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Dog Park Etiquette

By: Jan Morgan-Swegle

When we take our children out in public, we want them to “be good.” We know that their actions are a reflection of how we raised them and we want our reflection to be admired by those around us. We send our children to Kindergarten, where they learn life rules like; share, play nice, don’t take things that aren’t yours and be aware of strangers. Karen Breeden, ABCDT, or certified dog trainer, says we should apply these same “life rules” to our dogs.

The Compass Pointe Amenities Committee recently sponsored a “Dog Park Etiquette Class,” hosted by Karen in an effort to teach Compass Pointe owners how to manage their dogs in the park when they are on and off leash.

Karen explained that just like us, dogs have stress and give off signals letting us know how they are feeling in a particular situation. The level of stress a dog is experiencing is a direct result of what is going on in its environment.

“We all have a level of stress we can deal with. Think of it has carrying your stress around in a bucket. Every bucket has a drain hole that helps to manage stress levels on our own. Now think about going through our day and adding to that stress level — being late for an appointment, forgetting an important event even meeting new people. All of a sudden that okay level of stress we started out with is overflowing and our temperament and behaviors change,” Karen said. “It’s the same with dogs. They have green, yellow and red stress levels that you can see, especially when you are in a public place like a dog park.” This “traffic light” stress indicator is a concept that was developed by Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs, dog trainers who specialize in off leash dog play.

Dogs’ green level is when they are calm or at play. They are in a familiar setting and are comfortable in their environment. They know their boundaries. Their stress or behavior level may go to yellow when a new dog enters the park. All of a sudden, dogs become aware that they have to share the space with another animal. But, does your dog know the new one that just arrived? Are they friends? If they are or if the new dog comes quietly into the park on a leash, the yellow stress level of the initial dog will drop back to green. But what if a new dog runs right into the park and takes toys that may be on the ground and stands protectively over them? Is the new dog aggressive in approaching your dog? Does the new dog try to assert authority over yours? All of these triggers are going on as the two dogs become aware of each other, usually by sniffing and other forms of body language. In a group of dogs that are playing, the hierarchy, or alpha dog, has already been established. If a new dog comes in and tries to interfere with the hierarchy or threatens the alpha dog, the behaviors of both will escalate to the red level and they will both react by barking or fighting.

Karen stressed that some dogs are more prone to aggression than others. “It’s not the dog’s fault,” she explained. “It could be bad breeding, too much cross breeding, poor training, or maybe the dog suffered some trauma. Dogs have long memories.” She also cautioned, “Older dogs can sometimes get aggressive. Maybe with a previous owner, the dog was not trained to curb aggressive behavior. Older dogs have older habits that can take a long time to relearn. Remember, fear is where aggression is born, that’s why using positive training methods is so important. When your dog does something well, reward him or her immediately—even if it’s as simple as coming to you when you call their name. Show them that they did a positive thing. Give them positive attention. Don’t just address your dog when they do something wrong.”

Karen also reminded us that female dogs can be just as aggressive or even more so than male dogs. And, while smaller dogs have less bite strength, they, too, can exhibit aggressive behavior.

The best way to have a positive dog park experience is to be aware at all time of what is going on around your dog. “You have to be involved with your pet,” Karen said. “Stay off of your cell phone, have conversations with other dog owners but keep your eyes on your dog at all times. Think safety first—for you and your dog.”

Karen suggests that when you enter a dog park you keep your dog on a leash. Enter quietly and look around first. Walk your dog around the perimeter of the park or just for several feet near the fence line. Acknowledge and speak to your dog before you take off the leash. Initially, stay near your dog and be aware of other animals that may approach your pet. Confirm with the other pet owner that their dog is friendly or if there are concerns of which you should be aware.

Karen told the group that dogs have many different ways of communicating with us and with other dogs. “Dogs talk by watching the body language of other dogs and by listening,” she said. “Sniffing is a map of information and a ‘dog’s handshake’ and even ‘humping’ is a way for your dog to communicate with another dog; primarily saying, ‘I’m the alpha dog here’ but also as a way to measure the safety factor.”

A dog’s posture can help you identify his stress level and the green, yellow or red status they are experiencing. Green light behavior is when a dog’s ears are relaxed, the tail is loose and the posture is balanced. The same holds true when the dog is wagging his tail, the ears are up but in a relaxed position, the dog’s mouth is open in a natural pose and the dog’s eyes are soft. If a dog is fearful, he will drop to the ground with their ears back and tail hanging low.

Yellow light behavior includes the ears being up and the mouth is closed. The dog’s eyes are usually wide open and staring. He will be leaning forward in their stance. Some dogs show this stage with the hair on their back starting to “bristle.” You will sense that your dog has become tense and very focused. Sometimes one dog will put his head over the neck of another dog to show an increase level of stress.

Red light behavior are dogs going on the offense, being aggressive with others or in a guarding posture. Their lips will be pulled back and their teeth and gums will show. They will often bark in another dog’s face. As soon as a dog starts to exhibit red light behavior the owner should immediately leave the area.

Dogs can move from good play to stress play in a split second, sometimes resulting in a dog fight. “Don’t ever put your hands by the dogs’ faces when they are fighting,” Karen said. “Instead, get behind your dog and lift them up to your body by their back legs. The dog will immediately stop fighting and turn its head. This gives you a short window of time to turn slightly and ‘pitch’ the dog to a safer area.”

The explanations and ideas that Karen shared made a lot of sense to dog owners and really stressed that safety of our dogs and others should be top of mind for all owners.

Teaching classes like these and being a dog trainer was a lifelong dream for Karen. When she was 14 years old, she met a woman who had a Border Collie that performed like a person—it wasn’t a service dog, but could do many things to aid the woman in her day to day activities. Karen was inspired but could not convince her father that dog training was a viable career. At 30, she decided to follow her dream and started studying and doing internships, helping families in their homes training their pets.

Her formal dog training certification included more about the science of dogs as well as training theory and teaching positive training methods. Karen recently accepted a job with Canines For Service as their Puppy Program Coordinator. Karen has always wanted to train service dogs, so she is excited about the future. She also said, “We will always need volunteers to work with dogs. If anyone in your readership is interested in volunteering, please contact me at"

We took our own dog, Dixie, to Karen’s class at Compass Pointe, and I understand what Karen meant about safety. Dixie was one of the smallest dogs in the group among many larger dogs like a Shepherd/Husky mix and a beautiful English Sheepdog. She was in her green light zone for most of the class and seemed to enjoy the interaction with other dogs.

Our pets are so important to us. They are part of the family. Be aware of what’s going on around them—in the dog park or out in the world. Keep an eye out for dog etiquette classes, and keep your dogs safe so we can enjoy them for a very long, long time.


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