A crucial mistake made time and time again at dog parks is not removing a dog from their leash before they enter the off leash area. By leaving your dog on the leash you can create stress, anxiety, and fear in your dog or others – all triggers for aggression. Help stop dog fights before they start by allowing your dog to communicate properly and acclimate appropriately to the new social situation. Remove the leash!
If you are not comfortable removing your dog from the leash before entering the park, then your dog is not ready for the dog park. Dog parks are only for dogs that are very well socialized and friendly. It is not a good place to work on socialization because there are too many factors you cannot control, like what other dogs are at the park and their personalities. Try setting up private play dates for your dog until they are ready for the dog park. Set them up to succeed. One bad experience can stick with them for life.
What happens when you leave the leash on your dog? Their body language changes.
Dogs move differently on a leash than they do when they are freely moving.
At a minimum their body language is more reserved or stiffened, because they know they don’t have the room to do big, loose, movements. This can come off as unfriendly to other dogs who are greeting your dog, especially if their happy greeting is not being reciprocated. While this one has the potential to start a fight, it may not, but you’re definitely not doing your dog any favors.
At a higher level, dogs can pull and lunge in excitement. On a leash or being tethered is the only time these pulling body movements are observed. A lot of other dogs do not know how to interpret these movements because they are so unusual. In fact, they look an awful lot like aggressive posturing. Similarities are head and neck lowered and extended, front legs slightly bent, tail down or tucked.
Check out the wonderful body language drawings by Lili Chin at the end of the blog post.
My dog, Sherlock, goes on high defense when another dog is pulling on a leash toward him. Actually, the only times he has gotten upset at the park is when people brought their dogs into the dog park on leashes and their dogs were pulling like crazy. He gets in their face and is barking at them to back off because he is interpreting it as a very aggressive encounter. This is a common example of a leashed movement being improperly interpreted by another dog.
Dogs on leashes with a bunch of loose dogs are trapped. If there is another dog in the dog park who is the aggressor, your dog’s best chance of evading attack and/or defending itself is when they are loose too. Dogs have much faster reflexes than we do. If an aggressive dog comes up to your dog and yours is on a leash, the loose dog will have the upper hand. If your dog were loose, they could run, dodge, and protect themselves much more easily.
I know the thought is that you can separate them faster if you already have control of yours, but often times the other owner is halfway across the park or more. That gives their dog a good 30 seconds “free for all” on your poor dog who is stuck tied to you. Not to mention it puts you in a very dangerous position, too. Usually, the better option when they are loose is to find the other owner, join together and attempt to grab the dogs at the same time, so neither has the upper hand on the other at any time.
Dogs who feel trapped on a leash will sometimes go on guard and become the aggressor. They’ll start the fight for the sole reason of feeling trapped and uncomfortable. Being tethered to their human could also amplify any resource guarding qualities your dog has as they want to protect you from the other dogs too.
Steps to take when entering a dog park:
- Before I enter the park I check the gate. Has every dog in the park gathered at the gate eagerly waiting to greet my dog? Yes? Then this is not the best time to enter the park. Walk your dog away from the park and try again in a few minutes. Don’t hang out right outside the gate getting all of the other dogs riled up and excited, walk away from the park. Don’t walk along the fence either, for the same reason. A few dogs at the gate is no big deal, but if you’re looking at 8+ excited faces, that can be really intimidating to any dog. After a few minutes, some of the other dogs will lose interest and then you can quickly get your dog into the park without so many greeters making your dog feel cornered.
- In the “air lock” area take the leash and any other gear off of your dog. This gated area before you are with all of the other dogs was designed specifically for this purpose. It gives you a safe area to take off your dog’s leash/harness without the fear of them running away and without any interaction from other dogs.
- Open the gate. In an ideal scenario, your dog goes right into the park, but sometimes when the gate opens another dog, or a few, go into the air lock area, too. It’s no big deal. Don’t grab your dog and drag them or push them into the park. Just open the gate all the way, walk into the park, and start happily calling all the dogs out. They won’t stay in there for long. Once they all leave, close the gate.
- In the park, the best thing you can do is get your dog to follow you and start walking. The initial greeting is the most stressful and is the most likely time for a fight to break out. If you start walking and get them to follow along, the other dogs will follow too. It changes the greeting from a face to face standoff to a lower stress greeting on the move. Do not yell at them, do not use the “come” command, don’t grab them, pull them, or restrain them, as this will also increase stress. If you happily say their name and start walking away, most dogs will follow along. You can practice this in your yard with treats, just don’t bring treats to the dog park!
TIP: It helps if all the other humans are not gathered at the gate as well. Don’t be afraid to open your mouth! A friendly “Hey, can we all move this way so they’re not all gathered at the gate?” usually gets everyone moving.
Dog parks can be great fun, especially if you follow these tips. My number 1 tip is to never be afraid to leave the dog park. Being totally honest, we probably leave the dog park earlier than anticipated 25% of the time. This is for a lot of reasons, on a rare occasion it’s because of telltale signs that a dog just isn’t acting right and has the potential to “snap” any minute. More often than not, the people are the reason we leave. They’re usually doing something that’s going to create a situation or escalate a situation that I don’t want my dogs to be a part of, whether for their physical safety or mental well-being. A very common reason we leave is dogs being kept on leashes!
I would love to hear your experiences, questions, and comments!
Check out these great tools to help decipher body language. Drawings by Lili Chin.