Is Cali a Wagg’n Dog?

Cali plays with a new friend at Wagg'n indoor dog park

Last week, I wrote about dog parks in general. Here, I want to share Cali’s experience with an indoor dog park, Wagg’n, in Missoula. I think the concept is great. Missoula, Montana, has a lot of winter. Cold, gray winter. Plenty of fluffy snowy winter, too, the kind of days we want to play outside. But when it was 7 degrees, I was really happy to have an indoor play space available.

The park is set up nicely. It’s a huge warehouse-type space with a high ceiling — including several skylights, so it’s bright — and it is bright and clean. The floor is matted with recycled rubber mats, and there’s a potty area with fake grass, an efficient enzymatic cleaning system, and drinking fountains. It does not smell doggy or kennel-ey at all. There’s a double gate at the entrance, and there are always at least two staffers, usually three, on hand.

On the rare occasions that a dog has gotten out of hand while I’ve been there, the staff are calm and professional in how they de-escalate. I have never seen any dog show aggression while I’ve been there. The worst I’ve seen is overly exuberant play or a dog that keeps trying to engage another dog who is clearly saying he’s not interested, is overwhelmed, or is stressed out.

I have seen several dogs show signs of stress, however. Including Cali. Some dogs there for daycare spend their time under a sofa or on the lap of any available human, for example. Others hang out at the gate, trying to escape. Not good.

Cali is a bit of an enigma. She gets excited when we drive there, and she clearly knows where we’re going (it’s out by the Missoula airport in the middle of nowhere … we never drive that way when we’re going anywhere but Wagg’n). She’s excited when we get out of the car and happily — excitedly — greets the owner and staff. Then … she hangs back a bit when we head into the play area. She likes to be on the sofa or a bench, often with me, at first. Within a few minutes, though, she jumps into the fray and chooses a dog to play with. She can be a little bratty and pushy if the chosen dog doesn’t reciprocate … leading to intervention from me, Cali getting back on the sofa, etc.

She enjoys the playtime. She also spends a lot of time with me on the chairs there, drooling (a sign that she’s excited and/or stressed). She wants to go there, but while we’re there, I watch her pretty closely. When she’s had enough, which can be after 15 minutes or after an hour and a half, she wants to go. Now.

I wouldn’t leave Cali there all day for daycare or board her there. She’d be overwhelmed by that much stimulation and social time. Other dogs are fine with it; many of the regulars are happy and cheerful whenever I see them. But as a place to take a break, stretch her legs, and play, it’s great. And very necessary during a long, cold winter!


Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

Cali holds her tennis ball at Jacob's Island dog park, early on a cold morning. A light dusting of snow covers the grass.

The current issue of the Whole Dog Journal has a section on dog parks. Though the article itself offers solid commentary and advice (of course it does; Pat Miller wrote it!), the sidebar with comments from several trainers is pretty negative. I’ve been to a lot of dog parks, so I figured this was a good chance to weigh in.

If you are thinking about heading out to the dog park, start with Miller’s seven things to consider, but don’t neglect an honest look at your dog(s), the dog’s needs, and your own circumstances.

My best dog park experience was in Petaluma, where Jana, Cali, and I walked to a local park every day (sometimes twice!). The park has posted off-leash dog run hours and is mostly fenced. When we discovered it shortly after moving to Petaluma, a regular group of dogs and their people could be found there. We soon became part of the 8 am crowd. Jana greeted each human and inspected their pockets and hands for treats, Cali occasionally played with suitable dogs but mostly bugged me to throw her ball, and I got to hang out with some fun and interesting dog-loving people. Over the three and a half years we lived in Petaluma, dogs passed away, new puppies joined the crowd, and the human group changed. Toward the end of our time there, Jana was gone, and Cali found the group of mainly young, high-energy dogs less to her liking. I was working in an office, so we went much earlier in the morning on weekdays and had the place mostly to ourselves. Weekends were more challenging.

Now, in our first Missoula, Montana, winter, we’ve joined Wagg’n, an indoor dog park. It’s also a daycare and boarding business, so the mix of dogs varies. We’re getting to know some of the daycare regulars, and Cali and I each have our favorites. Like the Petaluma park, it’s not divided into small- and large-dog areas, which would worry me more if I had a small dog. Cali’s not that interested in boisterous group play, but she usually finds one or two smaller dogs, goldens, or Labs to play with (she’s kind of a doggy racist and likes only retrievers and little dogs). Being inside changes the nature of the space considerably; it’s echo-ey in a way that an outdoor park is not, and dogs do play differently on the rubber-matted floor (with a nicely designed astroturf potty area) than they would on grass or dirt.

Before the weather turned cold and mornings became dark, we went to Jacob’s Island, Missoula’s downtown dog park, several times a week. We went early, though, on purpose, so Cali and I could play ball without her having to worry that some other dog would “steal” her ball.

These are my primary experiences of having a “regular” park, but I’ve been a drop-in visitor at dozens of dog parks. I’ve driven cross country multiple times with multiple dogs. And when traveling with dogs anywhere that’s more than about 4 hours, I generally look for a place to let the dog run and stretch her legs. Visiting dog parks “on the way” does not allow for the type of research that Miller advises, but I approach these visits as I would any new place I take my dogs. I watch for a few minutes to get a sense of the energy level, see what kinds of play the dogs are engaged in, and I look at whether the people are paying attention to their dogs or just looking at phones or talking to each other and “letting dogs be dogs.”

Like the trainers quoted in the WDJ article, I’ve heard lots of dog park horror stories, and I know that a bad experience can lead to serious injury (or worse); at minimum, it can set back your training and socialization goals considerable, shake your dog’s confidence, or lead him to fear other dogs. Though I have never personally had a bad dog park experience, I am not unaware of the risks.

I won’t take a dog into a park where I see lots of wild or rough play or people who are not paying attention to the dogs. If I cannot tell which people go with which dogs, I take that as a bad sign. The people need to be obviously watching what is going on with their dogs; otherwise, how can they intervene if needed? The person has to be the dog’s advocate and protector in any social situation, whether with other dogs or with humans (especially if children are around). I’ve leashed up my dogs and left parks where the dynamic changes, a particularly troublesome dog enters, or I feel that things are getting too wild.

At the same time, looking for dog parks is as much a part of my road-trip planning as looking for pet-friendly hotels. I can’t imagine asking my dog to spend 8-10 hours in the car without giving her a chance to run and play. Often, just wanting to throw the ball for a few minutes, I look for a corner or end of the park with fewer dogs and head there. If another dog seems overly interested in Cali’s ball, rather than subject her to the stress of worrying about it, I’ll pick up the ball and instead lead Cali on a brisk walk around the perimeter of the park.

The bottom line is that, while aware of potential problems with dog parks, I am usually willing to try out a park and find a way to make it work for my dog and our needs at the moment. I’d never leave Cali unsupervised, and that means no phone either — eyes on the dog at all times (I do sometimes take photos). It also means watching other dogs and intervening if they are rough, pushy, or overwhelming to Cali. Finally, it means being ready to pick up and leave quickly if necessary.

Where’s Cali?

Cali hides in tall grass

Cali has started a new game. When she doesn’t want to leave someplace (Jacob’s Island Bark Park in Missoula, for example), she hides. She’s really good at hiding, too. See if you can spot her in the photos.

I could get angry with her, say she’s misbehaving, that she’s a willful adolescent. I could also admire her intelligence, strategizing, and ability to read my intentions.

It takes a lot of thought and awareness to hide. Her ability to do so shows that she can think about what I can see and figure out where she can go that I won’t be able to see her. She can anticipate going home, decide that that’s not what she wants, and come up with a way to foil my intentions. She can plan and decide not to respond when I call her, and she understands that she has to be very still so I don’t see or hear her moving.

Cali hides deep in some thick bushes

She has to get the timing right, too. She wants to avoid going home, but it would be self-defeating to hide while I was still willing to play ball with her. So she has to read my body language carefully, in addition to parsing the verbal cues I give her. Finally, she also has to know when to resurface so as not to be abandoned (this would not happen, but how can she be sure of that?) or really get me angry.

A few days ago, she hid at the dog park. I might’ve very foolishly muttered something like “we need to get going” before throwing her ball. She took the ball, ducked under a branch, and disappeared. I called her. Nothing. I waited for about 10 minutes, then called some more. Nothing. I was pissed off. I had seen where she entered the bushes, and I went in after her. She was happy as can be, under some bushes with her ball. I grabbed the ball. That got her attention. We walked back to the car with me giving her an earful about what a terrible dog she was, bad to the bone. She laughed.

Then, the next day, she hid in a friend’s garden. I left her there (with the friend) and figured she’d have a nice afternoon in the grass, playing with dog and human friends. She did, but my friend reported that Cali cried when she realized that I had left. She recovered pretty quickly, though, and had fun; my friend also reported that Cali had a fence-fight with the next-door-neighbor-dog — which Cali instigated. But that’s a problem for another blog post.

I’m not really sure what to do about this new trick. I could just not take her to the dog park, but that’s a terrible solution. I don’t think that telling her to “come out right now or we won’t come back tomorrow” would work. She’s smart, but that is probably too abstract and verbose for her. I could punish her when I find her, but that would only motivate her to do a better job of hiding. I could keep her on a long leash, and risk getting it tangled in trees, picnic tables, other dogs …

She hides with her beloved tennis ball, and when she has her ball, she’s not interested in treats, so stooping to bribery is out. I could just wait her out, but I am not sure that my laptop battery would outlast her, and I do need to work.

Deni suggested letting Cali keep her tennis ball with her when we leave the park so that she’s not worried about losing it. In the apartment, all the time. Ick. Cali loves her tennis ball so much. She is happiest when it is really dirty, so she gets is all drooly and wet, then rolls it in dirt. Sometimes she digs a special pit just to make sure it gets totally covered in really fresh, dirty dirt. I’ve generally not allowed her to have the ball inside. If I get desperate enough, maybe …

Anyone have a better idea?

Racial Profiling

A new dog shows up at our park play group. Is Cali interested in meeting or playing with this newcomer? Is she curious? Is she hesitant, cautious? Or does she simply head for the other side of the park and ignore the new pup? And what about Jana?

That depends on several things.

When the newcomer is a puppy, I can be absolutely certain that Jana wants nothing to do with him or her. Cali might, but she tends to watch new pup interact with some other dogs first.

What about adolescent and adult dogs? Large dogs get a wide berth. Small dogs get more interest. But the one time I can be certain that Cali will go right over and say hello to a new dog is when that dog is a golden retriever.

Cali’s very wary of shepherds and huskies. She’s open to small poodles and terriers. A little nervous around very high-energy dogs. Very leery of big dogs, though once she gets to know them, she’s fine. She finds boy Labradors overwhelming, but has had a few Labby girlfriends. Cali’s the most relaxed with her sister Dora and a couple of other dogs she knows well, all Labs or goldens. Anyone who shows any interest in her ball is definitely off the potential friends list. Unless it’s a golden; then they can talk.

Cali is racially profiling dogs. Jana does it too. When Jana was a puppy, if we saw another dog up ahead on a walk (we didn’t have a great neighborhood park with a play group), she’d react completely differently, depending on the breed. Jana is a little broader-minded than Cali; she loved Labradors and goldens equally from early puppyhood. A Lab or golden up ahead would mean eager dancing at the end of the leash and maybe even pulling toward the potential pal. Any other dog, big or small, and Jana would slow down and walk very close to me, a bit nervous and unsure. She’d be fine once she met and got to know a dog of any breed, as long as the dog had good manners. But retrievers, dogs who looked like her — they were OK from the get-go.

It’s not just based on experience. One of the first nonfamily goldens Cali met at the park was an unusually bad-tempered young man who snarled and lunged at her. That did not make her wary the next time she saw an unfamiliar golden.

It’s not only a golden thing, either. A smooth-coated collie puppy I was working with, the lone collie in a sea of Lab puppies at a service dog training school, literally danced with joy the first time a staffer brought her smooth collie service dog to visit. I’d never seen him so happy, and he was generally a pretty cheerful guy. Then there are the German shepherds at the park. The young girl likes to play with Cali. Cali has, on a couple of occasions, accepted the play invitations. Sometimes, while she’s thinking about it, another shepherd, either a young male or an older, long-haired shepherd, will show up. Young girl is immediately off to play with the other shepherd. During breaks in that play, though, she tries again and again to invite Cali to play. She strongly prefers shepherds, but young golden girls are second.

We can’t really hold it against them; people racially profile dogs all the time. What else would you call legal restrictions on owning dogs of certain breeds or apartment rental policies or insurance policies that exclude specific breeds, without any attention to an individual dog’s personality and behavior? But I don’t think dogs learned it from us; I think they are hardwired to recognize — and feel more comfortable with — dogs of their own breed.

The (Not-So) Mean Girl at the Dog Park

Cali and Ronen play tug with a very small stick
Cali and Ronen play tug with a very small stick

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Cali’s unfortunate experience with a mean girl at the park. The mean girl has been back, and I think she really was just having an off day. An off couple of weeks, maybe.

Not long after she bullied Cali, I saw her go after a sweet older gentleman, a Labrador, who was lying down and minding his own business. A toy that Ms. Meanie wanted bounced too close; he must have moved to get it, and she was on him in a flash. Her dad reacted quickly and took her out of the park. Someone who was there commented that she’d done the same thing to a different dog earlier that week.

At this point, I was gunning for this dog. They’d better not bring her back to this park, I fumed.

Well, the dog came back. We had just arrived at the park when I saw them come in. My first instinct was to leash up the girls and leave. On the way out, I wandered over to a friend to chat for a moment. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with that dog there, and we talked about the best way to handle the Situation as we watched the mean girl.

She was playing energetically with Ronen, a sweet, goofy, year-old big male Labrador. Her hackles were up, and she was being very assertive, but not aggressive or even inappropriate. She played with a few other dogs, while I kept Jana and Cali close and on leash. She’s young, assertive, and high-energy, but she definitely wasn’t showing aggression or even bad manners. I finally decided to be a grown-up and actually talk to the mom.

She apologized for the Cali incident, and we talked about the other incidents and what to do about resource guarding. She said that they had signed the dog up for training  classes (hooray!), and they had exposed her to lots of other dogs for supervised play. They were working hard on a solid recall. The dog had been grumpy / reactive several times over a period of a couple of weeks, the mom said, but hadn’t had issues before or since. It sounds to me as if they are doing everything right, and they really care. I wish more dog parents were as concerned.

I’m still wary of this dog, but Cali seems to have completely let the incident go. She’s always thrilled to be at the park, happily plays with or alongside other dogs, and shows no fear of this or any other dog.

I need to learn from her: No grudges. Cali might well pick up on my anxiety about this dog, and I can create a problem where, at the moment, none exists. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could learn to move on as effortlessly as our dogs do?


Cali Overcomes a Setback

Regular readers may be following the saga of Cali at the dog park. To bring the ball or not to bring the ball?

After getting some wonderful feedback from several readers, I decided to give the “no ball” regimen another shot. I stopped taking the ball to the park and started actively encouraging Cali to play with other dogs.

An important note here: I go to the same park at roughly the same time nearly every day. The same group of dogs is there. Occasionally, I am early or late, or there’s a new dog or an infrequent visitor. But I know most of the dogs there. A dog park with lots of unfamiliar dogs would not necessarily be a good place to encourage a shy dog to play with other dogs. But (mostly) I know that the dogs — and owners — are good people.

So, after several days spent mainly with Cali sitting, staring at me, willing me, trying to mind meld me: “Throw a ball … Throw a ball” while I talked to the amused other dog people, it happened. She played with another dog. 

She played with Daisy, a sweet Rhodesian ridgeback. She played with Zoe, a small mixed-breed. She had a great time with Bella, a gorgeous young Bernese mountain dog. She even played with Ronen, a large black Lab who’s a good friend of Alberta’s but more energetic than Cali usually will tolerate. She ran in circles around Lola and Lila and Lizzie as they played, barking and play bowing, but lacking the confidence to fully join in. She tried to engage other dogs, too, not always sure but definitely making the effort.

These bursts of play were short, but exhilarating. She returned, panting and smiling, to sit next to me and, yes, stare and mind-meld. But it was great progress.

Then the husky showed up.

I’d seen this young female husky a few times, and she seemed intense and high-energy, but otherwise fine. On this morning, though, her mom had decided to bring treats (really good ones, it seems) to try to work on the young dog’s recall.

Mom pulled out treats. Cali wandered over to investigate. I called Cali back. She came (good girl!!) but then wandered over again. Mom was calling her dog all this time. I called Cali back but, before she came back to me, the Husky saw Mom, treats — and another dog closing in. She attacked. I called Cali again, Cali ran toward me, but the husky ran after her and grabbed her again. Cali cried. I screamed at the husky as I ran toward them. I had a leash in my hand and swatted at the husky, who backed up. I grabbed Cali.

Cali and I went over to our usual group of people and I checked her for damage (there was none) and we all told her what a good girl she was. We then left. I was worried that the experience would dampen her enthusiasm for the park and make her fear other dogs.

On the walk home, she warily eyed a friendly dog who wanted to say hi. She tucked her tail and looked at me. We kept our distance.

But the next morning, she was eager to go to the park. We were early, and there were few dogs there, but she did play with a small terrier mix. The next morning, our usual friends were there, and Cali played briefly with a new puppy on her first visit to the park. And she barked and circled Lola and her friends as they played. So it seems that the attack hasn’t slowed Cali’s progress. What a relief.

Even so, if I see any huskies in the park, I am steering clear.

She’s Very Patient; or Is She Stubborn?

A few weeks ago, Cali showed protective behavior when another dog at the park seemed to be interested in her ball. I wrote about it in a post that was published on Dec. 14, No More Toys.

I did stop taking the ball. We’d walk to the park, and Cali would get more and more excited as we got closer. I’d turn her loose and tell her to go play. And she’d sit and stare at me.

Stubborn CaliDay one. Fixed stare. Day two. Fixed stare. Days three, four, five … this went on for more than a week.

Cali did not play with another dog. She did walk around the park, following me, stopping every few feet to sit in front of me and stare.

Deni suggested that I bring a non-ball toy and try to get Cali to play with Ronen, Alberta’s Labrador friend. Cali watched Ronen run off with the tug toy. Then Cali sat. And stared at me.

A couple of times, there were no other dogs at the park when we got there. Cali sat and stared at me. Just the two of us, alone in a huge meadow, perfect for ball playing. I decided to bring a ball and only let Cali play with it if no other dogs were around.

Who was I kidding?

Now, Cali’s sit-and-stare-at-mes were punctuated by brief pop-ups. Up onto her hind feet, quick poke with her nose to my backpack (or pocket), where the ball was. Then pop back into her sit. And stare at me.

I was trying to out-stubborn Cali? I was delusional. Cali is very stubborn. Or, from her perspective, extremely patient.

My firm resolution softened. I decided to let her play ball if there were only a couple of other dogs there. Well, maybe if there were only four or five dogs. Or more, but not big ones. Or if they were far down the field … You can see where this is going.

So, once again, we play ball at the park.

I do stay far from the other dogs, and I put the ball away if the more rambunctious ball stealers are there. For her part, Cali is (a little) better about bringing the ball back to me. Sometimes. And she hasn’t so much as given another dog a dirty look.

I’m calling it a compromise.