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

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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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