RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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When I first started my dog industry career, intentionally, not as a side gig but as a primary focus, I used to think that dog parks and some random socialization were ok for most dogs. Chances are, unless you have a reactive dog who has had some issues, you may still believe that. Then, I moved to thinking that “all things in moderation” including the dog park was the most logical way to approach training.
I was wrong, and it is ok that I used to think that maybe dog parks could be useful. We are allowed, as human beings with wonderful thinking machines, to change our opinions. In my recent years, however, my opinion has remained really consistent. Dog parks, and random off-leash socializing in general, are bad for American dogs. I am going to be really specific in this, because this is where my career is based, and my understanding of how we treat dogs culturally is appropriate and relevant.
Your dog, even if they are the most extroverted of characters, a gentile, amicable fellow who has never met a foe- is not benefited by running around with the neighborhood random associates in a fenced in area. All it does is create unwanted behaviors, generate exhaustion rather than fulfillment or even enrichment, and perpetuate the notion that all dogs are public property, and should universally be friendlier than the greeter at a local superstore.
I know, it is hard, at first, to imagine that your dog’s social needs are different than our own. And by no means, am I saying that your dog does not have social needs. But what I am saying, is that from a purely training perspective it is my utmost professional opinion that there is no behavioral benefit to a dog park style of socialization- with no breaks in between wrestling sessions, no handler refocus. I can easily think of many reasons that the dog park is harmful. From pathogens causing illness, to overstimulation- most dogs that come to us with “sudden reactivity” have been socialized in dog parks or traditional (open mix) daycares. This has taught many of the pups to be fearful in any dog interaction, because there are no controls to take a minute and calm down in an intense environment. Most handlers do not not know how to advocate for their dogs either, to create that space even with other dogs around for their dog to take a minute, if they are overwhelmed. Play styles among dogs vary widely, and while many dogs are great at negotiating and changing their play to match a mate, there is a greater number who are... not. I count my own pack among the “are not” when they are all together and off leash. They act as a herding pack, moving and separating dogs with the greatest joy- but also a lot of noise and potentially some nipping, which are all recipes for a fight. And where goes one of my dogs, there goes all, and so they stay by me. If we are off leash, it is because we are still under control, and if there is a question about whether or not I am in control, we are on leash.
But this is not just a personal preference of management. Chances are, if you are socializing your dog in a fenced in dog park or are sending to a daycare- your dog also does not recall 100% of the time. Even more so if you use random open air park spaces as a non-designated dog park. We live near to a city park, and regularly go for walks in our neighborhood. In the month since moving to our new place, I don’t think a day has gone by that we haven’t been approached by an off-leash dog with poor recall. I am incredibly fortunate that my pack, after years of hard work, can handle this type of engagement. But only if I remain a strong advocate, and make sure their safety is always my top priority, and never the comfort of the neighbor refusing to follow the leash laws. The legality is not really relevant, but the respect for other’s personal space and safety really is. The majority of dog owners are not going to train a consistent recall. They just aren’t. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but honestly a lot of it comes down to time and resources. All training is hard, recall being challenging for many to achieve with reliable results. This means that if we do not have consistent recall, and we are using off-leash spaces, designated as such or not, we are forcing other members of the public to engage with our dogs. Between allergies, fears, nusince, safety- this is not just a cute “he’s so friendly!” Or “He just doesn’t want to share his stick/ball/toy!”- this is downright irresponsible and dangerous.
We are ultimately not just the guardians of our dogs, but also stewards of claw and teeth. Accidents happen, and legitimate mistakes occur. That is not what I am talking about. Rather, it is the expectation that your dog should be able to approach any dog it deems interesting, any person that may provide a snack or engagement, and that is the desired standard of behavior. The desired standard of behavior should be that if you are out and about with your dog, your dog is engaging with you, not just the ambient noise. You are your dog’s companion, their bff, and their guide, if they are not looking to you- look to the relationship you have built (or not) with that pup.
There is a social aspect to owning a dog that can’t be neglected when we are discussing the social habits of the American house pup. Many folks find chatting with new friends or neighbors at the dog park fulfilling, especially if their dogs ends up being good play partners. But whose needs are actually being prioritized there? If the humans are receiving the primary benefit, it is not really a dog park. There have to better ways (and we try to lead by example here) to connect folks who are passionate about spending their time together, with their dogs, without penning them in and hoping for the best. It is awesome to have friends who have the same dog interest as you do, speaking from personal experience. It is perfectly acceptable to sometimes hit a friend’s yard and let the dogs run it out together. But it is even better when you have someone who you can count on to help further your relationship with your dog because they are prioritizing the same engagement, and you are enjoying time together working on your handling skills, rather than letting the dogs go completely bananas because it will “wear them out.” Repeat after me: There is no emotional benefit for your dog to be in continued state of exhaustion. Read it again.
I love to work my dogs “off leash”. I believe firmly in ensuring there are less opportunities for failure, and run all of my dogs using an ecollar as a back up to be sure that I am always in complete control of the 12 paws, 3 sets of jaws, and countless stupid animal decisions I have actively chosen to take responsibility for. All of my dogs are capable of being relatively neutral when approached by a strange dog in a non threatening way. But they are the exception, and it takes hours a week to keep them that way. It is an unrealistic expectation for many dogs, through genetics, training or experience.
But what about the dogs with friendships, with relationships? There exists space for that type of work. You can use appropriate off leash spaces, fenced or not, depending on your level of training and public or private areas available. The other hard truth of dogs, is that they are not all universally social. Social behavior exists on a spectrum, with some dogs (Rio Marie Eisen) being HIGHLY social creatures, with much of our training work centering on being focused on a handler, and not always assuming play. Then there are the Swanson types, who, given the opportunity would frankly prefer to throw a lip and herd down a dog then decide whether or not they are a friend. There are dogs that generally do not enjoy the company of other dogs except in very low pressure situations. None of these are behavioral conditions, but all require attention in training.
Over the weekend, I met up with some of our SDIT (service dog in training) handlers for some practice roller skating. We met up in a small skating rink at the end of my road in a public park. This wasn’t a class,or lesson, just a few of them are learning to roller skate, and they all are practicing keeping their dogs focused and settled with upper level distractions as they enter a more intense period in their training. I offered to run everyone’s dogs on my skates, after skating for 10 years I’m pretty comfortable with most dogs on skates at the same time. In the beginning of our meet up, one of the folks had her dog in a tuck in the bench just outside the rink. A local woman approached, with 3 dogs wells over 60 lbs each at the end of their leashes. Let’s keep it short and say that this woman truly believed that the fact that there were multiple service dogs in the same space, and that none of us wanted her pack near us at all, was a crime against humanity. Later in the day, I saw her socializing her dogs in the rink (it has a fence) with other local dogs, using this space as an off leash play area. This right here, is the problem.
As we enter a summer of one of the biggest dog-ownership booms in American history, we are about to have a LOT of public negotiations about engagements between dogs, and handlers. Here are my genuine suggestions to keep you, and your dog safe. It is absolutely going to be a long season of folks coming out of quarantine, and realizing they have very little understanding of how/what their dog needs, for exercise or socialization.
If you need help assessing your dog’s social needs, please reach out! We are here to help you teach, and keep, your dog appropriately socially fulfilled and learning.
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