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Vet Talk

Dog Parks: Danger Unleashed
June 4, 2012 (published)

On the surface, it’s hard to take issue with a dog park. It encourages dogs and their owners to go out and get some exercise, fresh air and sunshine, all the while strengthening the bond between them. With our fractured, modern lives and a spreading epidemic of human and pet obesity (not to mention apartment dwelling), it seems like a made-to-order cure-all for everyone involved. It is hard to find fault with the idyllic image of dogs romping and playing, tails wagging while their owners chat over the small details that make up our lives.

When I first got out of veterinary school about 15 years ago, this was my impression of dog parks; benign wonderlands where forest creatures could romp, and people could reconnect with their pets and each other. You could practically hear the choir of cherubim singing their tiny castrati tunes.  I was a big proponent of them (dog parks, not castrati), and talked them up to everyone.

Until the bodies started coming in.

My first job out of school was my internship year at a busy emergency and specialty hospital in California’s midsection.  After a bit, I noticed a mounting body count of injured dogs coming directly to the emergency room from the nearby dog park.  Actually, ‘injured’ doesn’t quite convey the carnage: torn up, eviscerated and maimed all come a little closer to describing the victims of dog-on-dog violence that I saw on an almost nightly basis during the warmer months.

The stories from the owners of the injured were almost always the same:

“He was just playing when this HUGE dog came out of nowhere!”

“A bigger dog picked him up and shook him like a chew toy!”

“This massive dog just swooped in, bit him and ran off – I didn’t see an owner anywhere!”

The victims were almost always smaller than the attackers, and Yorkies and Bichons seemed to be the most common targets of the larger aggressors, a condition known in the profession as “Big Dog – Little Dog” and abbreviated BDLD. BDLD is what we would write on our dry-erase incoming board when we got the call that a case like this was coming in. The only abbreviations that would strike more fear in our hearts were ‘HBC’ for Hit By Car and ‘GDV’ for Gastric Dilation-Volvulus, or bloat. ‘ABC’ for Attacked by Clowns was a distant fourth.

The injuries, sometimes incurred in just a few seconds, would be horrendous, the trauma massive. Many did not survive or were euthanized due to the finances involved in even attempting to get them better. It is shocking how much damage a set of jaws can do in such a short time; 30 seconds of fighting could lead to weeks of recuperation, multiple surgeries and thousands in medical bills. Many of the owners became victims themselves, usually bitten on the hand or arm as they tried to wrest their smaller pets from the jaws of the larger dogs. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] reports that 885,000 people need medical attention every year for dog bite injuries.) It was sometimes hard for me to tell where the blood was coming from – the owner or my patient. I often informed pet owners on the nature of their dog’s injuries, and then sent them packing to the ER for treatment themselves.

So, needless to say, my initial enthusiasm for the playful and beatific environment of the dog park began to erode around the edges a bit. I saw owner after owner and pet after pet traumatized when an afternoon’s romp in the grass turned deadly. 

This is not to say that I think dog parks are inherently bad or the people who frequent them evil. But there is no denying the dangers unleashed when dogs’ ancestral instincts to chase after smaller prey take over. Not every owner has a well-trained and well-behaved companion, and you need to learn how to look out for the other guy and protect your dog from injury. I still think there is benefit to dogs, and their people, of getting exercise and commingling. How can we resolve this conundrum? How can we keep people and pets safe while still getting the maximum benefit out of a dog park?

I have a few tips - a few simple rules of thumb to follow to keep your pet safe when visiting a dog park, and to help you keep your thumbs.

  1. Know the dogs who are there. I know this isn’t always feasible, but if you know the temperaments and dispositions of the dogs your dog is playing with (say, from prior arranged play dates), you are that much less likely to come away unscathed.

  2. Know the lay of the land. Are there spots where dogs could interact, and possibly get injured, that are out of your line of sight? If trouble occurs, is there an easy exit? If badness happens, are you ready for it? Be ready for things to go wrong, and be ready to act if they do.

  3. Watch. This may be the most important one of all – watch what your dog is doing and who they are doing it with. Keep track of the action and be ready to swoop in and break up the fight if you need to. A can of pepper spray, a container of water to throw on heads, or a big stick to pry a dog away from its victim can save a life. If there is a fight, grab the attacker by the back feet to pull him out of the fight. If you have a smaller dog who is romping with a bigger dog, stay alert to the possibility that the play may turn in a direction you don’t want it to. If there is a dog you don’t know who is showing extra interest in your smaller dog, pick your dog up and head out. Similarly, if you notice a dog owner who is not paying attention to their dog, realize that could be a recipe for disaster. Don’t toss your dog in the melee and wander off – you are there to protect them from harm.

  4. Small is beautiful. A smaller park with less potential for huge roiling masses of dogs is safer than a large one in which large groups of dogs can group and set off the pack mentality. Similarly, a smaller group of dogs is easier to monitor and watch over than a pack of 50. Try going on less-travelled days and less busy times of day when the crowds are smaller. Avoid extra-hot days to stay safe from another killer – heat stroke.

  5. Consider the alternatives. Although some municipalities provide parks specifically for small dogs and puppies, if you have a small dog, understand that the dog park may not be the safest place to take your dog for playtime. Consider a get-together at your home with dog-owning friends with dogs of known temperament, or a stroll with just you and your dog. Doggie day care can provide a safe place to play and socialize.

    Properly socialized dogs can go a long way towards minimizing the risks of a dog park, too. Make sure your dog has good ‘doggy manners’ by enrolling him in a good training program once he is old enough, and ask your veterinarian for pointers on socialization and resources for good classes. 

    If you own a dog who has aggressive tendencies, don’t go to the dog park and expose others to risk. Not every dog has a suitable temperament for the dog park.  Before you go, be sure your dog is comfortable with dogs he doesn't know. Once there, avoid situations that may set him off. In this way, socialization benefits everyone – less chance that a little dog will get bitten, less chance that a big dog will do the biting and you get to keep your hands! Win-Win-Win!

    Most of the above tips boil down to logic, attentiveness and a strong sense of stewardship. Do all that you can to keep your dog from falling prey to another dog at the dog park, and to keep your dog from becoming a predator.  Your family veterinarian also has resources for you to keep your dog safe, and certainly has the knowledge and skills to help if they do become injured or ill.

    One other note – if you are going to take your dog to the dog park, make sure they have completed the full puppy series of vaccines, which usually ends between 4 and 6 month of age depending on breed. Boosters in young adulthood are important, too.

    With a little pre-planning, a little common sense and a lot of alertness, you can make sure you never encounter trouble at the dog park and the angels keep singing. They sound way better on this side of the Rainbow Bridge, anyway.

    15 Comments

    Cindy Ludwig
    August 30, 2016

    As a professional trainer, I agree, and strongly advise my clients to stay away from them. Initially, like you, I thought, what a great idea. But then, after my own puppy was attacked, her playmate, and others, I began to understand the danger involved. .


    Louise
    June 28, 2015

    Dog parks should be banned. They present the most danger to ALL dogs both from aggression as well as spreading disease. There isn't enough money to pay me to take one of my dogs to a dog park. Horrible idea!


    Barbara
    June 27, 2015

    If you have a genuinely small dog (I have one 3 1/2 lbs and one 4 1/2 lbs), be aware that any dog more than twice your dog's weight is a Big Dog in relation to your Small Dog.


    Gerry
    October 31, 2014

    Sure, any vet will see many issues. That's why you're there. But, how many of the no-issues do you hear about? And most of the people who comment on these articles are those who have seen issues and walked away. Besides the dog park, I also run play groups at shelters & work with behavior issues. I don't know of any vet, and very few dog trainers who really know how to manage a play group. Sure, if you have the room and can organize your local play group, that's just fine. But many of us are doing just that, at the local dog park. For a new dog park, you should first spend some time there, just watching the activity, and seeing if the people are managing the dogs. If they're not doing so, then DO NOT go in, no matter what size your dog is. If the people are doing so, you can often spot the "regulars" who are watching everything. Many of them know most of the dogs, each other, and are very willing to help new people get situated. If you know little of dog parks or dogs playing, they can also guide you as to what is acceptable play, and how to interrupt potential situations. From that, you'll soon form an opinion on how much and whether your dog wants to return. A few will not, and some just like to walk around and watch, playing with only a few selected other dogs. When the person is very nervous, we may suggest starting in the small area, where we bring over just a few very social dogs first. Often, the dogs adjust faster than the people. I understand your intent on dog fights, but please be careful here. If you pull a dog's back feet and they don't release, you may severely injure or kill the other dog, and people may take your advice literally. You lift the hind leg(s) and wait for the dog to release (if he does) before moving back. If you pull out pepper spray or a big stick, you may be the one to end up with injuries, as many people are far more dangerous than the dogs there. And have you ever tried prying dogs apart with a big stick? You can learn simple methods from watching regulars there. Yes, there can be extreme cases you've heard about, but they are relatively rare. As for your small dog romping with a bigger dog, you need to learn what constitutes fair play and what is dangerous, and that you'll typically see more issues with the medium size dogs. If the scared Chi runs under the Mastiff or Newfie, he'll likely find some peace. We get many small dogs with no issue. Social skills and personality are better determining factors on issues, with both dogs and people. Your Big Dog-Little Dog and "little dog syndrome" are nothing more than a lack of social skills, mostly due to people. If your dog seems to have aggressive tendencies or (more likely) some fear, find some advice or try small play sessions before going to a dog park. As for your dog being comfortable with dogs he doesn't know, he CANNOT obtain those social skills without experience (even if he lives with other dogs), so making that a condition makes no sense at all. But in any case, you should first go through enough training so that you have some verbal control over your dog before bringing him into a group. I've taken four dog-aggressive fosters to the dog park this year, after that initial conditioning, which allowed me to calm them down and guide their behavior. In just a few weeks they were all fine, and went on to adoption. As many adopters already have another dog, that initial meeting skill may be crucial for him. As for the comment on "training" them for a dog park, no amount of training will give the skills for meeting a large number of dogs with varied personalities and social skills. Not unless that is part of the training, which can be started at pet boarding facilities that offer both training and supervised play groups. Typical dog training often omits this. We just had a woman simply walk in for her first time with a small and scared dog, on leash. When the other dogs came over, she tried to push them away, then grabbed and carried her dog. An action which will make many other dogs try to jump up to see him, and she stated hitting the dogs. Several people had to come over and escort her out, suggesting she try the small area and watch. But the next day, another woman came with a scared Chi, and asked for some help. We then cleared an area for him, got his leash off first, and called over a few very gentle dogs to get him started. A little later he's romping around and watching the activity with no issues. As far as pack mentality and falling prey to others or becoming a predator, you're reading too much on the internet. Yes, bad things do happen, and those are the ones you hear about. But I'm in a small community with 7 dog parks, and look at how many of them are out there. Read some current texts on ethology or authors like Dunbar, Donaldson and McConnell on dog behavior. Other than park regulars, look for a trainer or behaviorist who is experienced with dog parks or play groups for advice. If there are common situations that may "set off" your dog, don't follow the advice above of simply avoiding them. Get some assistance and learn how you and your dog can best handle these situations before you run into one. At the least, you will then learn the safest way to control the dog. On logic, attentiveness and sense of stewardship, of course. Avoid dog parks where they are absent, or look for other times with other people there.

    Renee
    August 16, 2014

    I have several dog parks in my area that my dog and I frequent, as well as some other dog friendly areas. I think dog parks depend LARGELY on the dog owners and their judgment and responsibility. Some days we stay awhile and others we leave. When owners aren't watching their dogs or think that some rough play is okay, THAT becomes the problem. I understand the plight of small dog owners, although I have a large dog, but the reality is that many little dogs become prey to little dogs and not all little dogs interact well with large dogs. My large dog knows how to "be little" so he can interact with little dogs, but he could easily unintentionally hurt them just due to size. My dog also submits to ANY dog, even the ones that are being dominate or unfriendly to him. However, my dog is a Rottweiler, so he is stereo-typed the minute we walk in. I have to super diligent. But then so should everyone that brings their dogs to the park. Moral of the story-pet owners need to keep their wits about them at all times and head off problems.

    Anne Thrope
    September 30, 2012
    Owners who take their small dogs into areas marked for big dogs only are willingly putting their dogs at risk. Sad.
    Simone
    August 10, 2012
    Have to disagree with the prior comments on small dogs having to stay out, our small dog area is pea gravel while the main dog area is nice and grassy. Why should my well behaved poodle not be able to be to romp in a dog area just because someone does not have proper control of their sight hounds prey drive? They can be trained.
    Silkienne
    July 26, 2012
    The author forgot to mention "little dog syndrome". This is when little dogs do not understand the size difference or are defensive/aggressive because of this size difference. The behavior of the little dog can force big dogs to defend themselves. And this will always lead to the little dog loosing. And, in the case of my show bitch (at a regular park and on-leash), she never trusted little dogs again and became aggressive towards any loose small dogs after having been severely bitten in the head by one.
    Mary
    July 17, 2012
    I'm tired of large dog owners who think their dogs need rough and tumble play. Your dogs need to learn how to play nice. I have two HUGE dogs who have been taught to play nice with toys or even running around without the play biting and tumbling around some owners think is ok. IT'S NOT! It only leads to more aggression in the dog park. Pretty soon it gets out of hand and the owners can't control it. If your human kid "play bit" another human kid, or wrestled him to the ground and held him there while he cried, the behavior would be stopped. My two dogs have learned that small dogs are not prey and do not bite or toss them around or even "play bite" "play wrestle" they have been taught to be gentle. I'm so sick of pet owners who won't take responsibility and even pick up after their dogs. I don't go back to dog parks and won't ever again. There are tons of activities you can do other places. If you do go, demand that the dog owners pick up! I used to call it to their attention if they ignored it. No one wants to track that home on paws or shoes!
    Liz Palika, CDT, CABC
    June 11, 2012
    I HATE dog parks - with capital letters! I talk to dog training clients on a regular basis who have had traumatic experiences at dog parks. Puppies who have been traumatized at an early age and are now afraid of other dogs; dogs who have been attacked and survived but now need help to overcome the emotional trauma, and on and on and on. The idea of dog parks is great; the reality not so much.)
    Holly
    June 18, 2012
    Ugh. I'd never, ever, ever go to a dog park. I'd find ways to do OTHER things as I just don't think most people have a clue what is normal behavior and won't stop abnormal behavior before it escalates
    Liz Palika, CDT, CABC
    June 11, 2012
    I HATE dog parks - with capital letters! I talk to dog training clients on a regular basis who have had traumatic experiences at dog parks. Puppies who have been traumatized at an early age and are now afraid of other dogs; dogs who have been attacked and survived but now need help to overcome the emotional trauma, and on and on and on. The idea of dog parks is great; the reality not so much.)
    Teri Klimek, Dog trainer
    June 11, 2012
    Hate them under all circumstances. Dogs will learn to be a bully if they are being bullied, and those that bully get to practice the behavior over and over again. Under no circumstance does any dog under the age of one year old belong at a dog park. The chance of bad experiences that will color the rest of their lives is too likely to happen. Play groups among friends in their own yards is an excellent alternative. Or, just exercise and play with your dog and take them on walks to new areas so that they get to enjoy being with YOU!!!
    Denise
    June 11, 2012
    I 100% agree with Beatrice. Our local dog park does have a separate area for small dogs, but owners still insist on bringing them in the area for larger dogs. Even though my greyhound lives with cats and dachshunds, I never know when instinct is going to kick in and he'll think that fluffy white dog is a rabbit. Other than that, my experiences at the dog park have been fine, although I usually go very early weekday mornings when they aren't that crowded. Weekends I wouldn't set foot in there.
    Debbie Tucker-Smith
    June 11, 2012
    Absolutely!! Too many large and small dogs do not know their manners these days, as they do not get to experience enough socialization and many do not get TOLD what not to do. I love small dog areas for my small dogs, and I still watch carefully as I have rescued and fostered - and trained - many dogs with prey drive or just bad manners. I know they are out there, and I know some dogs can be angered in an instant (like my late Jack Russell, lol, who I kept on a leash in the dog park if any other dog was there, because he would have been an instigator, and I knew it!)
    Beatrice
    June 8, 2012
    Our dog used to love going to the dog park, but we no longer take him because we always had to leave early when a small dog owner arrived and won't keep their dogs in the area for little dogs. My dog isn't aggressive and enjoys rough and tumble play with other large dogs,but as a saluki mix he has a strong prey drive and just can't tell that a dachshund isn't the same as a rabbit. If you own a small dog and the park has a special area, please use it...it helps to keep your dog safe and means the big dogs can play and let off steam. I've lost count of the number of small dogs I've seen as a vet, where the owner comes in swearing the nasty big dog was entirely at fault but as they tell the story it turns out that it was at least 50/50 but their dog came off worse because of the size difference(my personal favorite is the Cairn that ran over and tried to attack a Rottie which was on a leash...Rottie picked it up and throw it, and the Cairn's owner thought the Rottie was the one which shouldn't be allowed on the streets!)


 
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