No More Toys

It’s so obvious that even the young girl at the park knew it: Taking toys to the dog park is a bad idea because the dogs might fight over them. So spoke the wise sage, who couldn’t have been older than eight.

And yet, for months (years?), I’ve been taking Cali to the park to play ball. She’s obsessed with her ball. Only her ball; she won’t touch any other ball. And when she’s there, she gets nervous if too many other dogs are playing nearby. They might take her ball. It has happened; and, with some dogs, it’s a challenge to get her precious ball back.

With all that I know about dogs, you’d think I would see the writing on the wall. Smell the coffee. Choose your cliché. I didn’t, until this morning, when Cali actually lunged at another dog.

Yes. Sweet, gentle Cali, who loves all humans and nearly all non-humans. Who wants to befriend the cats and birds and squirrels that Jana is trying so hard to chase. Cali, who comically crouches and grovels, trying to convince tiny Chihuahuas and toy poodles that she’s eager to play with or submit to — not harm — them.

Barley, who owns the above-mentioned wise child and their mom, is a goofy, energetic, one-year-old golden doodle. He’s at that precarious stage where he’s lost his “puppy license” but doesn’t yet understand all the rules of civilized dog play. When he gets out of bounds, the grown-up dogs at the park reprimand him rather than tolerating the puppyish misbehavior. Most are very appropriate; he usually reacts well, and the play continues. We are very lucky to have an extremely nice group of regular dogs and dog parents, and the dog play is nearly always healthy and energetic; I’ve rarely seen dogs behave aggressively.

Barley was inviting Cali to play. His energy might well have been too much for her; she’s pretty sensitive. But she usually just hunkers protectively over her ball and ignores the other dogs. Or picks up her ball and walks away.

At least, she did. Until today.

Barley ran by, seemingly trying to take her ball, and she jumped up and barked. She might have even growled a little. Cali!

I scolded her and was on my way over to leash her up and go when … she did it again! Barley’s mom was very nice about it, but I was mortified. Cali usually has better manners than that. And I should know better.

The truth is, I had been thinking about leaving the ball at home. I was not expecting Cali to lash out at another dog, but I was hoping to encourage her to play with the other dogs. When Alberta is here, Alberta plays with other dogs and tries to get Cali involved. It seems like such a great way for Cali to get exercise. A lot better than lying in the grass clutching her ball, anyhow.

So that’s it. No more toys at the dog park for Cali. And a big bonk on the head with a rolled-up newspaper for me.


Dog Parks: The New Spectator Sport

Cali loves going to the park, just as many sports fans love going to the stadium. McNear Park, about eight blocks from our apartment, is an off-leash dog run for a few hours every morning. A group of very nice, well-mannered dogs are regulars, and I have only very rarely seen any inappropriate play. It’s a wonderful place for Cali to get some off-leash ball play, since our yard is very small.

Cali loves going to the park, just as many sports fans love going to the stadium. McNear Park, about eight blocks from our apartment, is an off-leash dog run for a few hours every morning. A group of very nice, well-mannered dogs are regulars, and I have only very rarely seen any inappropriate play. It’s a wonderful place for Cali to get some off-leash ball play, since our yard is very small.

Every morning, she bugs me to get going. Hurry up! She brings my shoes and nudges me to get out the door faster. She noses her favorite ball to remind me to take it along. When we get there, she demands that I throw the ball immediately. She eagerly chases it.

Then she lies down in the grass and surveys the park. She’ll occasionally bring the ball back and let me throw it again. Once. She moves from sunny patch to shade, carrying her ball with her and carefully placing it between her paws as she resumes her reclining position on the grass. Watching other dogs play.

A few dogs try to engage her, bowing and bouncing. Once in a great while, Cali will play for a couple of minutes, then, worry furrowing her brow, search out her ball, sigh in relief, and lie down, the precious ball resting safely between her paws once again.

Sometimes, I go over and get the ball to throw it for her. She’s happy to chase it, tail rotating like a helicopter blade … and then, again, lie down and watch the action. Or not, in which case, she’ll hold tightly onto the ball, not letting me take it and throw it.

Cali sees the park as a sports arena where she gets to watch other dogs play ball, Frisbee, and tag. She’d be happy to stay there all day, observing, but I usually get annoyed and threaten, “Play — or we’re going home.”

Meanwhile, Jana is doing her thing. She grazes a bit, then rolls in the grass. Stretches out, does a bit of yoga, sunbathes. The walk there and back is enough exercise for her. But Cali really needs to run and burn off energy.

When I finally give up and snap leashes back on, Cali usually digs in her heels, refusing to leave. She might, grudgingly, let me take the ball and throw it a few times then, before we leave.

When we get home, what does Cali want me to do? Throw the ball for her, of course.

A Dog’s Life

Jana has visited many dog parks around the U.S. and in Israel; this one is in North Platte, NE

I have just returned from a too-short visit to Israel, where I lived for nearly 15 years and where Jana, my golden retriever, was born. An exciting discovery was a new dog park just a few blocks from my mom’s apartment. Even nicer was a long article in the HaAretz newspaper’s weekend magazine about the social networks that are springing up at dog parks around the country. I also noticed a lot more people out walking dogs, water bowls outside shops, and people dining with their dogs at outdoor tables at restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

All of this, I believe, signifies wonderful changes in the status of dogs and dog-loving humans in Israel. When I moved there (in 1990), it was a challenge to find dog food. By the time I left, a few premium brands were being imported. Now, boutique pet stores are common, and they feature a full range of high quality foods, toys, and accessories. According to the HaAretz article, Israel now has more than 60 dog parks, most of them in Tel Aviv. I remember when Jerusalem’s first dog park opened in a park near Israel’s parliament building, the Knesset. When Jana was a puppy, we occasionally went there to play — and usually had the place to ourselves. Since Jana is only 9, it seems that the growth in dog park numbers and use has happened fairly quickly!

The HaAretz article describes groups of dog-park regulars who coordinate their visits to the park; many have formed friendships that extend beyond the dog park gate. The friends have helped each other out in times of economic stress, attended each other’s weddings, and formed open, honest relationships with a broader range of individuals than they otherwise would have been likely to befriend. The descriptions of these dog-centric social circles underscore the growing role that dogs are playing in people’s lives in Israel — a role that American dogs also fill — as friends and social icebreakers. “The dog makes it more likely that strangers will start talking to each other,” one interviewee says.

It also indicates, I believe, that dog owners are taking better care of their dogs and attending to the dogs’ needs for exercise and social interaction with their own doggy peers. When I worked as a dog trainer in Israel, I was often called to work with dogs who had “behavior problems” — problems that stemmed from lack of any attention at all. Not too many years ago, a lot of Israeli dogs spent their lives alone in a yard, often tied up. That still may be far too common, but this visit gives me hope that, for many Israeli dogs, things are looking up.


Good Owners Make Good Dog Parks

Happy dogs at play (photo by Sae Hokoyama)

In Take Me Out to the Dog Park, I described some features that contribute to a successful — fun, safe — dog park. But a perfectly designed and maintained park can be a nightmare if the dogs and humans who hang out there create a bad dog park culture. How can you tell?

Before letting your dog off leash in an unfamiliar dog park, check it out. If you can, observe the park during busy after-work or weekend hours. If not, observe for a few minutes before letting your darling out of the car.

Inattentive dog owners are a key contributor to unsafe and unpleasant dog park experiences. If the people are all clustered around the edge, chatting in small groups, or sitting on benches sipping coffee and ignoring the dogs, walk away. Some dog parks have a “let dogs be dogs” culture that encourages bullying. In Sue Sternberg’s excellent APDT Webinar[1], she showed video footage from a small urban dog park where dogs bullied and ganged up on other dogs while the oblivious humans sat on the sidelines.

You are your dog’s advocate and protector — if your dog is being bullied, get him out of there! You are also the responsible grown-up, frightening as that may be. If your dog is being a bully, get him out of there! Not all dog play is appropriate, and dog owners need to be aware of what’s happening so they can stop unsafe play.

What does dog bullying look like? If a dog keeps bugging another dog to play, even though the other dog has looked away, walked away, or barked, bared teeth, or otherwise told the first dog that he’s not interested, that dog is being a bully. If a dog pursues another dog, and nothing the other dog does can shake him, that dog is being a bully. If one dog body slams or plays roughly and the other dog is trying to get away or is not equally engaged in the roughhousing, it’s time to step in.

Watch those high-speed doggy chases, too. Sometimes it is all in good fun. The dogs chase each other, stop and restart, and look relaxed and happy, with tails up and ears back. But if the “chasee” has his ears forward and his tail tucked and looks scared, or if several dogs are chasing one dog, the dog being chased needs help. If a chase never changes directions — the same dog is always being chased — the chaser(s) might be bullying the other dog.

Entry gates at dog parks are prime spots for scary interactions. If several dogs are milling around the gate — or approach as you and your dog enter the double gate — be very careful. Walking into a mob of strange dogs is a stressful experience for your dog. The dogs might be friendly; they might also harass or attack an entering dog, especially if he seems nervous or defensive. Do your dog a favor and wait until the entryway is clear.

Not all dogs automatically learn the social graces. If your dog needs to learn some manners, try to set up one-on-one play dates with well-socialized dogs who can teach him the boundaries of appropriate dog play. And if you do take him to the dog park, remove him the instant you see him picking on another dog. He will learn that the fun stops when he acts like a bully, and the other dogs and people at the park will appreciate your conscientiousness.

Dog parks can be wonderful places for dogs to socialize and burn off energy. But some dogs are shy or timid; a dog park is too stressful for these dogs. And there are too many stories of dogs being injured or attacked to assume that all dog park experiences will be good ones. Think carefully about whether your dog will enjoy the rough-and-tumble of multi-dog play, and take the time to check out a dog park’s culture before you go.

[1] “A Look at Interactions Between Dogs in Public Dog Parks”

Play Dates for Your Dog

Does your dog have friends or do you just assume that all dogs like each other?

I met my (human) friend at the dog beach last week, and her cheerful, playful golden bounded over, wearing a huge smile as she ran up to say hi to Jana. They’ve played together many times at dog beaches around the Bay Area (tough life, I know) and they are clearly friends.

But, while 9-year-old Christina and 8-year-old Jana are BFFs, there are other dogs we see regularly with whom Jana is cordial, but distant. Remember being forced to play with your mom’s friends’ kids? It’s the same with canines — our dogs and our friends’ dogs don’t always hit it off.

It might seem obvious. Not all dogs like each other or enjoy hanging out together. We certainly don’t instantly bond with every human we meet. Some become friends. Many do not.

But when some people take their dogs to dog parks or dog beaches, they somehow assume that everyone there will play nicely together. Similarly, they get irked when their dog seems to take an instant dislike to another dog they meet on a walk or in a training class.

Just like our parents, we want our dogs to be polite and friendly all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. When some dogs take an instant dislike to another, they lunge, bark, or even attack the other dog, for no reason that we hapless humans can see.

I’ve spent a lot of time in dog parks lately doing observation research with my students. What we’ve noticed is that most of the dogs there don’t play with each other. They run, play with their humans, chase balls, roll in the grass, and sniff things. Often, they are sniffed or given a play bow from another, more social dog, and politely and appropriately decline the invitation to play. Sometimes, dogs chase each other a few times, and sometimes the “play” chase turns into something closer to bullying.

Those of us who take our dogs to dog parks for exercise need to be involved. It is no more acceptable to spend dog-park time involved in a long cellphone conversation than it would be for the mother of a 2-year-old human child to do that while her child ran unobserved at the playground. A dog park, fenced or not, is not an opportunity to take a break from your dog.

We can go to dog parks with friends whose dogs are really our dogs’ friends — or set up play dates at our homes. Or, we can go to the dog park with the plan of engaging with our dog while we’re there — to walk with the dog, or maybe toss a ball. What we need to avoid is just assuming that all the dogs will play together and get enough exercise while we ignore them. As many dog experts will tell you, the more engaged the humans are at the dog park, the fewer unpleasant incidents you’ll see.

The same goes for walks. Even on-leash dogs can hurt each other. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, consider working with a trainer to improve his socialization and help him learn to behave more calmly. If your dog seems to attract hostility from other dogs, ask their owners not to let their dogs approach. Meanwhile, work at building up your dog’s confidence and social skills with dogs you know are friendly.

But the bottom line is, we’re our dogs’ protectors and advocates. Don’t throw your dog to the (domesticated) wolves at dog parks or in the neighborhood, and don’t let your dog become the bully, either.

Check out these doggy buddies: Dog Guides Blind Dog