We had the chance to talk with Matthew Gilbert, TV critic for the Boston Globe and author of one of our 2014 “Best Reads” about his first book, Off the Leash: Year at the Dog Park and his conversion to being a dog lover. His is a rather unique perspective because not long ago he was definitely on the other end of dog-loving spectrum.
You seem to be in a rather unique position being rather new to the dog world, you can see both sides, can’t you? So from the “other” side, the non-dog-loving side of things, can you recall your reasons for not liking dogs, and are they any that perhaps make you cringe today when you remember those feelings?
The first thing I think of is the way my hand would buzz after I touched a dog, until I got to a sink to wash it. I did not like to have physical contact with dogs, or with anything they’d touched!
Good lord. Now, I pet my dog Toby 100 times a day, scratching under his chin and around his ears until he starts swooning with pleasure. I kiss his snout, I sniff and kiss his paws, I rub the boogers off his eyes in the morning. I love the tactile sense of him.
I think back on my distaste and cringe ten times over. I was missing one of the great joys of life…. Wow. I was living in a bubble, and I felt that dogs were just too spontaneous and reckless for me. I depended far too heavily on a sense of order and control, and dogs were the opposite of that.
Also, my mother was terrified of dogs, and that filtered down to me. She would not be able to relax if there was a dog in sight. Nowadays, when I see little kids at the park, I enjoy introducing them to Toby, trying to make them smile at the big lug of a goose who’ll sit and give me his paw for a treat. It’s very healing, unless the parent is too nervous.
What advice would you give to people who don’t much like dogs but perhaps, for the sake of the children or their spouse, might be considering getting one?
It took me years to fall in love with dogs. I fell in love with a dog person, and that was the start of the change. To use a popular term, I evolved… So I don’t think there’s a magical solution to the dislike of dogs.
My advice would be to open up your heart as much as possible, watch the pleasure the dog brings to the other members of the family, try to appreciate that. Don’t shut yourself out of the experience because you were pushed into it. Who knows, you may evolve, too, in a lovely way.
In your book you do a very good job about what that immersion was like, but tell us what your biggest surprises were about discovering that you are really a dog lover? Any surprises about being thrust into the middle of the dog park community? What did you think it would be, and what was it really like?
I continue to feel surprised by the change, some 10-12 years into it, and I have friends from the old days who still tease me about how I once did not like dogs. When I’m with dogs now, I feel happy in a way that’s hard to define, but that still feels new. It’s like the presence of dogs changes everything for the better, and I relearn that over and over again.
The surprises at the park were fantastic. I thought it would be a catty (!) environment with lots of breed snobbery and competition. I thought conversations would be painfully superficial. I thought watching dogs play would be boring. But within a few months, I understood that those fears were mostly unfounded, that the relationships we form daily at the dog park can be profound, that watching dogs play is one of the best pleasures in life, that we meet great people at the park we might never have met otherwise.
I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong.
Are there things about the dog park community now that make you wonder if you are truly a part of it? I realize there are all sorts of factions within any societal group, but like the bulldog meet up group who “spoiled” it for others at that one park, what are you views of that? And what, if you were able to warn enthusiastic dog people about, what would that be?
Some days, I feel like an outsider. Either there’s no one to talk to, or there are people but they’re in what seem like closed groupings. But I’ve learned to let that go, and it has been a great shedding of baggage. No friends at the park today? Wait until tomorrow.
Dogs are my role models in many ways, not least of all because they are experts in resilience and letting go.
I’m not a fan of breed “meet-ups,” just because they can be exclusive. They also draw people from far away who may not much care about treating the park with respect. Still… who am I to judge any kind of celebratory gathering of dogs? Meet-ups are not for me, but any dog joy is good.
My biggest warning to a dog-park newcomer is: Don’t assume all owners are responsible. We want to think the best of anyone who loves dogs, but some owners have aggressive dogs and subject other dogs to that. It’s so awful. I recount an attack on Toby in my book, and I still shudder when I think of the sounds my little goose made while a whippet started snapping at him.
No one wants to be in the position of keeping a dog on leash at the park, but if your dog has been proven to have issues, you need to protect others. If you show that you want to be fair, that you are responsible, people will inevitably try to help you out. If you keep letting your dog go after other dogs, you will probably face a hard road with a lot of angry people moving away from you.
I do think that a lot of the “opposition” to dogs results from some of us being rather clueless when it concerns others and how they perceive us and our dogs. What do you think and do you want to give any examples?
Some dog lovers don’t understand just how terrified of dogs people can be. But, as someone who has been on the other side, I am fully aware of it. It’s not an act. A person who is afraid of dogs doesn’t understand anything about breed temperament or size; all they know is they are scared. So I think dog owners need to find some patience and respect for the fearful.
We kind of need to be ambassadors of the dog world when we are among those who don’t understand it. I’m not saying we don’t have rights; I’m just saying a little bit of sensitivity and friendliness goes a long way. Rather than put a non-dog person on the defensive, try to cultivate them.
One other thing: Dog owners need to pick up their dog’s poop, always. Poops on sidewalks and park grass are the dog-haters’ best ammunition against us. Plus, no one – not even dog owners – wants to step in it.
Are there any things about raising the pup Toby that you would do differently?
We’re lucky, because he’s turned out so happy and peaceful. I was very gung ho about training him early on, and in retrospect, as I detail in the book, I was being too controlling. So maybe I would be a little less aggressive about teaching him commands.
Although he still won’t “drop it,” dammit!
Everyone seems to love to talk about the “lessons” learned from their dogs, so tell us if there are any you would like to share with us?
That’s such a great question, and one I hope my book answers to some extent. The lessons include resilience, being in the moment, remembering to play, keeping joy in your daily life, not being afraid of the complications of socializing, becoming more trusting, and on and on…! I still learn new things from Toby and his friends every day.
You and your partner have a different style of dog-raising, has that resulted in any conflicts, how are they resolve? Has he ever taken to the dog park scene that you so successful have?
Tom is definitely not a dog park person. For a while, my friends at the park teased me about my phantom husband and whether I’d made him up.
He loves Toby in a more private way. He has a man-and-his-dog fantasy, and he lives it out by walking Toby around the city and on trails. Some couples come to the park together all the time, or alternate; not us.
There have been tense moments when I’ve had to remind him that Toby loves to be among dogs, and there have been moments when he has gotten tired of my dog park stories. But overall, we have adapted to our differing styles. We both love Toby so much; it always comes down to that.
Do you have a difficult time seeing Toby as a dog? Do you ever fear that you aren’t living up to his expectations?
Sometimes, yes. For one thing, I talk to him all the time, and I give him voice, too. I have conversations with him, while he sits looking at me with his big brown eyes like I’m such a strange creature. But ultimately, I love the fact that he is a dog, and not a human being. That’s one of the best things about dogs – that they aren’t human!
His expectations are steak every day, cookies in between, and a constant flow of the best, most squeakiest toys. So I know I’m not living up to his expectations! But seriously, I think he’s a happy dog, and I think he likes having some restrictions – say 10 cookies a day instead of 1000. I think he knows that we are madly in love with him, and that we would do anything for him. And I love that feeling. He trusts us, and that is everything.
Being a TV critic, what are the most memorable dog characters on TV now? If you were to write a TV show about your dog, what would that be?
It’s not for everyone, but I love “Wilfred” on FXX. We see the dog on the show as a man in a dog suit, which is kind of twisted but a lot of fun. The writers insert a lot of jokes that only dog owners will understand. I also enjoy Stella the French bulldog on “Modern Family,” mostly because of the love and humor she brings out in the humans.
My fantasy would be to see “Off the Leash” as “The Office” at the dog park, with a cast of lovable misfits and a mockumentary tone. I think that would be perfect.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
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.
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.
Other design considerations:
• Available parking that will not interfere with or disturb neighbors
Cell Phone Lady
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
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
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 email@example.com and use “dog park” in the subject line.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
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
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.
2. My dog is sick. Deal with it.
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?
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:
Linda Handman is a long-time dog owner, writer, lawyer, and business owner living in Cambridge, Mass.
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?
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
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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