Jake's visits to the dog park ended when he bit off part of a Bulldog's ear. Jake, a black Lab-Pit Bull mix, belonged to a first-time dog-owner who reacted to his frequent aggressive behavior by saying, “Oh, Jakey, we don't do those things” in a high, sing-song voice. Jake's owner paid the $1000-plus bill for the Bulldog's surgery but the incident reflected the biggest problem with dog parks-and it isn't the dogs.
In 2010, the city of Cambridge, Mass. built a state-of-the-art fenced dog park close to our house. It has running water and bowls for the dogs, free biodegradable waste bag dispensers, and awning-covered benches for the owners. There are two smaller fenced areas, one for puppies and one marked “Time Out.”
At first, it was nirvana for dog-owning city-dwellers.
But as the number of visitors increased, the “Dog Park Rules” posted at the entrance were supplanted by the unwritten code “My Way Rules.” Some examples:
1. You must accommodate my dog's peccadilloes.
“Who does that brown dog belong to?” snarled a middle-aged woman who had been throwing a ball for her yellow Doodle. I identified myself as the owner of the 8-month-old chocolate Lab, so she unleashed her fury on me.
“My dog is possessive about his ball, so can you keep your dog away?” demanded the Doodle's owner. My dog hadn't actually picked up the ball; she simply chased it. After all, she's a Lab, and it was a ball. How could she ignore it?
The Doodle's owner was so belligerent that it didn't seem worth arguing with her about the meaning of the words “public park.” I simply headed home, leaving her to harass the owners of any other dogs who might dare to infringe on her dog's sole right to play.
2. My dog is sick. Deal with it.
Another afternoon, hacking and choking noises mingled with the barking of a dozen dogs as a new dog entered the gate. None of the dogs had swallowed a stick or ball; the sound was unmistakable.
“That sounds like kennel cough. Have you thought of taking him to the vet?” someone asked the dog's owner. The newcomer replied, “When I'm not feeling well, I usually go outside because it makes me feel better, so I thought it might help him, too.” The owner didn't leave, so everyone else did.
3. My dog is a studly guy. It's an honor for him to hump your dog. Or how about the owner who chuckled as she commented on the libido of her young 110-pound Bernese Mountain Dog while he relentlessly mounted much smaller dogs. Observers mentioned that his behavior was a sign of dominance, not sexual prowess. She looked annoyed and half-heartedly reprimanded him, without physically removing him from his victims. One of the objects of his supposed “affection” was a smaller dog whose rear legs collapsed under the weight of the young goliath.
4. I've got mail. I've got to check the Red Sox scores. Dog? What dog?
Knowing that their dogs couldn't escape, owners began to focus on their cell phones, newspapers or iPads, paying no attention to what their canine buddies did. There were more biting episodes. Some owners put Animal Control on speed dial. And despite the free bag dispensers, people began to refer to the park-and not fondly-as “the poop pit.”
After avoiding the dog park for the past year, I recently walked my leashed dog on the paved path near its perimeter fence. I watched as a Weimaraner assumed “the position” near a knot of seven preoccupied owners and left a pile that could not be missed if anyone had been paying attention. Not a single person moved to clean it up.
Dog parks have become popular in urban and suburban areas, and they can be a wonderful resource if people are considerate. Some tips for making the experience pleasant for everyone:
1. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DOG-don't text, and don't read a newspaper, your tablet, or your email unless you're expecting your spouse to go into labor any minute.
2. Clean up after your dog.
3. Remember: the dog park is not for your private use, so act accordingly. If your dog is not a fan of sharing, don't bring his toys.
4. Don't take a sick dog to a dog park. If you aren't sure whether your dog's ailment is contagious, see your vet.
5. Don't allow your dog to hump other dogs.
6. Remove your dog at the first sign of aggressive behavior.
7. Don't use a dog park to try to socialize your dog if he has already displayed aggressive behavior. Get training first, then expose him gradually.
Linda Handman is a long-time dog owner, writer, lawyer, and business owner living in Cambridge, Mass.