Why Conflicts Erupt At The Dog Park
And How To Avoid Them
Mobbing, Bullying, Mounting & Lack Of Cleanup Are Main Causes
A recent study released by Sonoma State University, California highlights two major causes of conflict between dogs at dog parks, and two major causes of conflict between people taking their dog to the dog park.
Behaviors that resulted in the highest amount of dogfights between dogs were bullying and mobbing, and behaviors that resulted in the highest amount of conflicts between people taking their dog to the dog park were differences in opinion on how to respond to dogs mounting each other and neglecting to clean up after one's dog.
Dog to dog aggression was most likely to break out as a result of mobbing behaviors--dogs congregating at the entryway of the park in order to meet incoming dogs--and bullying that went unnoticed until too late, the study says.
Controversy over "unwanted advances" in the form of dogs mounting other dogs and dog caregivers refusing to clean up their dog's feces ranked highest for why conflicts break out between people.
Lack Of Consensus On Code Of Conduct Is The Underlying Issue
Lack of consensus between dog caregivers about what is appropriate behavior for dogs to engage in was cited as one of the main reasons these problems occur. Dog parks have gained in popularity over the past 15 years and are a relatively new phenomenon. As a result, the rules of conduct are somewhat arbitrary depending who is at the dog park at any given time, the study says.
Dog Park Etiquette: The Do's & Don'ts
Anyone who has visited a dog park with their own dog may have witnessed or experienced some of these behaviors first-hand, but may not have known there are ways to prevent them from happening.
The following are some general guidelines to follow to ensure both you and your dog continue to have a positive experience at the dog park:
- Keep an eye on your dog. It's important to moderate your dog's interactions to ensure play remains safe and that dogs are mutually interested in each other.
- Keep small dogs in the small dog area if they get overwhelmed by bigger dogs. Some small dogs like French Bulldogs often prefer to play with bigger dogs, so this up to owner discretion.
- Keep moving. If you keep moving around in the dog park, it will prompt your dog to periodically check your position and follow you, and a dog that is keeping on an eye on their human is more likely to stay out of trouble, too. Remaining stationary ups the chances of your dog getting too involved with pack dynamics and could lead to your dog getting involved in a dogfight should one break out.
- Know how to break up a dogfight if one should occur. The best way is to remain calm (ask screamers to be quiet), grab the fighting dogs by the hindquarters, and then lift their back legs off the ground. Once the legs are lifted, pull the dogs apart, stepping backward in a curve so that if a dog tries to redirect their fury back at the handler, they won't be able to reach them.
- Bring poop bags and pick up after your dog.
- Bring a portable water bowl for your dog - water bowls at dog parks carry the risk of communicable illnesses such as giardia.
- Adopt the stance that dogs can work things out themselves: If play between dogs seems too rough or one-sided, intervene as soon as possible. It's a good idea to be aware of dog body language and what it is expressing, and to have an understanding of how different breeds of dogs like to play, in order to ensure all play is mutually enjoyed.
- Mobbing: Don't let your dog crowd new dogs entering the dog park. It's best to keep your dog away from the entrance of the dog park once you arrive to prevent them from causing newcomers to feel crowded or overwhelmed.
- Mounting: Don't let your dog mount other dogs. Intervene quickly and body-block your dog by stepping in between your dog and the object of its affection to let your dog know they should stop. Repeat as many times as necessary until your dog gets the message (maybe even taking your dog outside the park to calm down, and then coming back in to give them another chance to do something else). The other dog owner will appreciate this greatly!
- Don't bring your dog to the dog park if they are sick.
- Don't bring your puppy if they are less than 4 months of age or if they haven't had all of their rounds of shots.
- Don't bring an unneutered male to the dog park - it may result in fights! Don't bring a female in heat as it will definitely cause a stir and may result in fights (and a lot of unwanted mounting)!
- Don't bring food or treats to the dog park. Dogs may end up following a person with food on their person around like the pied piper and it could cause fights as dogs vie to get a treat.
- Toys like balls should only be surfaced at your discretion. If toys result in dogs fighting over who gets to play with the toy, it's best not to bring them to the dog park (or only break out a toy when no other dogs are around).
Canine Play Styles: Different Breeds Play In Different Ways
Play can take on different forms depending on the breed and temperament of a dog. Active breed or high energy dogs like to play a variety of games that simulate hunting or herding behaviors. This can include "take down" maneuvers like grabbing another dog by the scruff of the neck, bumping into each other with body slams to knock each other off-balance, and nipping at the feet or hindquarters of another dog.
To a certain extent this is normal and natural, but if play gets too rough or one-sided, it's best to intervene and calm the dogs down. One-sided behaviors to look out for are:
- A dog pinning another dog down so that it can't get up.
- A dog chasing and nipping at another dog that does not want to play or be chased (usually that dog will be fleeing from the other dog and perhaps try to hide behind its dog parent or under a park picnic table).
- A bigger dog overwhelming a smaller dog or puppy that can't match their play style or energy level.
- Competitive behaviors like one dog resting their head on the neck and shoulder area of another dog. This is an "I'm sizing you up" maneuver whereby one dog is judging whether they could take the other on. This should be stopped immediately and the dogs should be separated.
- "Three's A Crowd" behaviors like sideline barking. Sometimes, a dog will get really excited when two other dogs are playing and bark like crazy at them like they want in on the action. Unless all three dogs are taking turns playing with each other, it's best to discourage this behavior as it can lead to over-arousal and dog fights breaking out.
Conflicts At The Dog Park Are Mostly Avoidable
Most conflicts at the dog park can be avoided with human supervision, intervention, and consideration of others.
The best way to keep your dog out of trouble and to keep the peace with dog caregivers at the dog park is to keep moving and to intervene when: 1) play gets too rough or seems one-sided, 2) your dog engages in mobbing newcomers, or 3) your dog starts mounting another dog. Lastly, it's always a good idea to cleanup after your furry friend, as well!
Los Angeles dog trainer Alexandra Bassett is the owner of Dog Savvy, a dog training company based in Los Angeles that specializes in positive dog and puppy training and solving problem dog behavior like canine separation anxiety, leash reactivity, and aggression. She lives in Los Angeles and is available for free consultations.
Sonoma State University, Patrick Jackson, Situated Activities in a Dog Park: Identity and Conflict in Human-Animal Space. Retrieved from: https://www.animalsandsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/jackson.pdf