Well Socialized? No, Well Traumatized

Saturday Afternoon, 3:00PM, Trinity Bellwoods Dog Bowl

This weekend I caught up with a couple that had taken group classes in the summer. Their roughly two year old rescue lab mix had been doing great. Right after adoption, leash pulling was their major problem, and they were proud (and I was pleasantly surprised!) that just six months later, the dog walked on a loose leash, even on the way to the dog park, and all they did to create that was click then treat for walking on a loose leash (They were able to totally fade out food reinforcement for leash walking very quickly they remarked).

They hired me for a private lesson because they observed and their dog walker observed that their dog was being rude with other dogs at the dog park. First, lots of mounting and humping. Second, chasing down and harassing dogs that were nervous or had “given up”. Third, grappling other dogs by their collars during wrestling.

Our appointment was for 3pm on Saturday afternoon, and after meeting at the school, we walked towards Trinity Bellwoods to enter the dog bowl – the official off-leash area for dogs in the park, so I could observe their dog’s behaviour and offer suggestions on what to do to improve it.

We started off by having her to some basic exercises (sit, down, offering attention, etc.) and then we released her to go play.

She found a Golden Retriever and proceeded to wrestle, and very quickly mounted and humped him. “Too bad!” I said, as I went to get her, moved her away by her harness, and leashed her up. Timeout time.

We tried again in a minute, and this time she ran into the mix of dogs at the park. Within a few seconds, a Doberman, German Shepherd, and Rottie mix started chasing her. It was starting to look ugly. She ran and ran, and eventually came to a halt, and offered appeasement signals (c-shaped spine, head low, whale eye, pinned ears) and the pack of three dogs wouldn’t let up. I ran into the group and physically shielded her from all three, and the owner of the Doberman saw me do this and proceeded to collect his dog. The remaining two dogs moved on by themselves. Their owners were absent.

THIS is what an unhappy dog looks like. The Ridgeback is being a jerk.
She looked just like the Beagle in this picture. Owner intervention required ASAP!(Photo courtesy of Paivi Reijonen)

I moved with my clients’ to the other side of the bowl and we let her go again. This time, she found a slightly smaller mixed breed dog and started giving chase. She was now chasing down a dog and making him feel uncomfortable! The same appeasement signals were being offered. We jumped in and quickly timed out our dog. What a hypocrite, we all thought!

Off in the distance, the three dogs that were bullying my clients’ dog were doing it to somebody else’s dog, but this time, no one was intervening. We had enough distance so I wasn’t concerned about my clients’ dog’s well being. But somebody’s dog was not very happy.

On the way out, our clients’ dog went to visit the German Shepherd. He told her off, hard, just because she entered his space. She got the hint and we moved on. Another dog went to visit the German Shepherd, and he got told off. I quickly realized that the Shepherd was resource guarding his owners. Yet they had brought their resource guarding dog and were just sitting around the dog bowl thinking nothing of it.

THIS is What Goes On?

I don’t go to these parks with my own dogs. I forget what goes on in places like this. Enclosed spaces devoid of anything interesting where too many dogs hang out – understimulated by the environment, but overaroused by other dogs. Too many people think that these dogs are playing and having fun. They were not. There was serious bullying and overarousal going on.

Today at lunch something connected. I get a lot of aggression cases where clients report that their dog was “well socialized” and spent a lot of time at the dog park. What I came to realize is all the owners with their dogs at the dog bowl that day were there because they really think that’s what the definition of dog socialization is, and that’s what dog play looks like.

If you took the average dog and had them stay in a poisoned environment like that for any length of time for weeks or months, I would be surprised if that dog did not develop an aggression problem. All that happens is dogs get bullied, these dogs learn that other dogs can be dangerous or threatening, my owners don’t help me at all, and the only way to get relief is to fight for it.

THIS is Normal

This is a video from a nearby park of two dogs meeting. One is trying a bit too hard. (OK, mine, the Beagle). The other dog offers some calming signals (head turn, look away, lay down) to communicate some discomfort. For the most part the Beagle backs off and the video ends with him reciprocating a head turn. After that the two just went off and did their own thing.

This is a video of Rachael taking a group of dogs out for a hike. This would be a great example of an alternative to being taken to a concrete, paved dog run.

THIS is NOT Healthy – But Sadly Normal at Dog Parks

In this above video by Sue Sternberg, you can see a small dog doing appeasement gestures and clearly asking for help.  Owner intervention is required immediately. If I owned the little dog I would body-block him and even just pick him up and immediately leave the park. If this dog is repeatedly taken to the dog park and experiences this, I have no doubt he will develop a serious dog aggression problem very quickly.

Excuses, Excuses

“Oh, but that’s how dogs play”

“My dog likes playing rough”

“Your dog needs to toughen up!”

“Let them work it out.”

Too commonly heard at places like the dog bowl. All wrong. That’s why I don’t go to places like that anymore, especially when it is busy.

Recognize Oncoming Disasters When You See Them

This is why I cringe a little when I hear of my clients’ taking their puppies to the dog park. I hope they have learned what we have taught them in puppy class, so they can identify what is good play and what is bullying. I also hope that they don’t unlearn due to the off-repeated mantras that well-intentioned but really uneducated owners parrot at dog parks. This Saturday afternoon at the dog bowl was a mess. Recognize a disaster in the making when you see it and keep your dog safe. Socialize, don’t traumatize your dog.

(Updated – Nov 19: A couple of commenters with a good eye did point out that the original video I used from puppy class wasn’t the best example. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WehLVdUPHpc – Things pointed out were tail tucked, trying to climb into person’s legs etc. for relief. So I am switching it out for another video that is a better example,  I hope. The Springer and Beagle were good friends by the end of class and in future socialization classes though, so don’t worry about her!)

Want some guidance for your first dog park visit? We can help!

Our instructors are available to meet you at the dog park and guide you through:

  1. Nailing the foundation skills you’ll need for off-leash play
  2. Assessing body language of all the dogs present 
  3. Managing greetings and interactions between your dog and playmates

83 Replies to “Well Socialized? No, Well Traumatized”

  1. Excellent post Andre, I’ll be sharing on my kennel and personal facebook pages with your permission. Too many passive owners and too many bullied dogs at the parks!

      1. Excellent article, but I was wondering…How does someone ensure they have a well or properly socialized dog? I imagine a doggy daycare setting is just as bad as a dog park? Thoughts?

        1. It starts at 8 weeks old at a proper run puppy socialization class.

          After that if we have fear in adolescent and adult dogs, then very carefully arranged play dates/meetings with the supervision of an experienced dog behaviour professional, where good behaviour is reinforced and inappropriate behaviour is discouraged.

  2. Thank you for such a great article! The videos were a wonderful addition.

    One of my dogs was attacked at a dog park when he was young and required over 20 stitches. Little did I know that the dog park I went to was one of the worst ones for dog attacks in my city. My dog has visited another dog park a few years later, under strong supervision with a trainer and her well-behaved pack, in which he did quite well, but I only trust my dog in her care with her dogs.

    By the way, both my dogs play together exactly as is shown in the first video.

    Thanks again for such an informative article!

  3. I have tried taking my dogs to dog parks when I lived in place with not much yard so they could legally have offleash time. I soon quit. Not because of behavior but for 2 reasons. I had a large and a small dog, so could only go into one size pen at a time, though would take both, and two because they had no interest in the park and other dogs. THey would sniff and maybe do their business, but then would just come and stay and sit beside me no matter what. So I figured it didn’t interest them. End of the parks for us.

  4. Good article Andre, thank you. I plan to post the link to my local pet owners FB Page..

    At the end you advise small dog owners to pick up their bullied pet and leave. While certainly picking up your small dog to escape injury is an option, in many cases it will result in the aggressor jumping and snapping at the anxious dog that is now elevated, and both the owner and dog risk getting bitten. If it proves necessary to pick up and if possible, suggest put your dog in your coat and completely out of sight of the bully. Or block and protect your small dog and yell loudly and firmly “CALL YOUR HUSKY/LAB/BEAGLE/DOG NOW!” and ensure that the bully or bullies are leashed before elevating your small dog.

  5. The little dog makes me sad. Mine was a rescue and gets picked on everywhere we go to the point that she now growls and lunges at other dogs before they even approach her even just on walks. This is a great article and I love the videos showing the difference between play and non play behaviors.

  6. Thanks so much for this. I spend over an hour every day rain or shine walking my dog but rarely do we visit the dog park.
    When I first moved back to Canada from the UK with my 1 year old dog I couldn’t believe the ‘dog park’ culture of North America. No wonder dogs in Canada were so unruly ! why bother training a dog who has to be on a leash or fenced in all the time ?
    My dog had grown up walking. I walked. he walked. we met other people who walked with their dogs who walked. we all kept moving and the dogs fell into a very relaxed ‘pack mentality’. We all got exercise, and nobody was bored. I rarely saw a dog fight.
    The only place dogs aren’t allowed in the UK are children’s playgrounds – which are fenced. This makes sense to me. Children are free to play in a dog free environment, there is no chance they will step in poop or have to deal with an unruly pup. the children can’t wander off and they are also protected from human predators. Doesn’t this sound like a much more relaxing environment for everyone ?
    The dog park is impossible for me – I have an active border collie who needs to run and work. there is no way I would ever take him to a crowded dog park with all his pent up energy and expect him to consider it his walk…. that’s a big like me going to Starbucks, chugging back three espressos and calling it the gym.
    I miss this aspect of the UK very much – I made lots of friends on my dog walks, but in the 6 years I have lived in Canada I have not made a single new friend while walking my dog. Dogs in the UK are expected to be under control at all time (not leashed, not fenced)
    I feel sorry for the average North American dog who is treated like a child, expected to respond like a human, and never even allowed the opportunity to be a good dog.

    1. I completely agree with you! I can over here from The Netherlands. The dogs could walk loose almost everywhere. I would walk with my dog everyday and never once had an issue with aggressive dogs as they were all so used to just wandering around loose together that it wasn’t anything special and so none of them went crazy when they DID get off leash. By making this practically impossible in this country you have created a culture of dogs that simply do not know how to behave when off leash and lazy owners. They’ll go to the dog park, let their dog run around terrorizing other dogs while they sit there texting and assume they’re doing their dog a favour by letting them run for a while. The first day I arrived here my dog had another dog trying to attack it. If I walk down the street and another dog is coming they’ll actually cross the street to not walk passed me. Other’s will walk into the bushes holding the leash really tight, obviously panicked, and yelling at their dog to “stay” until we’re gone! I’m not surprised there are so many issues here and I completely agree, I will avoid a busy dog park at all costs! Would much rather have a long hike with my dog off leash next to me and other dogs passing by happily then finish it off at a cafe enjoying a drink in the sunshine with my dog asleep at my feet. I simply do not think that place exists over here.

  7. I am sorry but I would interumpt the play between beagle and springer.

    The springer is not okay. Look at his tail.

    I would take the beagle on leash and the springer free so the springer could decide if he wants the contact and wenn he wants more space he can get the space he need. Because the beagle don’t give the space he needed at this moment.

    Like we did on this video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHfwZER6AxE

    The white dog is verry scared and chased a lot at the dogpark.

    1. Thank you, I can see your point; a lot of times in our puppy classes we will handicap the more rambunctious dog by holding their rear/flank, and allow the more timid one to come in and out as they see fit. We could have done that with the Springer at that point. I made a judgement call on that class at that time to let it occur the way it was.

      Prior to this the Springer had just frozen stiff if ever a dog approached. This time despite the tail tuck, there were finally small amounts of social behaviour the Springer was offering (mouthing back), so I let it go. By the end of class (off the video) they were running together and play was more mutual.

    1. Which video? The Beagle and Springer or Sue Sternbergs? Prior to classes commencing we just ask owners to keep control of their dog and ask permission before allowing their dog to greet anothers. We discourage excessive play prior to class starting. In our puppy classes there is scheduled time for play breaks. In other classes, the dogs are not permitted to play with one another during class and we generally discourage it before class in the waiting area as well.

      Bullying behaviour in puppy class is immediately either interrupted/redirected, or the offending dog is given a time out; typically picked up and lifted away.

    2. I have puppyclasses and ‘play classes’ Somethings in the play classes they just sniff arround. Thats fine by me.

  8. I cringed when I read this as I made that exact same mistake in the early days with both my rescues – I took two dogs who already had issues and compounded them. It took 2 solid years of working with an incredible trainer who bluntly showed me all the wrong things I was doing – and then helped me try to fix my poor dogs. My dogs are happy to hang out with each other, love their long walks and every once in a while they meet a dog they like and can get along with. I babysit my gf’s two dogs and they are fine with mine and there are others that can interact in a healthy and appropriate manner. I walk by dog parks and feel so bad for so many of the dogs I see in their … and can’t help be frustrated with their oblivious owners. I am currently in the process of integrating a third rescue (a 14 year old pittie) with my pack, but not rushing or pushing things. He has become terrific with my cats, appropriate with my female GSD (this took around 6 months) but we still have work ahead for my ultra-anxious male GSD (who came from a very traumatic background)- and that is ok – giving them their space, reading them and intervening quickly is all part of it- terrific article.

  9. I quit taking my dog to the dog park after just a few visits. She only wanted to run. The other dogs instantly would go into attack mode and chase her and fight. It wasn’t playing, It was aggression and she wasn’t enjoying her turn out time. I took her somewhere else where she could run in peace.

  10. What a terrific video and informative story. I learned some valuable information. I have a small (10 lb) toy poodle, diabetic and blind in one eye. I socialize him with other dogs and he’s well behaved but I would never consider taking him to a mixed dog park. He growls at dogs while on a leash and I always advise the other owner that he might snap and I’m very watchful of his body language in order to prevent this. Some owners are not observant of their dogs’ body language and this can be a real problem especially in a mixed run situation.

  11. Finally someone is speaking up about the problems arising from uneducated owners sitting drinking coffee and chit chatting in a dog park, while their dogs are either becoming more of a “bully’ with each confrontation, or are traumatizing another dog, so he that won’t easily forget it.. Can Do Obedience School, inc Toronto 1982 to 2009.. We always told our clients this and tried to explain the better way to “socialize” — breeders of Golden Retrievers, under registered kennel– name “Carolee” from 1966 — excellent article has to be read and re read— spread the word for us

  12. VERY WELL DONE !!!! GREAT IDEA, HARD TO WATCH. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THAT OWNER !! THAT IS WHY I NEVER GRACE THE GATES OF A DOG PARK. It’s not the dogs, it’s the owners that just can’t read dog behavioral signs, and then they get upset with me, when I have to intervene. It’s just plan stressful to watch. So we do hikes away from others dogs, and more importantly their owners and I can control my own pack. plus when your out on a hike, the pack is busy using their noses, running jumping and playing while moving forward, no one gets bored therefore the chance of a squabble between dogs is far less. No dog parks for me !!

  13. As an owner of a big dog I see things a little differently. Many smaller dogs are not comfortable at a dog park and therefore should not be taken into a situation that they will find threatening. As everyone says – know your dog and be aware of what it is doing instead of texting or surfing the internet at the park. However it seems it is always the big dog that gets blamed for everything! They want to play or interact and the small dog is terrified; but (as in the second video) the dog gives up after only a few seconds and moves along. The larger dog is not being a bully, it doesn’t attack or leven touch the other dog; the smaller terrified dog just doesn’t belong at a dog park! Lets not be fear-mongers … use your common sense and don’t over dramatise things that don’t need to be.

    1. The smaller dog owner is as much if not more at fault. I don’t understand why people are misinterpreting this as a hate-on-big-dog post. This post is about how dog parks bring out the worst in all dogs due to lack of knowledge and intervention on the part of owners.

  14. THANK YOU! My dog displays signs in the second video sometimes when she encounters certain dogs, and when we notice she feels threatened we pick her up out of harms way (she is a miniature Jack Russell). However, we are always met with ignorant dog owners with attitudes that consist of “don’t pick her up”, “they need to socialize” etc – No. If my dog is scared, then I’m taking her out of the situation. She doesn’t HAVE to socialize with your dog. I am her guardian and protector, hence I’m not going to have her stressed out and left to feel intimidated simply because “that’s what dogs do”. Great post. 🙂

  15. I have two friends who have mixed breed dogs that I try to walk with. I quit walking with my friend who has a pit bull boxer mix dog because she runs full throttle body checking dogs! She has no concious how rough she is and will play rough with any dog she meets, without question, small or big. I still walk sometimes with my friends big hound mix, because her dog and mine play really well together. But, when the boxer mix and hound mix walk together, they are bullies. I once met them on a walk and they immediately “hunted” down my BC. They run into her, they pin her on her back biting her belly and not letting her get up. I had to yell at my friends to get their dogs off and leash them because my pup wouldn’t and couldn’t get up. When I messaged my friend who has the hound mix, she claimed if my dog really was afraid she would defend herself and tell them off. I bit my tongue and ignored her response… Not all dogs defend themselves, this is where fight and flight come in, and my BC is not a fight dog.

  16. Confused, need advice on my 1 year old beagle. She’s scared around other dogs, with very rare exceptions. The only dog she sees regularly is a family member’s westie who doesn’t like her. I’ve been thinking about a training class, more for the socialisation aspect, but don’t want to push the issue and traumatise her. I feel guilty as I tend not to intervene if a dog scares her while out walking (both on leash,and other dog just trying to say hello) as I thought it was something that would improve with time. Any advice?

  17. I echo Selkie’s comments above. I don’t take my dogs to the dog park. One of my rescues has severe fear aggression for which he receives treatment. The other one is happy-go-lucky, but I don’t want him to learn any bad habits. They are happy together and with me. That’s enough. I do sometimes walk down to the dog park without the dogs, just to watch. Invariably, I’m the one saying, “No, no, oh no!” while the owners sit by and watch.

  18. The first video ,with the pups is also a bully way of ‘playing’!!
    The spaniel has a low bodylanguage ,lies on her back with her tail between her legs!! Try’s to get on the humans lap for protection! Moves backwards.

    She ís showing she’s scared,and would really liked a mutch more kalmer approach.

    Are you sure ,you placed the right video?If you want us to see what is the right approads between 2 dogs,this is not the right example.

    Your second video is very wel explaned.

    1. I agree. I saw that too. It was a great video to test my knowledge on. The second video was much more relaxed in terms of dog body language.

  19. I don’t think I had ever heard about this but now everything seems to make sense. I’ve always taken my fox terrier to the dog park and for the first year she was cool. She played with almost every dog. Then one day a giant Newfoundland starting going to the park and her behaviour started changing. She would get chased and I thought they were playing but I realize now that she porbably felt like she was running for her life! On another occassion (same dog park) a chocolate lab chased her as well only that time my foxy got nipped on the leg. She was terrified. Soon after she stopped playing with dogs and has become aggressive (resource guarding me too, I think). She does not approach other dogs but if they approach her she lets them know that she doesn’t want them around.

    When there are big dogs she also lets out a very unusually high-pitched bark…Is that a sign of something? Is she nervous/scared?

    Anyways, we stopped going to dog parks and now only go on off hours when there are no dogs around so we can play frisbee without any issues. Good to know about all of this. I must admit, I was once one of those dogs owners that believed: “Oh, but that’s how dogs play”

    Thanks for the article!

  20. I’m not trying to be disrespectful here, but I have a husky puppy, and his tail is ALWAYS up on his back, even when he’s playing with us. He’s never hurt a fly, nor does he want to. He does this even when he is outside and no one is around. At the dog park, he has his tail up as well. his ears are usually forward. The husky in this video looks exactly like ours does on a normal basis. He also lived with a small dog and played with the small dog in the same way. He never once bit at the small dog. just nudged. I do agree there are some dogs not made for dog parks, however.

    1. Yes I agree, I am not convinced that the Husky was going into some sort of stalk/chase/kill sequence in the video. However, the whole video shows a gong show of a dog park in that a) the scared dog doesn’t belong there b) the scared dog owner should be bailing the scared dog out and c) the owners of the other dog should be trying to redirect/call away their dogs to play with dogs that want to play.

    2. I own two huskies and I totally agree that’s how they look. My 10mo old husky is also a bully too though, especially when he knows dogs are scared of him. He has never hurt a fly and lives with 3 cats and an 8 week old husky pup who doesn’t take his shit. They play happily all day. That husky in the video had its tail wagging, personally I think it wanted to play and saw chase as a game. My husky LOVES chase he plays with me, is he hunting me…hell no, he knows I’m alpha.

  21. This is why I do not take my dogs to dog parks! I know my dogs are well behaved but I also know that the would defend themselves to the bully dogs. Which in my case, would be BAD! First, I have three min pins. So if they defended themselves, they’d lose. 2nd I have a pitt/pointer mix. If she defended herself, she’d probably win, and she’d be the next dog on death row because I’m sure I would be sued for having a “vicious pitt”.

    My dogs are well socialized but we only socialize with friends dogs who I know are also socialized, and we always have our first meeting on a leash. My pitt mix, she always greets dogs on a leash period because she is spooked easily in unfamiliar places (she’s an abuse case) Even my moms dog who she has met a million times, I always walk in with her on a leash JUST in case something spooks her. Once she relaxes, leash comes off. Some people might call me too paranoid, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

  22. So the bully-ee dogs just need to better match with a playmate? For the people with the chronic, recurrent bully-er dogs (dominant but not aggressive) any suggestions on training better play behavior in general, other than just interrupting the bad behavior?

    1. What led me to the park that day was for this, and primarily four things. A) Swiftly time out (not just interrupt) inappropriate play B) Lower arousal level of play by recalling/interrupting before the play gets too intense C) Teach alternate behaviour in these settings, such as running with the owner, playing fetch with balls and sticks, recalling for food rewards etc. D) Reinforce the dog when play is good (could just be praise, but even clicking and then delivering a high-value treat or toy after good interactions)

  23. I am involved with JRTRO rescue and foster and drive for an all breed transport to foster homes. I am so thrilled I found your site. Many of our fosters are mill dogs, owner relinquishments and abuse surviviors. These tips will help me help these dogs when I foster. Thank you for all you do and for allowing access to tips and training.

  24. Great post and selection of videos. I go to a 16-acre wooded dog park where most owners walk with their dogs instead of standing around. My dogs like it there and enjoy the walks, but I am also very cognizant of what other dogs are doing, what their behavior indicates and removing myself and my dogs as necessary. My biggest issue is that most owners don’t understand dog body language and thus don’t know when danger is near. I shared your post on our FB dog park page in hopes it will help educate some people about dog body language and what can happen at a dog park if they are not careful.

  25. I wish this article had been published when I first got my dog over 4 years ago. He is the first dog I owned since living on my own, and I thought that taking him to the park would be good for him. I adopted him from a shelter, and he had good behavior around dogs in my neighborhood and was friendly toward them. At the park, he was a little on the shy/submissive side but was still friendly. It was obvious he wasn’t used to being around dogs so he was a little nervous, but it wasn’t anything serious. The park changed all that. People with aggressive dogs would ignore their dog altogether and my dog got bullied. I would step in and pull my dog away, and often times I would have to leave the park because the aggressive dogs were too much. After several episodes of this, my dog started showing what I felt like could be signs of aggression when other dogs got in his space. After two or three times of this happening, I quit taking him to the park. He hasn’t been the same since. He is super reactive on a leash now, and he barks like crazy when dogs come near the apartment. I feel so bad for him because such things didn’t use to upset him.

  26. wonderful video, thank you for sharing it…makes me wonder if some of the owners are actually doing the socialising, thus oblivious to their dogs needs.

  27. Very interesting video’s. Can I ask how you correct this behaviour if it is occurring between dogs living in the same house.
    Many Thanks


  28. Really, mate? You just HAD to mention the “bullies” were a Doberman, Rottie, and German Shepherd. Why were their breeds relevant to your argument? These three breeds are already demonized and stereotyped as a bully breed and you’re perpetuating that ignorance. My shepherd was traumatized at a dog beach by a pack of non-bully breeds, breed is irrelevant to this issue.

    1. Because if I just said “a dog” and “a dog” and “another dog” it would have gotten difficult to follow. That, and those were the particular characters at the park that afternoon. If I knew the dog’s names I would have used them.

  29. What do you do when you have a dog that dominates other dogs? She is constantly picking on one of our much smaller dogs and occasionally bullies the others. We manage them but miss having a pack that didn’t have this problem. We got her as a puppy and she has been like this since day one. Sometimes it’s subtle, like purpously standing over the small dogs, sometimes she more assertive and I’ve seen exactly the same reaction in our softer dogs. Btw, she is a Doberman ;). Help!

  30. whenhoundsfly , I agree with your note that you misstate in the video that the huskey is in stalking and in hunt mode when it has its tail over its back. This is actually more of a sign of contentment in that breed. Huskies are apt to lower their tails (inasmuch as they can) when they are in stealth mode. Further in my experience with large dogs, it is just as often that a smaller dog is the aggressor. It may be because they are in fear of the larger being. Now that all said, the fast running, when one of the dogs has its tail between its legs, makes for a really dangerous situation. But I will note that my dog (120 pounds of something akin to an Anatolian Shepherd) is just as dangerous when she is in a submissive mode since she is likely to lie down on her back (accidentally) on one or more of a pack of aggressive dogs.

    1. Remember the Sue Sternberg video is not my video@ But, it is a useful video to see what a gong show a dog park can be and how owner education and intervention is required.

    2. if you look closely you can see that the husky is fixated on this dog, more than a passing interest. I’ve owned two husky breeds in my life and while I agree that the curled tail and erect ears are normal, the staring and pursuing so intently is not normal.

  31. I think that lack of owner responsibility and education is a massively HUGE issue in all dog parks in all cities… however I have to disagree that a “red alert” for small dog owners is the answer. Too often we are humanizing dogs using terms like “bullying” to describe what goes on between them. Whether your dog is a chihuahua, pitbull, or golden retriever, you need to at least have a simple understanding of dog behavior before stepping into a group of dogs. I have seen too many fights where the behavior was instigated by a small breed dog, but a large breed dog takes the blame. People are not properly watching and understanding these interactions, and it is resulting in incidents. Dogs do not see size. They do not see breed. The only see each other as the same species. If a person walks into a park on “red alert” they might as well leave then, because you are going to draw more negative energy to yourself than anything else. If you are not comfortable walking into a dog park in preparation to possibly protect your dog and correct other dogs within the park, you are not ready. PIcking up your small dog and leaving the park (as was suggested) is not the answer. It is your responsibility to build confidence in your dog in the proper situations. Picking up and escaping with your dog when it is stressed will only intensify the anxiety and fear for both dog and owner for the next dog on dog interaction. That small tan cross, that has obvious fear issues, is exhibiting unbalanced behavior. The other dogs are reacting to it. Many submissive dogs with high play drive will react to that (big or small). Also, it was clear that the black white jack russell initiated challenge with the husky, before they tore off into the distance, but it was much less obvious than the husky’s reaction. So who is at fault here? It’s not the big dogs. And it’s not the small dogs. It’s the owners of ALL sized dogs who are showing signs of ALL types of behavior issues. I had a fearful pup who acted the exact same way that that little tan dog did. I did not put on the “red alert” or get ready to snatch my dog up in a huff when she began to get overwhelmed. I received help and made sure that she was on leash in the park and I used tools to build her confidence. Too many times I hear “My dog got in a fight and never forgot it. That’s why he’s scared. That’s why he’s dog aggressive.” Wrongo. That’s why YOU are scared. That’s why YOU are holding it against other dogs and in return encouraging the reaction in your dog. I think in general this article makes a lot of sense, but it is anthropomorphism at its finest. Be responsible take responsibility for your dog (whatever its size).

    1. The little dog doesn’t belong in the dog park. But in more natural settings, another dog should pick up on the little dog’s communication signals (request for space/distance signals) by reciprocating and leaving it alone. Dog parks do a good job of deleting those more natural behaviours and it allows for the reinforcement of dogs ignoring them.

      “Bullying” is just a handy label for “dogs disregarding the distance-requesting signals of others”.

      If you have an interest in dog behaviour, may I suggest checking out Turid Rugaas’ “Calming Signals” DVD to learn more. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj7BWxC6iVs

  32. We took our dog to a dog park for the first time the other day and saw this exact thing. My husband was the one to go protect the dog because no one else bothered. They all had that attitude of “This is just how dogs play”. The dog that was being hurt (yes, blood was drawn) was a large breed and the aggressors were two West Highland terriers. People just aren’t aware of how dogs really work, and it can lead to problems.

    You’ve given me some good insight in to my dog as well. After she was attacked by our neighbors dogs (Corgi ambushed by two Pit-bulls who jumped a fence) she has definite space issues. She didn’t like the dog park and refused to leave us the entire time. I get it now. I think we’ll stick with the dog beaches instead of dog parks from here on out.

  33. I rescued my standard poodle Phoebe when she was four. She was a great fit with my 2yo standard Chanel. We belong to a play pack where they can run off leash with responsible humans. Unfortunately, Pheebs grew up attending a rough dog park that separated the Littles from the Bigs, and she was cheered on to chase the little dogs next to the fence that separated them. Phoebe is very sweet and recalls well except when she takes a fancy to a little dog. We practice recalls, etc….my question is if Phoebe will ever lose this prey drive?

  34. Sadly, this is happening at the playground where people take their dogs. And it’s escalating so it’s just a matter of time before a dog loses it’s life. I stopped taking my dogs out there when my very submissive and well trained mutt was attacked by an aggressive dog. Why won’t dog owners monitor their dogs? I don’t understand.

  35. I think a lot of this applies to Dog Daycares as well. More often then not, the people who supervise the day care area are paid a little over minimum wage and are just dog lovers, and they are not thoroughly trained in how to recognize damaging behavior. If its not a fight or humping, so much stuff just keeps on happening and everyone just deals with it. In the end, the daycare owner is going to tell you what they need to tell you to buy another package, and the front desk at any Daycare has no clue what your dog’s day was really like.

    “If you took the average dog and had them stay in a poisoned environment like that for any length of time for weeks or months, I would be surprised if that dog did not develop an aggression problem”

    You nailed it. While I have not seen a dog be raised to be dangerously aggressive, I have seen puppies just grow into unruly dogs in a Daycare environment, under the guise that its “healthy socialization”. I personally would not leave my dog at one for more than 6 hours a week.

    1. This is a really interesting post. I actually have been taking my 1 year old Labradoodle rescue to a daycare facility for about 4 months now and he goes on average twice a week due to my schedule. He actually at the end of each day that he goes to daycare has diarrhea and I was wondering why. I thought maybe it was connected to the amount of play he does and water he drinks but maybe it is connected to trauma. He is a happy-go-lucky puppy and just wants to play with everyone. He is not aggressive but will cower down to more aggressive dogs on occasion. It seems like this environment might not be the most positive environment for him to play in.

      I did notice that he played very rough with one of my friends dog who is smaller and this could be because he is being trained to play that way at daycare because he has to play that way so he doesn’t get bullied. Maybe instead of investing in daycare, I will invest in a dog walker instead. I think this might be good and we will see how he does when friends come over with their animals. I hope the damage has not already been done though!

  36. Thank you sooo much for this post. My 1yr old boston/pitty mix had that happen monday. The pit pup approached him and layed his paw over my pups neck and my pup gave a snap warning before attempting to bite. I pulled my pup away n leashed him where the other owner allowed her dog to continue advancing to my dog again. I blamed my pup for snapping n biting at the other dog since i have never seen him react that way. I didnt consider he didnt like the other dogs behavior until i read ur article.. thank you !!

  37. I was guilty of this, briefly. I only realized my dogs was not playing, but traumatized after one incident, where she showed slight PTSD after a bark park session. We stopped going about a month ago, in favor of arranged and monitored play dates.

    Any comments on placing your dog in (monitored) doggy daycare?

    1. I’m not against dog parks or dog daycares, just allowing dogs to get scared, and allowing dogs to harass and bully dogs that are scared. I do believe a dog daycare can be run correctly, just like a dog park can run correctly. It just requires educated staff, enough staff to dog ratios, excellent screening, a lack of relucatance to “kick out” dogs that don’t belong at the daycare (which causes a loss in revenue), etc. Dog daycares, like dog parks, can be designed properly and monitored properly to be healthy.

  38. I wish I knew these things 5 years ago when I adopted a rescue Plott hound. It took me 2-3 years to learn her (these common) danger signals. She attacks my 35 lb. terrier mix a couple times a year and the fights are viscious, often bloody and happen so fast. Now we’ve learned about the physical posturing and can usually stop them before they start, but it took me a long time to understand. People are so uneducated, unaware of the signals and posturing. I, too, have ceased going to the dog park.
    Thanks for the education.

  39. Hi,

    Someone posted this on Facebook and I was very interested to read it. My lab/pointer mix boy acts very much the same way around EVERY dog – even those who make it clear they are deferring to him. He has to mount every dog, continue barking and acting aggressively, etc. We have a recreation area nearby where the local kennel club does some of their training and testing – so dogs are allowed to roam off-leash there. It’s a big area with lots of space, a pond, trees – basically lab Heaven. Even with all that room, we still have to keep our Barton on a leash the entire time because previous occasions when he met up with other dogs did not end well. We try to give other dogs a very wide berth, yet I’ll still get caught by other other owners whose dogs are offleash and insist on coming up to Barton. I will tell them, please don’t come over here – he’s not good meeting other dogs; however, they dismiss what I am saying and respond “Oh, my dog is harmless – he loves everybody.” That’s not the point! So inevitably my dog does his aggression thing, and then the other owner finally gets a clue, collects their dog, and moves on. I had one owner sitting on a park bench about 400 feet away watching this whole thing go down while my three young kids were right in the mix. I finally had to yell at him to come get his d@mn dog, but even then he had a very put-upon air (his dog wasn’t even supposed to be off leash at that park).

    My question is two-part –

    A. How can I work with him to overcome this? He’s a rescue I’ve had since he was approximately 2 and he’s always done this. He is now 7. We tried a training class but things didn’t improve much.

    B. For other dog owners whose dogs are off-leash. If I am making it clear you need to keep your dog away from mine – why on earth aren’t you listening to me?

    1. Stacey, although the area you describe sounds like heaven, if it is a designated (or generally accepted) off-leash area, I would avoid taking your dog there for now. Because if it’s a designated off leash area, then people are going to enjoy that luxury, and not everyone will have a good recall on their dog unfortunately.

      With respect to the park where the dogs are NOT supposed to be off-leash, this is trickier. You can try scaring the oncoming dog by screaming at him, waving your hands wildly, blocking, sometimes that sends the other dog away. Under careful consideration, potentially repellents like SPRAY SHIELD. There are many places where bona-fide aggressive dogs are off-leash on city streets and will just charge people’s dogs at will to fight them; in those kind of neighbourhoods I would most definitely be using some sort repellent or serious tool.

      A “training class” on general obedience will not help directly. You need some private lessons and coaching with a dog trainer with knowledge of behaviour problems. Such a trainer would probably suggest exercises like parallel walking, rewarding for microgreetings, Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT), – big topic, too big to answer in a paragraph.

      Additional resources

      Dogs in Need of Space http://dogsinneedofspace.com/
      Behaviour Adjustment Training http://functionalrewards.com/

  40. I forgot to mention that Barton is very social and nice with people. He’s great in a family setting. We did at one point have another dog much his size – a lab girl. She has since passed on. He got along fine with her – he pulled the mounting thing with her and made it clear he wanted to be boss, which she more or less tolerated (but I think in reality she was the boss). But every so often she put him in his place by biting the side of his lip. They were very comfortable together and very protective of each other.

  41. Hi Andre! Thanks for this post. We used to be regulars at the dog bowl with ruby until she started developing all of the behaviours above. mostly due to over stimulation by too many dogs at once. we only do on-leash walks now in the park and avoid the bowl, with a few off leash sessions one-on-one with dogs she knows (in smaller parks in the area). After reading this article, i can see how the environment down in the dog bowl can be stressful for any dog. Good read.

  42. I was always fine with dog parks until I acquired a yearish-old dog from the pound who was terrified of other dogs (although for the first year we interpreted it as aggression). We never took her to a park, but my experiences in the field behind my house resonated with some of the posts above. It seems hardly anybody listens when you ask them to get their dog away from yours, or they act like you are being rude. Miranda wasn’t big and didn’t look scary, but she was the most effective brawler I ever saw, and we did everything we could to prevent a fight from happening, because she was not a play fighter. However, a certain subset of owners seemed to be oblivious to the shout of “please come and get your dog, ours is not friendly!” This mind you, is in a situation where leash laws are in effect and our dog was always on leash. What bothers me is less the interactions, I understand that things will happen and I won’t get mad at someone who momentarily loses control of their dog, but two things infuriate me: 1) the assumption that just because your dog is “friendly” means that everything and everyone wants to meet them or that it’s okay for that dog to approach other dogs and 2) that your dog is a bad dog if it doesn’t behave in an openly friendly manner or “like” other dogs. Just because two of my dogs are not “dog park” dogs does not mean that they aren’t perfectly acceptable dogs, yet if I say this to people some will inevitably ask what’s wrong with them. When we got a trainer after the first year with Miranda, he taught us to insert ourselves between our dog and the one approaching to teach her that we were the ones who would take care of the situation, and over the years her circle of comfort went from about 50 feet to a dog actually touching her, which we viewed as a triumph. She is fine with dogs she knows, but like a post above we always have her greet dogs when both are on leash and see how it goes from there. It is comforting to read these posts and know that there are a lot of people out there who struggle with the same issues. I don’t like facile posts that assume all dogs react the same things in the same way and that something is wrong with your dog simply because it isn’t a happy-go-lucky extrovert.

  43. I found your take on dog parks and the warning signals informative. I have one dog park that I frequent that has offered great opportunities for interaction with other dogs and their owners. It is a park where almost all who frequent DO walk with their dogs and watch them. I have visited several others where I have witnessed some aggressive behaviors and owners that are detached from the situation. I stay away from those parks. I think it is a good idea to try a variety of parks and find the one that fits you and your dog. I do also believe that there are some dogs who don’t do well and shouldn’t be brought to a dog park at all.

    I have two dogs – one elderly – who just goes her own path, and one who is 18 months who appears to me to carefully approach other dogs and engage in play with them only when the desire is mutual. She is 38 lbs., a terrier mix of some sort and very fast. She loves to run alone – but also appears to like to race – or run with other dogs. I have not in the past worried that this behavior is inappropriate. I have never seen her “chasing” a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs – but I have observed upon meeting that occasionally her hackles will go up – but her tail is wagging. Am I incorrect that this is merely cautionary behavior?

    I appreciate any thoughts on that.

    Finally, you have a video up with “Rachael” and many dogs – running – as it appears to me – loose in a non-fenced in area. I take great issue with that. One of the best things about dog parks is the ability for the dogs to run – and the security of knowing that if they do become distracted – you won’t lose them. In theory, all dogs should come when called. But in practice I believe it is an entirely different story. I have had sporting breeds all of my life, (English Cocker, Brittany, etc.). They were not trained to hunt. I would NEVER let them loose in a situation where I could not ultimately be able to find them. I have heard of instances where dogs have become trapped in murky swamps and broken through ice and drowned as a result. I have a 15 year old English Cocker who has been trained and has always been a well behaved and obedient dog. I would never consider letting her loose in an non-fenced area. This is a breed that is nose to the ground and off.

    Certainly, I am open to other thoughts and opinions. Thank you.

    1. Rachael Johnston is an instructor at When Hounds Fly, and during the day, she manages and operates Rover Achiever, one of Toronto’s most respected dog walking companies. They walk 60+ dogs per day and most of the walks are done off leash in wooded areas as pictured in the video. Reliable recalls can be trained. That is what we do with all our dogs so that they can enjoy the privilege of running loose, yet we know we can recall them. If that wasn’t the case, she’d lose clients (literally!) faster than she could keep them. We encourage all owners to train their dogs to have reliable recalls, so that in appropriate designated off-leash areas, they can enjoy the fruit of their hard work.

    2. With respect to a tail wag; it is a myth that a tail wag indicates good intentions. Certainly, a low tail wag is more indicative of good intentions than a high, stiff, rapid tail wag. However, a better characterization of a tail wag of “energized” or “aroused”. One can be energized and aroused to play, or energized and aroused to fight. So, if I saw hackles up and tail high and wagging, I would consider that a warning sign of discomfort; call away and diffuse the situation.

  44. Great post. I can confirm all the points. I’m working among others in a dog daycare.
    Every day I have to do with dogs, which for the first time make the experience that people control the situation. And that contact with other dogs not only causes stress. It’s sad how many people have no idea about dog behavior.

  45. Wow. Thank you for this post. I need to share my story- maybe more for myself than for others. When I adopted my probably pit/GSD mix, I took him to a nice state park with an off leash area that was not fenced and had a huge field and also a circuit. I took him there a few times with good results until the evening there was a dog being territorial to the point of not even making space for us to park the car. The owner of this dog was asking me a lot of questions and distracting me even though I could tell my dog was very uncomfortable about her dog and he did give a good warning growl, but then the dog attacked and they got in a fight. We were able to separate them and no one was injured. The owner went absolutely nuts on me- screaming at me and saying her dog had never done anything like that before. She immediately jumped in her car and squealed out of there, but a few minutes later her boyfriend came back without the dog and I was terrified. He threatened me. I have taken my dog back to this park (after years) and some others, and sometimes it is fine, but often not and I no longer take him to parks, but I have felt badly about not “socializing” him until I read this. He gets two long walks a day and time off leash with just us. We have a second dog now and they are the best of friends. Thank you so much for this post- dog parks can be scary places for both dogs and humans.

  46. I feel sorry for you people that are so against dog parks, where do you go. There are always people that do not understand behavior of all species– including their children. At least these people are trying to do something- and maybe chatting with them and offering some advise can go a long way. Dogs are pack animals, if you can only have one it is very necessary to get him out and socialized. I have had nothing but good experiences in dog parks, and if there is a problem with other dogs keep yours out of it, report problems to the park authorities be proactive and try to make it a better place. My dog has found a very nice pack of well behaved dog he can hang out with, and makes new friends when he wants to, He will often break up any “bulling” and will polity tell a dog when it is out of line. I have seen very good transformation from very timid and scared dogs to great companions by regular visits to the dog park, and talking with other. You do not get the whole picture from a snippet, and jumping to conclusions and with out offering help gives you no right to complain about it. Each situation is unique, and yes there are problems I don’t say there isn’t, but do something about that, at least most are trying. I find a lot more behavior problems being incorrectly dealt with at the supermarket than at the dog park. Dogs do need to learn “Dog” behavior and they need to learn it from dogs rather than just people. You can always step in when the dogs get out of hand, and if their owners don’t like it they shouldn’t be there– they will learn that. The park is a community for the dog and the people, regular visits lets you get to know the behavior of the different dogs, The dogs and the humans feel more comfortable with how they should act. Don’t condemn the park, if you don’t do anything to make it a better place.

  47. Great article. I couldn’t agree more with owners who gave excuses that their dogs like to play rough, or they were just barking, they won’t bite etc. I watch my dogs like a hawk when I take them to the dog park.

    One question I have is how do I stop my own 10-months puppy from playing rough with my other 2.5 years old dog? They play and wrestle everyday, however the puppy will sometimes grap the older dog by his collar during wrestling. We tried time-out, but he just won’t gave up.

    1. If that is the only problem, may I just suggest taking your dog’s collars off when in the confines of your own home? It doesn’t train the problem behaviour away, but many advocate dogs play as “naked” as possible as freak accidents involving collars/harnesses and limbs can occur.
      Time-outs work, but if they do not work, often it is either not applied consistently (sometimes allowed to get away with it) or the timing is wrong (so the connection between the inappropriate behaviour and being isolated is not clear)

  48. Yet another excellent article Andre!
    Many dog professionals (especially those with an interest in training) stay clear of dog parks for this exact reason and many of us tell our clients to avoid them if possible. “Socializing” for the sake of socializing as defined by simply having a bunch of strange or mildly familiar dogs coexist and interact in a defined space together such as the dog park is just asking for trouble and will often lead to more problems then good. Yes dog parks can be a wonderful place when used selectively and especially for those living in the city’s core may be the only legal way for the dog to stretch their legs and play some ball. However if you are the caregiver of a dog who enjoys contact with other dogs (and not all dogs do and some times the owners try to force this subject as if they some how have a defective dog) you are much better off at organizing small private play groups with a couple or few like minded pooches, or enrol your dog with a responsible dog walker or daycare who will be able to ensure that your dog plays with pre-screened friendly dogs in a safe and monitored environment. Certain dogs can benefit greatly from the right social contact with other dogs, but dogs can also develop all sorts of bad habits or be damaged or scared physically and mentally, some times for life, with poorly executed attempts at socializing. All socializing is not equal.

  49. Hi Everyone,
    This is the last comment and just a summary and collection of answers/clarifications for everyone.
    I think all the points, valid or over-the-top have been made.

    A majority of readers (especially a high concentration of pet professionals – dog trainers, dog daycare providers, breeders, veterinarians, groomers, dog sport enthusiasts) very passionate about this topic shared it far and wide and left overwhelmingly positive comments, and also encouraged their clients to read this as well.

    A minority of readers took personal offense to this article. If you felt attacked by it, firstly I am sorry. However, please note make sure to separate your opinion of this article vs. your opinion of some of the comments below it, as what I tried to communicate often differs from some of the supportive (but perhaps over-the-top) comments received.

    In plain English here is what I wish everyone to leave with and share.

    1) Are dog parks, dog daycares, or these kinds of facilities evil? NO

    2) Are there inappropriate behaviours that dogs can do to one another? YES

    3) Do owners have to recognize when this is occuring and intervene (vs. let them work it out) YES

    4) Is there a danger to “let them work it out?” YES

    5) What is the danger? A: You becoming my client and having to pay for expensive private lessons, not to mention months, potentially years of painstakingly difficult work, helping solve fear and aggression problems caused by “let them work it out”. I would much rather just run another Puppy Socialization class than have to teach someone else “Click then treat for looking at a dog at 50 feet, because at 49 feet your dog will go apeshit because it is now hypersensitive to the proximity of anything with four legs” or B: Your dog practices bullying/disregarding cutoff signals of other dogs, and becomes increasingly rude and pushy over time. Practice makes perfect. Hope your dog doesn’t bully the wrong dog (one with no bite inhibition that sends your dog to the emerg)

    6) Should I never go to a dog park? NO, because like me, perhaps you live in Downtown Toronto and have a yard the size of a closet, or no yard at all. But please go in there with a decent understanding of what is safe and appropriate vs. unsafe and inappropriate. There is a little shade of gray in the middle, but generally speaking, it is black and white. See article for some descriptions of inappropriate behaviour and warning signs a dog is communicating cut-off signals.

    Last thought:

    Before I became a serious dog training enthusiast (leading up to pursuing education to become a professional dog trainer), I thought going to the dog park and having my dog play with dogs was the be-all and end-all of their daily routine, besides eating, drinking, sleeping, and peeing and pooing. That is like saying having your kids hang out at the 7-11 after school is the be-all and end-all of his or her extra-curricular life. Dogs can detect cancer, guide visually impaired people through the city, and can distinguish the names of thousands of different objects. Expect more and DO more with your dog, ok?

    Comments Closed!

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