Are You Worried About Off Leash Aggression Issues?

18 02 2009

It seems like you have a wonderful dog, you have given him a great home, but when you go out to the off leash dog park, things change, right?  Being off leash is truly a fantastic feeling.  Running around with the wind blowing through your hair as your ears flap in the wind is almost as much fun as riding in the car with our head hanging out of the window.  However, such a fantastic joy as it is, being off leash is ALWAYS a privilege.  This is something that needs to be earned.

Once you take a dog off his leash, he begins to explore everything around him without being under your direct control.  If you are in a place where there are a lot of other dogs, he may play with a few or them for a time and then wander off on his own.  Then he may re-engage in play with the others, and he may come up to another dog who is not as high ranking in this impromptu pack.  First, they may begin their encounter with a staring contest.  The other dog may just walk away.  After that encounter, your dog feels that he must establish his place in the pecking order of this new pack.  He will try to show his dominance any way that he can.  In the canine world, mounting other dogs is one of the most easily recognized form of showing dominance.  This aforementioned scenario can all take place in a matter of seconds, without you having understood what was going on or a chance to intervene.

In my home pack, I am a 110 pound alpha dog.  I also know that I am not allowed to mount other dogs, and Mom will not let me bully another dog.  Often, we go to places to play, but Mom does not allow me off leash when there a bunch of other strange dogs around.  Remember “Stranger Danger”?  Dogs can be unpredictable, and since most humans do not understand what we say with our body language.  This means off leash play among strangers is potentially dangerous.  Remember, dogs are pack animals.  It can only take a second for one dog to get angry with another and start a fight.  Within the blink of an eye, other dogs have come to help their pack member. This is a situation where no one is in control! No control usually means that someone is going to get hurt.

Trips to the dog park are great, and the socialization among the dogs there is even better.  If you want to continue this activity (and you should), go to a park where you leave his leash on while he plays and sniffs in the area around you.  When you do this, if he starts acting up, you are immediately in control.  If he starts acting inappropriately, what should you do?  If you said, “go home,” you are right.  He needs to know that he has lost the privilege of playing at the park.  Over time and with multiple visits, he will learn to play well with others, so that he can continue to go for the trip.

Mom is not a big fan of off leash dog parks.  It seems that about once a month or so, a story breaks about some dog mauling at a local dog park.  We have been to some of these parks, but we know that with 30+ dogs running around off leash (and out of control), it is only a matter of time before the trouble starts.  When we went, I sat by Mom with my leash on, and together we enjoyed watching the other dogs play.  Sure enough, within ten minutes, two dogs were going at it.  Seconds later, people started yelling, and the dogs kept fighting!  People have not figured out that when they yell at fighting dogs, the dogs think the people are in their cheering sections.  The fighting does not stop as long as the “cheering” continues.

When it is play time off leash with other dogs, we have a few close friends that I am allowed to play with off leash.  Mom calls them play dates.  I am never allowed to play with a dog that we do not know well.  For safe off leash play, you can do what we have done by forming a small group of friends and have play dates at each other’s homes until you get to know each other very well.  I suggest limiting the size of the group and maybe even giving the group a name, something like Spike’s Pack.  (Those guys are only my close online friends.)  After a few months of supervised off leash play at each other’s homes, you can find a park and announce a play date.  Start the play date with every dog still on his leash, and as things progress positively, take the leashes off.  Even though they are all very familiar with each other, there will probably still be some bickering among them.  Keep an eye out for the signs of real trouble.  You may find it helpful to use these body language clues to help you identify troublesome situations.  If you see something about to start, get your dog and put him on his leash by your side.

Remember, dogs are not children.  It is okay to take your children to the park to play with 30+ strange kids because your child understands your language.  After all, if Junior and Sally start fighting, all you need to do is say stop that!  When you yell stop that to a dog, you may as well be yelling at a brick wall.  As animals, we have a whole different set of values than humans and we do not care about right and wrong, because when it comes to a pack of dogs, it is a matter of survival of the fittest.  Not only that, we do not speak English, German or Japanese.

If you want to be able to communicate your beliefs about right and wrong to your dog, you better have a way to control the dog.  Put a leash on him! Mom always says that you can not train what you can not control, and there will be times that you can not control what you have trained without the proper equipment.

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6 responses

19 02 2009
Karina A.

We’ve never been great fans of off-leash parks as they usually serve the purpose of making parents forget about their companions, connect with other humans, and function under the excuse that this space in time is to just let “dogs-be-dogs” for a while. Agree that a trip to the park should be used always as a link to interconnect not only your pal back with nature but also with you. See you at Barkhunt Spike!

20 02 2009
Loreen72

Thanks for a great post! I used to LOVE going to our off leash dog park for play group every Sunday. The one couple had a dog they did not train, could not control, and they would not pay attention to where he was. Their dog attacked my dog on two different occasions. One time -following us into the woods several minutes after we had already started down the path. The Boge-Man (all 21 pounds of him) now feels the need to let strange dogs (and even some he’s known his whole life (6 years) know he is the boss. His way of doing this is to stand up on his back legs and grab them by the throat. He was never ever aggressive before he was attacked. He loved playing with other dogs off leash. The Boge-Man is very well trained, comes when I call him, and when he wanders he always makes sure I am in his sightline. We havne’t been to our off leash park in the last year because of his need to always be defensive. I’m slowing taking him back to get him used to the place again and working on training to keep him from being so defensive. We do like the new place we walk – hardly any dogs, tons of squirells, chipmunks, and a pond and stream for drinking, watching beavers, ducks, and geese. If only there weren’t so many ticks!!

Again – thanks for the article on off leash!!

20 02 2009
Spike

Glad you enjoyed the article.

Have you tried any supervised socialization (hopefully leading up to play dates) for the Boge-man?

22 02 2009
Trying To Find The Inner Alpha « Ask Spike Online

[…] Now, let us talk about the dog park.  Guess who just lost the privilege of being off-leash?  As I have said many times, you cannot correct her behavior if you have no control.  Your dog may just be responding to actions of another dog, but she needs to be under your supervision at all times because of her previous baad behavior.  When your dog shows any signs of aggression, your response must not be yelling or giving any other attention to that behavior.  You just simply need to leave the area, because your dog just lost that privilege as well.  Once things are under control at home, you may allow her to return to the dog park, but not off-leash.  Being off leash is a privilege she must earn again, and it may take some time.  As Spiderman’s uncle said with great power comes great responsiblity, so I suggest that you take a look at my thoughts on off-leash dog parks. […]

24 02 2009
tarastermer

Kudos to your article about dog parks! I was starting to feel like the only professional out there who was not recommending off leash dog parks. Glad to see there are more of us. Great article.
Tara

24 02 2009
Spike

Thanks. It is not a popular position to hold, and many think that it is wrong, but it is really about a dog’s safety. The “play dates” lead to a much better off leash experience for both the dogs and the families.

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