent much time in one, you’ve had an encounter in which a dog scared or injured you or your dog. So what do you do when you find yourself in one of those potentially dangerous situations?

Answering that is a little bit like giving advice on how to respond to a mugging. Should you stand your ground? Should you fight? Should you run? Should you just hand over your wallet and jewelry? Similarly, in the case of threatening dogs, there’s no right answer for every situation, but there are guidelines that can potentially minimize the chances of physical harm.

In the case of charging dogs, understand that you may have to be the one to take action if the dog’s guardian doesn’t. Some people don’t consider their dog’s behavior to be a problem (no matter how egregious it may appear to everyone else). Others know they can’t call their dogs away from trouble and they can’t catch them, so they simply do nothing. I wish it weren’t so, but counting on the misbehaving dog’s guardian to be part of the solution will often get you nowhere. However, saying, “Will you please call your dog?” is unlikely to make the situation any worse.

Not making the situation worse is an important factor when considering what to do. When choosing among the possible ways to respond to a charging dog, it’s critical to consider both the likelihood of being effective and the risk of escalating the tension and increasing the dog’s potential for behaving aggressively.

One key strategy is to try to change the dog’s emotions from a negative state to a positive one. The easiest and fastest option is to talk to the dog in an enthusiastic, happy voice: “Oh, who’s so good, what a good boy, aren’t you a love, are you a sweet boy, what a good dog, good dog, good dog.” I know it can feel irksome to say such things to a dog who is scaring the daylights out of you, but this is not about honesty or even sincerity—it’s about trying to prevent serious trouble.

Besides gushing praise, you can say other things that may shift the dog into a better mood. This usually seems ridiculous to people unless they’ve seen it work, but dogs’ emotional states often change in response to phrases such as “Time for dinner!” “Do you want a treat?” and “Where’s your ball?” Many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, which means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation.

Similarly, most dogs have been conditioned to feel happy when they see a leash, since a leash means a walk. So, holding up a leash and saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” may change a dog who is charging in a menacing way into a dog who is just enthusiastically approaching you. None of these “happy talk” strategies carry a significant risk of making the situation any more dangerous for you or your dog. (Holding up a leash does, of course, encourage the dog to continue heading toward you, which could add some risk.)

Saying “sit” sometimes works because it’s the one cue that the vast majority of dogs know well enough to respond to in just about any context. I’ve never heard of a dog becoming more aggressive when asked to sit in this situation. Cues such as “off” or “down” are less likely to work because so few dogs are reliably responsive to them, especially when they’re highly aroused.

Toys make many dogs happy, so if you can, toss a ball or other toy in the dog’s direction, or squeak a toy if you have one. If a dog can be switched to a playful mood with a toy, the charge will naturally cease. If not, the dog will likely just ignore the toy, and you are no worse off than before you tried to engage the dog playfully.

Despite its simplicity, tossing treats is also an effective strategy. Dogs who are acting aggressively out of fear are most likely to be positively affected by the appearance of treats, but dogs who are highly aroused, frustrated or just behaving like bullies may be distracted by treats and change their behavior. Again, if they ignore the treats, there is likely no harm done. You can throw the treats behind dogs to get them to turn around, or right at them to make sure the treats are noticed. Handfuls are more likely to be effective than single treats. (Caveat: There is some risk of trouble if the worrisome dog, or any dog in the vicinity, is food-aggressive.)

Getting something in the mouth of the charging dog has protective value. Throw any object you happen to have that is not a safety hazard. Balls or other toys are best because they’re most likely to be of interest, but your hat, a scarf or a water bottle that can keep the dog’s mouth occupied may work, too. Throwing something away from you carries a low risk of trouble; if the dog is right by you and you try to place the item directly in the dog’s mouth, the risk is obviously greater.

The goal of any action should be to de-escalate the tension, not to increase it. These suggestions all aim to make the situation better, and carry very little danger of causing harm. Other strategies can also be effective, but carry more risk of intensifying the trouble.

Saying “Hey!” or “No!” abruptly in a deep voice may sometimes be effective, but it can also make some dogs more intense in their charge. Speaking in a firm way may frighten a fearful dog or be taken as confrontational by dogs who are on the offensive. Though I often hear people recommend pepper spray, I don’t. While it may stop a dog from attacking you, it also makes some dogs more aggressive. And, depending on wind direction, it can backfire and affect you or your dog.

Though I’m also not a huge fan of using citronella spray to stop a charging dog, it’s a better option than pepper spray. It will deter some dogs, but it’s far more likely to be ignored by the dogs it doesn’t stop rather than cause them to become more aggressive. Challenging the dog in any way is very risky.

Challenges include staring, yelling, making an angry face, hitting, kicking and picking up a big stick or rock and threatening the dog with it. Though they may work occasionally, all of these confrontational techniques are far too likely to make a dog more tense and more aggressive.

All the woman could think of doing to protect her dog was to get out of the park immediately. She began moving away from the threatening dog toward the nearby gate, encouraging her own dog to move with her by telling him what a good boy he was, saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” and squeaking the toy in her hand. Not only did this affect the emotions of her own dog, it had the same impact on the charging dog, whose body relaxed the tiniest bit as he slowed down. The intense look on his face changed to a slightly calmer one. She and her dog continued to back up toward the exit. When the charging dog was almost to her, she threw the toy just past him and away from her own dog. The dog who had just scared the bejeebers out of her ran after it. As he did so, she and her dog quickly slipped through the gate and went to their car; once there, suffering the aftereffects of the panic she felt, the woman almost threw up. Her dog—who was shaking and whining—was clearly upset by the experience as well. Though the woman’s quick actions prevented physical injury, the emotional impact of their big scare was damage enough.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 74: Summer 2013

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.

Photograph Eric Isselée

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Shannon Cole | June 20 2013 |

I refuse to take my pet sitting client's dogs to the dog park. It is too much of a liability risk with ignorant & irresponsible dog owners there.

Submitted by Stephanie Sorensen | June 22 2013 |

I would have to agree with you, Shannon. I would also never take my clients' dogs into a dog park. Imagine trying to explain a situation gone wrong to the client that resulted in the injury or even death of their beloved dog while in your care! If they request it, I just tell them up front why I won't.

Submitted by Tam | August 14 2013 |

I take a small spring loaded umbrella with me to a dog park. I was always teased... A couple of months ago I encountered a clueless owner and an aggressive huge husky. When the dog lunched at me I opened the umbrella as a shield and a surprise. The dog ran the other way and then came back to lunge at my dog. I intercepted that one the same way and then leashed and left the park. The owners response was to laugh at me! Sadly the same dog was successful in its aggression a couple of days later resulting in extreme injury to another dog park regular.

Submitted by Vee | August 15 2013 |

Oh Tam! The umbrella is a great idea! After my dog was charged by not o e, but 2 aggressive dogs, I started carrying a 'fanny pack' with pepper spray, flash light and cell phone, just in case I needed to call 911 or A/C. Your story brought back the utter feeling of helplessness, as the irresponsible owner 'called' her dogs off to no avail. I clearly remember screaming "DO SOMETHING! These are your stupid dogs - so control them!!" She made me feel like a hysterical 'ninny' for either causing her dogs' aggression or somehow, I contributed to the pandemonium. Grrrrr

Submitted by Queen of Fifty Cents | August 23 2013 |

Thanks for the happy voice suggestion! Haven't had to try it with a really aggressive dog (yet) but it's helped calm a couple of skirmishes over a chuck-it ball. And I'm going to suggest the umbrella idea to a friend who loves to hike but is concerned about some cougar sitings (yes, the four-legged kind!) in the area.

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