Friday, July 9, 2010

Dog Parks

Read any magazine for dog owners, or even some travel magazines, and you will discover articles about "Dog Friendly Cities, Towns, Communities." There are "Dog Friendly" resorts. The translation of "Dog Friendly" is: "It's OK To Let Your Dog Run Around Off Leash."

Off-leash parks and beaches are represented as ultimate Nirvana for both dogs and their people. The image is of dogs of all breeds and sizes frolicking joyfully together as their people chat about the latest in doggie toys and treats and set up play dates for their pooches. Not exactly the Utopia of the Lion lying down by the Lamb, but getting close.

The intrinsic problem with this image is admitted by some off-leash dog parks that have separated areas for "small dogs" and "large dogs". At least this arrangement is a nod to the realities of potential dog behavior, but it's just a nod. The fact is, there are serious reasons why many dogs should NEVER be let loose in an off-leash dog park. Let's look at some of those reasons.

1. A very small dog is a very vulnerable dog. PERHAPS there is a small dog off-leash park available where your 4 pound Maltese can gambol about with other tiny, delicate creatures. But letting a small dog "play" with anything but the smallest of toy breeds is like bringing pizza to a group of teenage boys and asking them to ignore it.

2. Inherent, bred-in instincts of your breed. "Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly." Terriers and hounds were bred to kill--or chase and kill. Some dogs--you know the breeds--were originally bred to fight other dogs. Some dogs were developed to be guard dogs. With the exception of our first dog, Mame, a five pound Toy Poodle, all of John's and my dogs have been terriers or hounds. They have been wonderful companions and I would not want to have missed the presence of one of them in my life. But terriers and hounds are Serious Dogs. Beneath the blonde, wavy coat of a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, under the elegant lines of a Greyhound, lies the potential to attack and kill with efficiency and--let's be honest--joyful enthusiasm.

3. Other physical vulnerabilities. The first of these that comes to mind is a very thin skin covering. Having been a Greyhound person for a number of years, I have seen first hand the havoc that can be inflicted when a Greyhound is bitten by another dog. Indeed, Portia died as the result of one horrific bite that ripped a ten inch diameter wound that could not be closed, even with state of the art veterinary care, before her courageous heart stopped beating. Even in non-fatal wounds, days of care for a dog who has suffered an attack by another dog is a painful and exhausting ordeal for both dog and human. In addition to more stitches than I could count, Zephyr had four drains that had to be treated with warm compresses several times a day following an attack by an off-leash dog who was set loose to relieve himself on neighbors' lawns.

4. Individual dog history. I am completely dedicated to rescuing and re-homing dogs who have been abandoned, lost, or mistreated. I have had five rescued dogs as my companions, two of which live with me now. There are many advantages in rescuing an older dog. Given my age, I doubt that I will ever again tackle the challenge of a puppy. For me, walking Greyhounds is NOTHING compared with the task of civilizing a baby canine. HOWEVER. The fact is: EVERY rescued dog has some baggage that is not always apparent until some event triggers a hidden memory for the dog. Until your rescued dog has lived with you for a while and you have observed it under a variety of circumstances, until you have established mutual trust and have established general behavioral expectations, don't even THINK about taking your dog to a Dog Park. In my experience, six months is not too long to wait to really know what your rescued dog's personality and behavioral repertoire are like.

I am not advocating the closure of off-leash parks and beaches. For one thing, it's not a realistic proposal. The conviction on the part of what seems to me to be the majority of dog owners that dogs MUST be permitted to play off leash in places other than their own yards requires such facilities. Even many dog trainers encourage off-leash exercise by insisting that dogs can be trained to reliably obey commands when unconfined and off-leash. All I can say about that is, my faith in the Tooth Fairy is stronger than my faith in any dog's 100% obedience. I once held my breath and prayed while a highly trained, off-leash police dog eyed my two Greyhounds and hesitated to follow his trainer's order to get into his squad car.

I do believe that people who love their dogs deserve more education and caution before they merrily let their dogs loose in a dog park. Call me overly cautious, but I shudder to think of any group other than Sporting, and, perhaps, some Herding and the occasional Working breeds regularly visiting an off-leash park.

My daughter's Lab is a dog that is a perfect Dog Park Dog. Georgia has thick skin with a layer of protective fat that is characteristic of her breed. She barks at other dogs, but is not dog aggressive. She is a RETRIEVER, not a killer. In short, Georgia is the sort of dog for which off-leash dog parks are ideal.

On Thursdays, I answer the phone for a local Greyhound rescue. In addition to wrong numbers asking for bus ticket prices, I receive a wide variety of calls. Yesterday I spoke with a woman who will forever be traumatized by an attack in an off-leash dog park that resulted in serious injuries to THREE dogs. Witnessing a dog attack is traumatic. The woman I spoke to will never again be without some fear when she walks her dog. Believe me. I understand TOTALLY. I say a prayer EVERY time I hook up leashes and harnesses on Bingley and Magic.

Would Bingley and Magic like to run free? Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. Bingley and Magic were born to run--and kill. But John and I are the only protection they have in a world that is completely different from the world in which their ancient breed was developed. For their protection and for the protection of other dogs, they will never be let loose in a Dog Park or on a Dog Beach.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, next to retractable leashes, dog parks are on my No-No list which doesn’t make me very popular with my doggie friends. Thank you for this posting and the inherent problems with dog parks. The same goes for Dog Beach in our area.

    Years ago a good friend used to take her Malamute and GSD to Dog Beach knowing that the Mal was dog aggressive. She bragged that her dogs were so well trained that she wasn’t worried. Several trips to Dog Beach and no problems and then one trip changed all that. She spent a lot of money getting her dog repaired as well as paying the vet bill for the other dog’s injuries. Seems her Mal meet a tougher dog that day.

    One of our good grooming customers started taking her Wire Fox Terrier to Dog Beach. I warned her not to do that! But he loves it and likes all dogs, I was told. The owner said that I was just an old worry wart. I didn’t see her for awhile and one day she stopped by to tell me that Eddie was recovering after being attacked at Dog Beach. And, I’ve heard stories about doggie day care, too. The best of dogs can be provoked.