Dog parks can pose real dangers

Published 4:19 pm Tuesday, January 17, 2012

To the Editor:
I am writing in hopes of shedding a little light on some of the very real dangers of dog parks such as the one being proposed for Harmon Field. As a canine behaviorist and trainer with more than 20 years experience in dealing with dogs presenting with problems such as separation anxiety, aggression, fear and hyperactivity, there are some very real dangers that owners should be aware of before entering a dog park with their dog.
Contrary to what a lot of owners think, dogs that have not been socialized as puppies during a very critical time in their first few months often lack the proper social skills (simple signals dogs use to introduce themselves to each other) to get along nicely with other dogs they have never come into contact with. There was a statement quoted in the Bulletin in reference to the dog park I fear will mislead owners: “It’s a proven fact that single dog households or two dog households get very aggressive unless they are socialized.”
Thousands of households have one or two dogs and never have the chance to let their dogs socialize with other dogs off leash and still remain very balanced. It is far more important to socialize dogs with people rather than other dogs. When dogs are to be socialized it should be done in very controlled circumstances with the owners present and ready to break up a tense situation before it could escalate into a fight. Dogs are not instant friends and if one dog turns aggressive I guarantee others will join in.
Here are just a few of the experiences I have been involved in as a trainer involving dog parks.
1. I witnessed a medium-sized dog frightened upon entering a park and was immediately chased by two dogs. Dogs will fight, freeze or flee to avoid confrontation. This little guy decided to flee and ran as fast as he could until he was stopped by the fence bordering the small park, at which point he was mauled by the two dogs. Other dogs tried to join in but the owner of the smaller dog got the dogs off her dog and the dog survived. These dogs lacked the proper skills needed to introduce themselves to each other because they had not been socialized as puppies or have lived only within their family pack. Not the dogs’ fault!
2. I have witnessed dogs sitting under picnic tables the whole duration of the visit, trembling in fear, while the owner happily socialized with other owners for more than an hour. If another dog would try to approach the owner would encourage the meeting by pulling her dog out from under the table, which resulted in the little dog screaming in fear, which in turn called other dogs to come investigate the scream.
Luckily, the owner picked up her dog just in time for her dog to only get one bad bite on its thigh. This little dog has no business being in a dog park but the owner just did not know any better because after all everybody always says dog parks are a great way to socialize a fearful dog. Not.
3. Heaven forbid the poor owner who may be told to take their dog-aggressive dog to a dog park to socialize it. You can be absolutely sure that this is a fight just waiting to happen to someone else’s poor dog that goes up to this dog with the wrong signals! I have seen this happen and it ended up very sadly.
If our only concern in a dog park was passing along potential parasites and other diseases I would say go for it and take your chances. However, our bigger concern is the safety of our dogs. It is our job to protect them and keep them out of harm’s way at all costs. Parks are rarely big enough to provide dogs with enough space to sort things out if they become frightened or need to take flight.
Early in my career I spent many hours observing dogs in these parks and 90 percent of the time all went well and I was able to observe amazing body language and signals dogs used … to diffuse tension and fights on their own with owners totally unaware of what was actually taking place.
I guess all I want to say is that if owners really want a park like that for their dogs we at least owe it to them to post warnings about the very real possibility of fights or dogs returning home with even more fear than they had to begin with.
I always tell people to keep their dog on a leash until they are 100 percent positive they are far enough away from streets … before letting them run and or hike with you. I would think people would want to be 100 percent sure that a dog park is safe as well. Unfortunately, that is just a “pie in the sky” attitude and should really be considered carefully before entering into one of these parks.
–– Pat Thorne, Tryon

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