Thursday, March 24, 2011

About Dog Parks

When we moved out to the 'burbs, I was pretty happy to have a dog park nearby. It was big and open with a solid fence and a sand surface instead of mud. Zuko seemed to be pretty happy with it too.

Then one Sunday we went by the park and all hell broke loose. Hubby and I walked in with Zuko and he and another dog did some sniffing then Zuko got down to business: peeing all over the fence. Another dog was across the park with his owners and suddenly came bounding over. And there was a fight between him and Zuko. It happened very fast, I didn't see who started what. What I did see was Zuko biting at the haunches of this other dog and then when he could, he broke away and went off towards the fence. The other owners were still across the park, so I went after Zuko, putting my hand down to block the other dog --- who was of course chasing after Zuko. 

What does this leave me to believe? Talking to the folks at Zuko's daycare, they have said time and again that Zuko is never aggressive. He will "tell off" another dog if that dog is being rude or too rough or if Zuko has just had enough playing. Add to this that Zuko broke off and ran away as soon as he could and the other dog followed him. I don't want to be the crazy dog lady who thinks her dog is never in the wrong, but I don't think this fight was started by him. 

Since then, I've been afraid to go back. The Shiba bloggers have posted photos and stories of Shibas who have been severely injured at dog parks and now I'm paranoid. 

So my question to all you dog owners at there: are dog parks worth the risk of your dog being seriously injured? If so, how do you minimize the risk? I'm really struggling with this one!

-- Zuko's Helicopter Mom


  1. No, they aren't worth the risk.

    I think we (and by that I mean I) assume that the people entering the dog park know their dogs enough to know their dog will not cause a fight. But the reality is some people don't care, or just use the dog park in leu of a walk... so if they are that lazy I'm sure their dog doesn't know recall, etc.

    I can't assume that owners care at all, so I cannot take the risk anymore.
    Which is a shame, my dogs are great at dog parks, never had an issue. But I saw a terrible fight the last time we went, and I was done.

  2. We don't do dog parks normally, but would be hesitant anytime there were dogs bigger than a Shiba. Not that Misaki couldn't handle herself, but why put her in the situation where she may have to defend herself?

    And she would defend herself, probably pretty effectively. At a Shiba meetup there was one who had a bad attitude and got a little feisty with her - she probably would have thoroughly kicked his ass if I hadn't have picked her up until everyone calmed down. She won't start it, but she will damn well try and finish it.

    For Zuko, I would be inclined to believe he didn't do anything wrong, but without seeing it it's hard to say.

    I guess for us it's just a matter of what risks are we willing to take? Misaki doesn't really seem like she misses other dogs at all - she'd rather hang with people every day of the week.

  3. we don't have a backyard and go to our local dog park 2x a day. taro likes to play fetch and dislikes eliminating #2 on leash, so it's a necessary part of our day.

    i think dog parks are great ideas. and, while we've had pretty amazing luck, there is always risk involved.

    one of the big things for us is staying hyper-vigilant, which means watching every human and dog with close eyes. if we don't like the way an owner brings in a dog, or the way the dog moves when it comes in, we'll take taro out of the park and walk instead. also, we try to identify high value items in the park and remove them.

    but, really, only you'll be able to tell whether or not dog parks are worth the risk for you and zuko. sorry i can't be more helpful. :/

  4. @Everyone: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Zuko goes to a cage-free daycare two or three days a week, so the dog park is really about giving him a chance to really run on the days he doesn't go to daycare. We have a yard, but not as big as he might like it to be so the dogpark gives him a chance to really RUN.

    I think I am going to have to go back with him, just because now I'm a bit afraid of going there and I firmly believe in getting back on the horse when you fall off. :-)

    And re: finishing the fight - Jason, Zuko won't back down if someone else starts it, but he also seems to be a lover, not a fighter. ;-) He plays with the big dogs at daycare and I know he can defend himself but I still worry when I see pictures of dogs who were nearly killed in dog parks.

    His on-leash growly-ness is something I need to write-up. I've found the pattern and it fits with what I've seen from him in dog parks.

  5. I'm glad you're deciding to continue going to dog parks, despite the experience you had. As a regular visitor to several different SF area dog parks, I say you really shouldn't fear them. I feel that some parks in the area have calmer regular visitors than others however, so I do have my favorites.

    Even though I never have any real problems with Suki and other dogs when visiting these parks, there are a few things that I do every time we visit to help keep things safe. First of all, I always enter the park myself before I let Suki in. Bridget waits outside with her while I do some recon, assessing the other dogs at the park. When I feel ok about it, I give Suki the go ahead to come in. If Suki and I are alone, I just walk with her on leash until we reach the other dogs, then I let her off. That way I'm close by if there's any trouble.

    While at the park, I'm always around Suki. I notice some owners will come in, let their dogs off, and just sit on the bench staring at their phones while their dogs run around. Not the best idea. Like Kai mentioned, stay vigilant, and stay close to your dog at all times. If things get a little too rowdy, I just step in and break it up before it escalates. I never feel like I don't have complete control of the situation.

    Suki is like Zuko in that she's definitely a lover, though she'll get serious if a dog is too overwhelming or if multiple dogs team up on her. Still haven't met a dog, big or small, that won't back off when she demands it....besides, it's always the smaller dogs that are nasty in my experience ;)

  6. I agree with Kai and Jonathan. We go to dog parks, and I also organize a 300+ Shiba meetup group. Most of our regulars are great. Every now and then, we get newbies with unsocialized Shibas. We and I keep a very close eye on these dogs. The first few visits are important, you want to be ultra vigilant because it is so important for those early visits at the park to be good experiences without any incidences. If someone is snarky and the owner cannot control it and I can't even get them to stop, I have to tell the owner to leave. We never have more than 30 Shibas at one time, but we haven't had an incident (knock wood).

    There are a few Shibas that bully the puppies that come, and I know it is a natural reaction to pick up the puppy, but I have taught at least 3 different owners how to protect their puppy without picking them up. I usually go in and block the puppy and shoo off the bully and scold them. If they play nicely, then I just stand nearby and let them play. But if you see it escalate (more snark, more growl, more teeth, tails going down for Shibas, tails going up for other breeds, etc), then I step in and block.

    I apologize for the long post, but knowing dog body language goes a long way. I think it is critical if you go to the dog park.

  7. @Jonathan and Masako: thank you both for your comments and sharing your "best practices". Notice I have been signing this as Zuko's "helicopter mom" which means I am a hovering, worrying mommy. ;-) I totally agree though that you need to be at the park with your dog, not checked out and ignoring him/her. I am going to give the one here another try, during the week, at the times when we have had success. And Jonathan... we'll be seeing Suki one of these days soon at a dog park!

  8. I stopped taking Mika tot he dog park years ago. We used to go all the time. The anxiety of just entering a busy park was a bit much for her. 10 dogs wanting to sniff her made her jumpy. One day out of the blue, she got attacked by a 4 dog pack. It was ugly. She fought them all. It was vicious and she was scared. I had to get in the fight and pick her up. All the dogs were bigger. I was the owner who would always stay near her. We tried to go back a few times but her nervousness at just being sniffed grew badly. From then on she wanted no part of other dogs. Keido was never good at playing with anyone other than Mika. When we got Rinji, we really focused on socialization. Mika is now playing with other dogs again and we have dogs over to play. I want to try a park again, but I won't. Our vet says to stay away from a sickness standpoint. It just depends on the park and the # of dogs. The one we went to was always busy with 20+ dogs. If there are only a few, probably less anxiety. Mika has always been more cautious since the fight. She is very social with humans. She used to be more social with dogs prior to the incident at the dog park. Every dog is different. All 3 of our shibas have shown differnt personality traits and uniqueness. Just keep a close watch and you will be able to tell if Zuko is in a comfort zone or not. The alternative is a controlled playdate environment in a yard.

  9. you've gotten some good feedback so far, so not a whole lot for me to add. to answer your first immediate question, i would say that yes, the dog parks are worth the everpresent risk, but posing the question in terms of the most SERIOUS risk that could ever happen is unfair. the solution, if you don't want to take that risk, isn't always as clear as picking up your ball and going home and never going back to any dog park ever again. i think *most* situations and *most* dogs and *most* parks shouldn't have to amount to that. that is, most of the testiest *potential* situations can be overcome with vigilance and communication. if you don't have the desire or the time to learn how to carefully observe your own dog and *other* dogs' body language (and it sounds like you ARE willing to do all that), or if you don't feel like you're able to communicate with other dog owners (and this part often breaks down for a number reasons, not necessarily due to anyone's "fault"), then no, don't go to dog parks anymore. but i personally find that there's enough flex within that schema that potential problems can be surmounted.

    that said, we have the luxury of having dog park options in this area. even the same dog park is very different at different times of day. i had to stop taking Bowdu to the little, fenced-in dog park after a couple pretty bad incidents, even after we had been visitors nearly every single weekday for about 9 months! i think it hurt me more than it hurt him, because *i* missed the other dogs and the other dog owners -- he was still able to get the chance to run around at other large, off-leash dog parks, which was what was important to him. after 3 months of quitting the little park "cold turkey," we went back. we stayed for a short time, not long enough for anything bad to happen. and we gradually started going back again... but the little park is still not our favorite, and sometimes it just comes down to realizing and conceding to what your dog needs to have fun/stay safe, not what you want FOR your dog.

    which is all to say that not all dog parks are the same, and if you have the option of exploring numerous dog parks in the area, it's okay to keep going. if i was limited to only one dog park, then i'd be doing a lot more to create a community conducive to communicating with the other dog owners, that is, making it an environment where the *humans* were mutually clear on how to keep the dog park environment safe for all. i.e., it's not enough to say "my dog is great, it's everyone else's dog that i have to worry about" - help educate other dog owners on *how* not to be a dog park asshole, hopefully without turning into an asshole yourself. =)

  10. So glad Zuko ran away as soon as he could, instead of lingering around!

    We've been lucky so far at dog parks, but we know that it's just that. Good luck.

    We also know that it doesn't matter that our dog is not the type to cause fights. It's like driving. It doesn't matter how good you drive. If someone else drives badly, you still get into an accident.

    On top of dog fights, we also have to worry about his knees. When he tumbles down to the ground with other dogs on top of him (when they had been running together), our hearts stop. So far, no serious injuries, although some days, he limps slightly after dog parks (he gets better by next morning)

    With all those risks and concerns, though, we still take Kaiju to dog parks. It's because, with all the things he is fearful of, dogs are not one of them. He is really happy when running around with other dogs. He seems confident and fun-loving, something we don't get to see often outside of our home. The benefit of doing this for his fragile self-esteem, I think, seems quite big.

    We keep our trips quite short though. That's how we reconcile the benefits and risks (in our minds). We also find that the bigger the field is, the better we feel. When dogs have enough space, they may have less need to confront the ones they don't like... It's just our feeling though, and not based on any studies.

    Sometimes, we go to those dog parks late late night when it's very likely just us. We run with Kaiju or we play fetch. The problem is we can't run as fast as dogs and we tire so fast it's pathetic. Kaiju's looking at us like "er, that's it??" Although it's probably less satisfying for him, it's much more relaxing for us because we don't have to worry about other dogs or his knees, so we like it.

  11. You've gotten a good sampling of answers, but for me, the answer could go both ways. They are both worth the risk and not worth the risk depending on various factors. But, that would require a huge calculation of probability and statistics—and I was never good at probability theory, so I can't help there!

    I can tell you that I've had really good and not so good experiences.

    With Hoshi, it's always been good. He is a super social pup, and he generally has a blast. I don't take him nearly as much to the dog park anymore because the one I normally go to near my condo is too small and is constantly overcrowded for its size. I like to be able to watch Hoshi with ease, but not in a huge sea of furry blurring tails and a cacophony barks and howls.

    With Shiki though, the experiences have not been so good. I think it's mostly because of her personality. Her extreme fearfulness keeps her from being able to go out for a normal walk on the street. Noise, people, and children make her tremble and cry within minutes, and she is not good around dogs when she is like that. But I do notice that she tends to want to play with some of them when she sees them and is in a calmer frame of mind.

    She did surprisingly very well the first couple of times I took her to the dog park to try to socialize her after I got her. At one of our dog park visits, she had gotten herself surrounded by 4-5 bullying dogs—I had no choice but to quickly get in, pick her up, and get her out of the park before it escalated into a nasty pack attack. She was scared but ok.

    After that, I had taken Shiki to a couple of Shiba Inu meetups -- she'd done well at the first one, but at the second one, she snapped aggressively at every approaching dog and I had to take her out. After we left, I had discovered tree sap and twigs stuck to the bottom of her paw making her uncomfortable. But I am not sure if this was the only reason, so I gave it another chance and took her to another one after that. She turned out to be grouchy and nasty too (there were kids at the park that day making her nervous).

    As much as I'd love to try to take her again, her ups and downs at the dog park and my worries over her stressing too much have ultimately kept me from taking her anymore. I take Hoshi to Shiba Inu meetups when I can, but with Shiki, I don't. Instead, I let her play with Hoshi in our paver-covered enclosed condo common area which is quiet and not being used by anyone. It's the best substitute for a fearful dog like her and she enjoys it.

    I don't really think there is a definitive answer on that. It all falls on those dog park probabilities, the dog's personality, and going with your feelings and instincts in the end. We will always worry about our furbabies, no matter what.

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