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Good Dog: Activities & Sports
The Politics of Creating a Dog Park
Round two in the urban debate

This is a follow-up article to our political primer on dog park campaigning. We hope that you found some of the information helpful and that you are now ready to sit down with town planners and design that perfect dog park.

Let’s start by suggesting a different term for dog park. We know it’s an easy term to use, but it often evokes irate comments like: “What do you mean you want to spend my taxes on a bunch of dogs?”; “What about safe playground equipment for my kids?”; “Drinking fountains for dogs, you gotta be kidding!” Play it safe—try using terms like “off-leash” or “multi-use area,” stressing the human component at all times. The acronym-clever COLA people (Citizens for Off-Leash Areas in Seattle simply call theirs OLAs (a convention we’ll adopt here). In Berkeley, “multi-use area” refers to the multiple legitimate uses, including our leashless dogs, that are allowable in sections of the park. In Indianapolis they refer to their recently inaugurated area as a Canine Companion Zone.

In doing the research for this article and in talking with many of you who have contacted us for more information or to share your wisdom and experience, we realize that this material cannot be easily condensed into just two parts. So we will be turning this into a regular feature, with future reports including case studies from your parks.

A recap from last time: because most cities have leash laws that outlaw dogs running “at large,” you’ll need to change this policy.

But few policymakers or administrators are risk-takers; they’ll need reassurances that they are not the first to be confronted by a citizenry asking to use public land to recreate with a pack of off-leash dogs. This is to be followed by gentle and constant reminders that your request isn’t coming out of left field and you have the numbers to support your proposal (with signed petitions in hand), that you do pay taxes supporting everyone else’s recreational activity and, lastly, that you regularly consult with your dogs before voting. By doing most of your homework online you can find many excellent examples of successful programs (see resources) to bring to your town’s decision-makers. Now that you have piqued their interest, the next step is to lead them to the drawing table with design guidelines and planning criteria.

Guidelines can help move the process along but keep in mind that, as Mencken noted: “For every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple, easy solution … and it is wrong.” One of the first things we learned in gathering this information is that while it is tempting to use guidelines from other cities or even from other parks within the same city, they should be used judicially and only as outlines to help shape the planning process and not as across-the-board standards. As Judy Green, a veteran of off-leash planning in Virginia, cautioned, “it is important to remain as flexible as possible,” leaving room for “fine-tuning afterwards.” Site-specific and community-specific needs must be addressed. A fifty-acre area within a five-hundred acre park might be too small for one city, but in a dense urban area like New York it could be positively palatine.

It is beyond the scope of this space to write about macro-level planning issues or site analyses—we all know that a city should provide a series of neighborhood parks accessible to the daily needs for all its citizens, including those with dogs, with major municipal or regional parks available for special jaunts. In the ideal world, dogs would be welcomed to share the total park experience with us, as they do in Australia, and not only be limited to permitted sectors. Taking these limitations into consideration, we’ll concentrate on some guidelines for a prototypical off-leash park, if only in the abstract. Operational topics, such as sponsoring groups, user-permits and maintenance issues will be discussed in the next issue.

Size
If your OLA is located on a new site or built within an established park, size is the single most important and probably the most contentious criterion to be decided. Let it be suggested as a rule of thumb that the bigger the better. An off-leash area is similar to a computer: the day you buy one is the day it becomes outdated. With a smaller area (especially if it is the only facility servicing a wide area), you will quickly find that supply can’t match demand. Indianapolis experienced this when permits to their first Canine Companion Zone were sold out almost the day of the opening. They are now looking to open a second, larger canine zone in another park.

Some suggest that the auxiliary (i.e., neighborhood) off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres. Even though we agree with the larger end of this range, in many urban areas this is probably unattainable. For smaller parks or for the ones that can’t be easily “divided” into specific usage zones, a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available to dog use in the early mornings and early evening hours. If this is your only option, as it is for many New Yorkers, try to obtain a liberal frame of permitted times (perhaps before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), factoring in seasonal day length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports very successful results with a time-share program that is operational in all of its parks.

We disagree with policy papers that suggest that OLAs be restricted to a maximum of five acres. The rationale behind this limit is that a larger area would make monitoring more difficult. But there is abundant and convincing long-term evidence to ameliorate these concerns, coming from larger dog-friendly parks such as Pt. Isabel in Richmond, California (with nearly a million visits a year), Fort Funston in San Francisco, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas, and others. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog recreational activities, like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space where some of us can spend private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. Also, the larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.

Fencing
Another bone of possible contention is fencing. In parks close to traffic, fencing—with consideration for aesthetic concerns —might be necessary. In these cases, double entry, self-closing gates are recommended. Unless your dogs are into high hurtling, a four-foot fence should be adequate. Chain-link (vinyl-coated) fencing is probably the least expensive but some parks, as in Sacramento and Dupont Circle in DC, are looking into other alternatives like wrought iron (beware of the pointy pickets). Arlington Dogs’ Judy Green adds that fencing must extend to the ground and that if using chain-link, the bottom must be crimped to avoid injuries to the dogs. In larger multi-use parks, especially in areas away from traffic which have terrain features that provide natural demarcations and barriers away from other park uses, fencing might not be necessary. There are often serious disagreements over fencing. It can be the single most expensive item in the construction of OLAs, so securing the funding can hamper the progress of projects, especially if communities balk about paying for it. Sometimes dog people are asked to contribute to this expense. Putting aside the fairness question—are tennis players asked to pay for the fences on public courts?—some of you have turned into amazingly effective fund-raisers, getting financial assistance from local businesses. Pet stores and pet food companies should be eager to contribute and perhaps even sponsor your park. In some cases, fencing can also help allay fears of liability.

Children
Even though allowing children into OLAs is more of an operational than a design issue, is it usually during the design stage that this issue is addressed. Again bringing up the specter of liability issues, some communities have opted for not allowing children, even those accompanied by an adult, into their OLAs. We think this is unfortunate. It can add fuel to the children versus dog debate, and Judy Green thinks that it “doesn’t serve the dog community to perpetuate this idea that dogs are always to be feared.” Children should obviously be closely supervised in parks from all recreational activities, such as bicycling, inline skating, kite flying, as well as from dogs. Also, many families with dogs cannot afford the luxury of providing quality park time to their dogs, separate from the time they can spend with their children. Most parks do allow children but some take the precaution of noting on their signage that children under a certain age must be accompanied by an adult. Personally, we love seeing young parents with those new sports-model baby strollers wheeling their charges on the paths of the off-leash area with their dogs merrily running alongside. This goes to the essence of what these areas are all about—having a good time in our parks with those we love.

Other design considerations:

• Available parking that will not interfere with or disturb neighbors
• Compliance with American Disabilities Act requirements—service dogs and their companions should be urged to use OLAs
• Buffer Zones from neighbors who might be concerned about barking
• Conveniently-sited, covered trash receptacles and poop disposal product dispensers
• Bulletin boards for posting notices, raising public awareness, announcing training classes, etc.
• Shade trees, good drainage, maintain-able turf
• Water fountains with both human and dog-level spigots
• Clear, concise and aesthetically pleasing signage
• Benches, tables, agility equipment, swimming ponds
 

Culture: DogPatch
Off The Leash
Cell Phone Lady
Dog Park Illustration

That spring, my new park friend Hayley lectured me about talking on the cell phone at the dog park.

“I like to leave my phone at home,” she volunteered to me, when she saw me having an animated conversation with my brother in Philadelphia. “How sad to be miles away while Toby is playing joyously at your feet.”

Ultimately, I was persuaded. The idea of a daily intermission from the virtual, a spot of sun through the cloud, appealed. Like the rest of

civilization, I was leashed to my devices, as well as to my Facebook friends and my 24-hour news scroll. You were in a room or on a street or at a gorgeous park, but you were somewhere else.

As if on cue, a stout woman with a brown shag haircut started coming to Amory Park that April, climbing out of her low beige sedan with a cell phone forever cradled between her shoulder and her ear.

Talking, she’d let her two Westies out of the back seat, then follow the pair of white pom-poms off the tar and around the grass, never looking up, idly holding empty poop bags in one hand like little jib sails. It was painful to watch her twisting her neck to keep the phone in place, looking and nodding into the middle distance as she talked. Now in her 40s, she was heading toward some expensive later-life chiropractic sessions.

Hayley and I hated her right away. Whenever she’d pull into the parking lot, we’d look at each other and raise our eyebrows. “Hate her.” Here she comes, the lady who doesn’t care about being here, twilight-zoning her way through this beautiful place. We had attitude about it. For a half-hour, she’d linger on the phone, her dogs drifting together by themselves ahead of her, an absent-minded shepherd with her flock of two.

Finally, she’d click the phone off as she returned to the parking lot, and they’d all get back in her car. It was as though the park was merely a necessity in her day, to be gotten through, like taking out the garbage.

Cell Phone Lady looked a bit like her dogs, as is often the case—feathered hair, wandering forward close to the ground. She seemed weighted down by the world, and her conversations didn’t appear to be particularly cheerful. She was the absentee leader, walking behind them, in another world, out of touch. At least the dogs had each other, I thought. Then one blue-sky day she showed up, and midway into her shoulder-led trip through the park she clicked off her phone and put it in her pocket.

Her call had ended.

Her bubble popped, and she stood blinking, looking up. It was strange, and she seemed lost standing on the field without her crutch. Her dogs, sniffing the ground side-by-side, didn’t notice. It might have been the first time she’d really looked at the place, taken in the trees and the grassy hill and the other owners.

I saw my chance, split off from the grouping of people and dogs, and moved toward her with Toby skipping at my side. “Hello Cell Phone Lady,” I said as I approached. She laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and she clearly took no offense. Suddenly I was very curious about who she was. She brought an unexpected amount of eye contact to our encounter, and she said, “Hello park person.” Again, she laughed.

It was day and night, my impression of her, the way it switched over in a moment like a page in a book. Suddenly I wanted to be on her side. Toby headed over toward the Westies, sniffing and sniffing. It was as if he’d sensed my shift in reaction. “What are your dogs’ names?” I asked. She was with “Miss Midge and Miss Hope, 3 and 8,” she said, and they were all on a break from work. She said something about how they loved getting a break from “the house” and “the clients,” so I asked where she worked. She was the manager of a halfway home for intellectually challenged youths, and she was on her lunch break but still in contact with the other counselors at the house.

This was her time to coach and supervise. Sometimes the counselors needed pep talks; burnout was common in her field, she said. She found she could muster positive energy when she was away from everything for a few minutes. The clients at the house loved the dogs, too, and she was glad about that. Midge and Hope were a healing presence, with Midge the grande dame of the whole human-dog litter. The kids really lit up when the dogs were underfoot. And she lit up when she told me that, her puffy eyes taking on a sparkle. She went on sharing, as people often do at the dog park, about all the special times the clients would have with Midge and Hope, and how dogs had been her savior when she was young and afraid.

In short, Cell Phone Lady was the best person ever, a combat fighter in the war for the needy and helpless. She was completely sympathetic, and her love of the park was real, if entirely different from mine. It gave her freedom from her routine, a little slack on her leash. Like me, she let go at Amory; we were just letting go of very different things. I’d gotten her relationship with Midge and Hope entirely wrong. She was the backbone of their trio, just getting a stretch. She was so damned maternal, there for all those kids and colleagues and dogs. I felt like a silly fool having judged her, and so did Hayley when I told her.

“You mean WE were wrong?” she asked in irony.

From that point on, when we saw Cell Phone Lady on the field, doing her thing, straining and straining her neck, we nodded at each other. “Love her.”

Adapted from Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gilbert. By Permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Crissy Field Dog Use in Peril
Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Leash

The San Francisco Bay Area is blessed with a majestic natural setting. Thanks to forwardthinking citizen activists and environmentalists, generations have been able to enjoy the scenic beauty and open spaces of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties.

In 1972, Congress established Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)—a unit of the National Park Service—to, among other things, create an area that “concentrate[s] on serving the outdoor recreational needs of the people of the metropolitan area.”

For decades, these traditional “outdoor recreational needs” have included off-leash dog walking. In GGNRA’s San Francisco-based sites alone, off-leash areas (OLAs) from Crissy Field to Fort Funston occupy prime spots along the bay’s shoreline. Currently, a little less than 1 percent of all of GGNRA’s approximately 80,000 acres of protected lands are accessible for any kind of dog walking, and now even this small amount is in jeopardy.

In 1979, GGNRA adopted a Pet Policy that outlined off-leash rules and defined OLAs in its San Francisco and Marin County sites. However, over time, GGNRA began closing some of these off-leash areas and, in 2001, rescinded the 1979 policy. During this period, and throughout several subsequent legal challenges, howls of protest were heard across the region. Consequently, GGNRA stopped enforcing leash laws and began the long process of creating a special rule to manage dogs in its parklands.

In 2010, GGNRA released its draft dog-management plan, in which they proposed restricted alternatives in 22 areas. After roughly 4,700 people submitted comments regarding this deeply flawed document, GGNRA went back to the drawing board and recently released a supplemental plan.

Unfortunately, the new plan is just as restrictive, proposing extremely limited off-leash and on-leash areas, as well as no-dog areas, for historically dog-friendly Crissy Field, Muir Beach, Baker Beach, Mori Point and Rancho Corral de Tierra, among others.

In its attempts to balance off-leash dog recreation with other park uses, it appears that GGNRA is abusing its discretion by curtailing this use without adequate scientific support for the impacts they claim, and ignoring or discounting the demonstrated impact on existing recreational uses. The outcome of this final plan could have repercussions nationwide as policymakers watch to see what kinds of restrictions to dog-walking access the public will accept.

Crissy Field Dog Group supports a modified alternative to the 1979 Pet Policy that includes responsible offleash dog-walking in GGNRA lands (including those in San Mateo County), provides clear and concise signage and continuing-education opportunities such as fee-based off-leash training classes, allows each permitted professional dog walker to handle up to six dogs, and creates a monthly recreation roundtable so that different user groups can address visitor concerns.

We need you to become involved in this process. Please write to your elected officials and let them know what you want. The current deadline for public comment is December 4, but we have requested an extension.

If dogs are this severely restricted in GGNRA, city dog parks and neighborhoods bordering the parklands will be inundated with dog walkers, and there will likely be more conflict. Let’s create a dog-management plan that protects these scenic areas and allows everyone to enjoy them.

Details on the current proposal can be found at parkplanning.nps.gov/ dogplan. Go to crissyfielddog.org, eco-dog.org and saveoffleash.org for more information on the commenting process.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Howard & Erna Soldan Dog Park
Dog Park Case Studies

Description: This jewel of an Off Leash Area (OLA) comprises 15 acres in a woodland landscape, with open fields, shady trails and a large pond. It opened in September 2007, and is owned by the city of Lansing but maintained cooperatively with the Ingham County Parks Department. The park is enclosed by a six-foot fence, and has permeable, sandy soil and easy access to the pond, which is its central feature.

History: What’s unusual about this park is how it started. According to Ellen Sullivan, past president of the Friends of Greater Lansing Dog Parks (Friends), the idea came from thenparks department director Murdock Jemerson. After attending a recreation conference in early 2001 at which dog parks were a hot topic, he tested community interest for them in Lansing. The possibility was eagerly greeted by local dog lovers, and more than 100 people attended the first meeting. It received overwhelming support, and volunteer committees were quickly formed; a more formal Friends group came soon after. It took six years to bring the park into existence.

Financing: To help raise the $100,000 needed for the park’s development, the Friends group established itself as a 501c(3) nonprofit. Extremely well organized, the group developed annual strategic plans and was able to raise significant capital through many inventive fundraising approaches— among them, offering naming rights to the individual or business making the most substantial donation. Those rights went to a local store, Soldan’s Feed and Pet Supplies, which pledged $50,000. Other donors and sponsors came in at various levels, and their names are enshrined on the park’s sponsor board.

Hurdle: Getting the city council to change the ordinance that required dogs to be on-leash in city parks. According to Sullivan, “that took over a year in itself.” Ultimately, the law was amended to permit dogs to be off-leash in designated dog parks. Neighbors also mounted roadblocks. When the park first opened it had 17.5 acres, but after a few complaints, it was downsized to 15, sacrificing a full loop trail and a small-dog area.

Stand-out Feature: In 2010, Soldan adopted a fee-based use system, an approach that many communities, especially in the wake of the recession, have considered but few have implemented. Income from this system has helped defray operational costs such as the purchase of poop bags and portable restrooms, and routine park maintenance. To receive the electronic pass card, owners must provide proof that their dogs are current on their rabies vaccination and are licensed; they are also required to verify that they have read the park’s rules and will abide by them. The annual “key fob” fee is $30, or $15 for students, seniors, military and service-dog owners.

Rules & Regs: Park manager Brian Collins told us that, as is common with many OLAs, “Once the park was established, the Friends group became less involved in the day-to-day operations.” However, the original volunteer community built a strong foundation and provided useful guidelines and rules that are still in use. In fact, their “Getting Ready for the Dog Park” handout—covering (among other things) where to play fetch and cautions against crowding around entrance areas—is one of the most thorough instructional guides we have seen.

What’s Next: Under discussion are improvements such as a ramp for water-loving dogs, a bridge or “floating walkway” to create a loop within the park, trail lighting and paving. Carole Living, long-time park user and supporter, believes that this park “is a place where dogs can run free, swim all they want, investigate all the exotic scents and just be a natural dog. It enriches all our lives.” She also thinks a new user campaign to spread the word should be considered; Lansing is a college town with a high population turnover, and reminders that Soldan Dog Park beckons are needed!

If you would like to recommend a dog park, write to editor@thebark.com and use “dog park” in the subject line.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
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.

News: Guest Posts
How to Spoil a Dog Park

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.

 

News: Editors
Teachable Moments in the Dog Park

The other day I, and my three leashed dogs, had a tense encounter with two women and their two unleashed dogs. We had just finished our morning outing and were leaving our wonderful off leash area in the Berkeley marina—this 100+ acre park has breathtaking vistas of the bay’s bridges, plus half its space is set aside for humans and off leash dogs to exercise and enjoy nature together—but the rule in the other half of the park is that dogs must be on leash. The walk to and from the OLA might take all of 3 to 5 minutes. That should be a simple rule to follow, and one that we, who helped establish this dog park, agreed that we would help others to comply with.

But few people oblige, especially in the mornings, figuring that there really is no one there to see them side-stepping the rule. I know how that feels since walking three, anxious-to-romp, dogs on leash can be challenging. But I understand the importance of leashing them, so I do. I am also aware that the “I-can-get-away-with-it” attitude has threatened the legitimacy of the off leash area. So lately, I have been reminding people, politely, about this rule. Most people understand and gladly leash their dogs.

But the recent encounter went beyond not following that rule—I recognized the women because they run with their dogs in the OLA, but pay scant attention to what their two dogs are doing. I have seen these dogs charge up to, bark and "air" snap at each dog they encounter. Their behavior is not playful or social but instead demonstrates borderline aggressive behavior. But luckily, they always run off following their owners.

So there we were walking on a “leashed” path, exiting the park, when I saw them walking towards us about 50 feet away. Their dogs spotted us and quickly came charging up to us. Barking, snarling, threatening. The women didn’t even move, I had already stopped walking, had all my dogs in a sit, and asked the women to call their dogs. They did nothing, not call them, not run to them, they just froze. By that time their dogs were in full attack mode, hackles up, fully baring their teeth (the photo shows how they were reacting, and yes both dogs were wearing prong collars), which, in turn, inspired my dogs to react. Even mellow Lola got into the act. Yet, the women didn’t do anything. I had to call out to them again to get their dogs, which finally they did (but still not leashing them).

 As one of them was trying to round up the two dogs, I calmly explained to the other woman the basics of the on/off leash rules, also pointing out that they should do more when their dogs show this heightened level of agitation/aggression.

I really don’t know what it takes for some to understand that this is simply not acceptable dog behavior. Some don’t understand dog behavior and foolishly think that dogs will simply “work it out.” This is one of those golden rules of responsible “dog-person” behavior, when another person asked you to control your dog, the best thing to do is to just do it, and take your dog away from the interaction. There should be no argument, no “but my dog is friendly” comment, which, in this instance, certainly wasn’t the case.

Why do you think that some people react this way? How best should this “teachable moment” be handled?

News: Editors
Invisible Perils in Parks

Park maintenance is normally not an issue that most pay attention to. We probably blindly trust that weed clearing is done with minimum impact to us and our dogs. Dogs especially, with their noses to the ground, can be more susceptible to the affects of harmful pesticides and weed killers like Roundup. Mark Derr wrote in a recent post on the perils of a dog park that aren’t visible to us. His park in Miami Beach is a place that seems to have gotten hooked on Roundup.

"By the turn of the millennium, reports were piling up associating exposure to Roundup with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, fertility problems, and Parkinson’s Disease, among others. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2002, well before we discovered Roundup liberally sprayed in the park but on the chance that these reports were pointing to something real, I raised a ruckus with the city and demanded that its use be discontinued.  I argued that even if weren’t toxic to humans, it was to amphibians and birds and thus should not be used in a nature preserve, which technically our park is."

But years after the ruckus was raised, Derr found that Roundup was still being applied to city parks…

"The city changed its ways a little.  Indeed, last fall, when I observed a man spraying a colorless liquid around trees and along asphalt pathways, I asked what it was, and he said, “Roundup.”  It is common to mix color with Roundup so that people spraying can easily see where they have applied it.  But in this instance, I can only assume the intent was to conceal, because Roundup is so addictive that the parks department, like its counterparts in other cities and its own citizens on their own property, cannot give it up.  Its potency and the myth of its safety make it impossible for them to renounce."

Derr writes about recent studies about just how harmful this chemical is. The use of Roundup, and other harmful chemicals, is certainly is a question that should be asked of our park’s departments. Do you know what chemicals are used in your parks?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
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?

News: Editors
Please Don't Treat My Dog

If you go to dog parks, I am sure you have run into this problem—people who give your dog treats without first asking your permission. I had a run-in this morning over such an offering.

The park that we go to is around 25 acres, with ridges and swales, easy for a dog to be nearby but be hidden from your view. Being able to spot my dogs even though they are off sniffing or playing with others, is important to me. What I don’t like is for well-intentioned humans to provide “incentives,” in the forms of treats, as I am trying to call to my dogs and instill reliable recalls. This morning that is exactly what happened, with the same person who has been “treating” Kit for some time now. This time I was close enough to her to ask her politely to please not treat my dog. Her reaction? She blew up at me, and wouldn’t let me finish explaining how important it is for Kit not to run to her when she sees her (or even hears her dogs), knowing that she will get a treat, and that only enforces a behavior (running off sometimes at a great distance) that I am trying hard to redirect. The “treater” seemed insulted that I brought this up. 

A long time ago, when I was new to the whole dog-walking scene—years before I helped to establish the off leash area we were at this morning—I was one of those “treat” ladies. I loved that dogs seem to respond to me … and my homemade liver treats! Who doesn’t enjoy having a group of dogs sitting around you, waiting politely for a reward? But even then, I would first ask permission.  I realize that I overplayed that a bit and realize now that there is a whole host of reasons not to feed someone else’s dog including how it might impact training, health, diet, etc.

Obviously there are exceptions as well. When we first got our under-socialized, fearful pups from a Southern shelter, I would ask others at the park to treat them, even providing them with treats. This helped ease the pups’ fear of humans. It also quickly made them into little roly-polies, so I would substitute kibble for treats and kept track of how many they got as “treats,” subtracted that from their regular meals.

To treat or not to treat other dogs—let me hear what you think.

 

 

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