On a recent Sunday afternoon, I took my Westie, Annie, to the dog park at Glasgow park.
Imagine my surprise when a woman came in a few minutes later with a white ferret.
She let it go in the big dog park, where it immediately drew the attention of every large dog in the place and escaped under the fence.
A woman outside handed the ferret back, and the owner brought it into the small dog park, where my dog – Westies were bred as hunting dogs – went crazy. I asked the lady to leave. She did. But she took the ferret back to the big dog park and let it go again.
Dog parks, where the leashes come off and the sniffing begins, can be a lot of fun, but not all dogs belong there – and certainly no other animals do.
Dogs that do well in dog parks are ones that are well socialized around other dogs, have basic obedience training, allow you to redirect them and come when they are called.
Dogs that don’t do well are shy dogs, puppies and aggressive dogs.
“Dog parks can be wonderful for confident dogs that have had a number of doggie friends and successful play history,” says dog trainer Leslie Clifton of Dog Kingdom Pets and The DogSmith of Upper Eastern Shore in Earleville, Md.
“My recommendation is that they should have learned some foundation behavior around other dogs on a leash before they go to a dog park,” she says. “Then start them off small, off leash with one other dog before throwing them into the deep end in a dog park.”
The entry into a dog park is a red flag area, Clifton says. If you see someone trying to get into the park with their dog, keep yours away. If you’re trying to get in, wait until the entry space is clear. Several hyped-up dogs in a small area can end up in a fight.
Then, put down your cellphone and be an advocate for your dog. It’s fun to talk to other dog owners, but walk around while you do it and watch what’s going on so you’ll know if you need to step in or just leash your dogs up and leave.
Also, pick the right park for you and your dog. Some dog parks have only one enclosure for dogs of all sizes, others have separate spaces for small dogs and larger dogs. Clifton advises keeping dogs in groups of about the same size. A small dog being chased or in rough play with a big dog can squeal, sending the big dog’s play into predatory behavior.
“There’s a thing called predatory drift where they feed off each other’s arousal and they start to see a smaller dog as a prey animal,” she says. “It’s not a pretty thing to see.”
Even if the big dogs don’t pack up, your little dog can get hurt just in the course of play.
You’ll know your dog is having a good time if it is running around sniffing, has relaxed body language and is using play postures to entice another dog. Dogs greet each other by sniffing each other’s read ends. Watch what happens next. One dog should not try to dominate, or mount, another. If it happens, walk in between them and redirect your dog.
Signs your dog is not having a good time include looking away from the other dogs, hunching down trying to make itself small, running back to you and getting between your legs and/or asking to be picked up.
“That’s your dog is crying for help and saying ‘I’m not comfortable here,’ ” she says. “Many people don’t pay heed. People don’t love all other people, and dogs don’t love all other dogs. And many are not ready for that kind of interaction in that kind of highly stimulated environment.”
Some red flags that real trouble might be brewing include your dog being chased more than it is doing the chasing. Dogs like to wrestle, swapping who’s on the bottom and who’s on the top, especially young dogs. But if your dog is spending most of its time on the ground, playing the submissive role, it’s being bullied and is not having a good time.
Watch the dogs’ body language. A hard stare with a stiff frozen body, called a freeze, is a precursor that a dog is getting ready to attack. Whether the frozen dog is yours or not, break it up now. Use your voice to create a distraction, walk in between them. If the owners of the aggressive dog do not leash their dog, leash yours and leave.
“That dog should not be in the dog park if they are showing that kind of body language because that is not a dog that is OK around other dogs,” Clifton said.
If you take your children to the dog park, keep them with you at all times.
Do not take puppies to a dog park, even a small dog park.
“The dog park is definitely not for puppies,” Clifton says. “We want puppies to be socialized in controlled and managed environments where we know they will have a good time … Puppies need to have wonderful experiences with others their age or stable older dogs.
“Getting flipped around, scared to death or even hurt can set the stage for a lifetime of fear, and when they are older they can become reactive on a leash when they see another dog.”
If your dog starts dragging you to the dog park entrance, Clifton recommends turning around and walking away. She calls it the “penalty yard.” Until the dog can walk calmly at your side, don’t take it in.
“Any dog that is dragging a person in there has a high level of arousal and the owner has no control,” she says. “This dog needs more work. Any dog should be able to walk and sit and give the owner attention just as foundation behavior.
“Yeah, they are excited, but they need to earn their entry with appropriate behavior.”
There is no guideline on how long to stay at the park. Pay attention to the temperature to be sure your dog doesn’t get overheated, but you can stay as long as your dog seems to be having fun.
“If things start going wrong, it’s best not to confront other people,” Clifton says. “People don’t take it very well when you go over and say your dog’s being a butt, can you control him. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. It’s best just to leave.”
If you are interested in having Clinton do a workshop on dog park etiquette, you can reach her at LClifton@Dog Smith.com.
Delaware Pets is written by animal lover Deb Lucas. Send her your events, news and column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (302) 324-2852.