Dog park bullies

Article by The Hague dog trainer Laure-Anne Visele about dog park etiquette, published in August 2016
Illustration credits at the end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Unpleasant dogs

I was walking in one of The Hague’s off leash areas (Meer en Bos) with a friend and we went through a couple of nasty encounters with other dog handlers the other day. It got us wondering: why do people react so poorly when their dog’s behaviour is being questioned? We also discovered an instant fix to stop ourselves going down that route.

Dog encounter turns bad

My friend and I were chatting whilst walking in the woods when her dog, Flo, got chased by two boisterous Ridgeback crosses. We kept an eye on it, as you should with one-sided rough play. After a couple of minutes, she’d clearly had enough so we called on the two dogs’ handler for help. No luck.

  • We looked back at the dogs’ guardian: nothing. He just stood there, smiling benevolently at the scene.
  • We called Flo back so we could walk away together. The big dogs only harassed her more: staying at our side, she was less of a moving target.
  • We asked the guy to call them off, whilst we distracted her with food so she wouldn’t focus on the bullies too much – to stop the encounter from escalating. His response? He berated us for intervening and (weren’t we lucky girls?), regaled us with a lecture on dog behaviour. “You are rewarding her fear with the food,” he said pontifically, followed by the tired old: “You need to let them work it out.” [Read the Dogs and play section of this post to see why it is tosh].
kid bullies

Let them work it out…

He (eventually) called his dogs but, low and behold: Mr. Dog Expert couldn’t get them to come back to him. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little smug: our own dog had kept her perfect heel that entire time. It was clear they had no intention of coming back to him, so he started shouting at them. Yes, that’ll work… (to see why THAT is tosh, read this one).

We finally got them off Flo’s face after another five minutes of this circus… We couldn’t believe her patience and self-control throughout this sorry episode. She was uncomfortable, but did not break her temper – or obedience. She could finally get on playing tag with CONSENTING other dogs and we could relax again. It was short-lived…

This is what consenting dog play look like

This is what consenting dog play look like

Encounter at the dog pond

A couple of minutes later, still incredulous about what had happened, we reached the water’s edge. And there he was… This grouch of a Jack Russell. We knew he was trouble the moment we saw him. His idea of a welcome was to walk to Flo high and stiff, growling. We couldn’t move away as he quickly manoeuvred himself between Flo and us. She tried to avoid him politely, but he inched closer into her personal space, still growling. Each time she tried to walk around him, he would block her path. She looked at us for help. 

No, I won’t call my kid over, he’s not doing anything

We tried a bunch of stuff to get out of the sticky situation. Result? It only got stickier:

  • We looked at the dog’s handler, a lady in her fifties. Her reaction was baffling: she stood there, watching, like this was the most normal thing in the world.
  • As Flo was getting increasingly uncomfortable, we had to ask the lady if she could please call her dog away for a second so we could get Flo past him. Her answer? “No,” followed by the oh-so-helpful “He’s not doing anything”
  • I lost my patience at that stage, and asked firmly that she please put her dog on leash for a second. She answered with an angry tirade along the lines of: “This is an off-leash area. Off-leash dogs are allowed here. My dog has as much right to be here as yours. This park is opened to every dog…”
A right charmer...

A right charmer…

At that stage I stopped being diplomatic and told her: “Yes, well-behaved dogs that is.” Being a behaviour therapist, I knew it was childish and unfair to put this down to misbehaviour. Clearly her dog suffered from fear aggression, likely pain-related if the way he walked was anything to go by. But I wasn’t exactly in my most benevolent state of mind.

What is it about walking your dog that turns you into such a selfish idiot?

It got us thinking: are we ever like that when our own dog’s behaviour is off-colour? Do we ourselves underestimate others’ discomfort when our dog is being annoying or scary? What was causing what we assumed to be perfectly civil people to be so unempathetic when their dog’s behaviour was being called into question? Was it defensiveness? Denial? Ignorance? One thing was for sure: we would need to be on our toes so we NEVER acted like this ourselves when our own dog was being annoying.

So I came up with this simple formula: replace the word ‘dog’ with the word ‘kid’.

Let’s replay the whole sorry scene and see how it works, shall we?

Kid encounter turns bad

My friend and I were chatting whilst walking in the woods when her daughter, Flo, got chased by two boisterous teenagers. We kept an eye on it, as you should with one-sided rough play. After a couple of minutes, she’d clearly had enough so we called on the teenagers’ Dad for help. No luck.

  • We looked back at the person: nothing. He just stood there, smiling benevolently at the scene.
  • We called Flo back so we could walk away together. The big boys only harassed her more: staying at our side, she was less of a moving target.
  • We asked the guy to call them off, whilst we distracted her with a lolly so she wouldn’t focus on the bullies too much – to stop the encounter from escalating. His response? He berated us for intervening and (weren’t we lucky girls?), regaled us with a lecture on child behaviour. “You are rewarding her fear with the food,” he said pontifically, followed by the tired old: “You need to let them work it out.”
Shouting

Our professor of dog behaviour demonstrating his flawless recall…

He (eventually) called his sons but, low and behold: Mr. Child Expert couldn’t get them to come back to him. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little smug: our own kid had stayed by our side as soon as we’d asked. It was clear they had no intention of coming back to him, so he started shouting at them. Yes, that’ll work…

We finally got them off Flo’s face after another five minutes of this circus… We couldn’t believe her patience and self-control throughout this sorry episode. She was uncomfortable, but did not break her temper – or obedience. She could finally get on playing tag with CONSENTING other kids and we could relax again. It was short-lived…

Encounter at the pond

A couple of minutes later, still incredulous about what had happened, we reached the water’s edge. And there he was… This grouch of a little boy. We knew he was trouble the moment we saw him. His idea of a welcome was to walk to Flo high and stiff, mumbling insults at her. We couldn’t move away as he quickly manoeuvred himself between Flo and us. She tried to avoid him politely, but he inched closer into her personal space, still insulting her. Each time she tried to walk around him, he would block her path. She looked at us for help. 

We tried a bunch of stuff get out of the sticky situation. Result? It only got stickier:

  • We looked at the kid‘s grandma, a lady in her fifties. Her reaction was baffling: she stood there, watching, like this was the most normal thing in the world.
  • As Flo was getting increasingly uncomfortable, we incredibly had to ask the lady if she could please call the boy away for a second so we could get Flo past him. Her answer? “No,” followed by the oh-so-helpful “He’s not doing anything”
  • I lost my patience at that stage, and asked firmly that she please grab the kid by the hand for a second. She answered with an angry tirade along the lines of: “This is a free country. Kids are allowed on this pond’s edge. My grandson has as much right to be here as your daughter. This park is opened to every kid…”

‘They don’t like my dog’s behaviour? Their problem’

These aren’t isolated encounters of blaming the victim. I can tell you a few just off the top of my head:

  • Someone with whom I sometimes walk my dog regaling me with this (in his mind) ‘amusing’ story: a kid with Down Syndrome ‘got his knickers in a twist about the dog’ and was so panicked he ran into barbed wire. “Couldn’t he see my dog was just playing? People just get hysterical. You should have seen the kid flailing and wailing. Like my dog was going to kill him or something. My dog was only playing chase. If he’d stopped moving she would have lost interest.”
  • Someone who, upon seeing my shock at her dog snatching and bursting a couple of kids’ ball, defiantly tells me that people shouldn’t bring kids into an offleash area. She then proceeded to put the burst ball in the bin, in front of the two crying kids, and walked away without as much as an apology…
  • A dog owner who lets her two enormous and boisterous dogs walk out of sight and takes her sweet time walking to hysterical cries around the road bend. “I know what it is,” she explained. “It’s that family. No wonder the kids have a phobia of dogs. You should see how the mom reacts.” When we passed the bend, sure enough, her dogs were ‘playfully’ circling the two crying kids and their screaming mom. The dog owner never even increased her pace to get there, nor called her dogs back to her. She just walked past saying to the poor woman and her two kids: “They’re just playing, it’s OK” without a care in the world.
Because that's who you want to see charging at your kids'ball...

Because that’s who you want to see charging at your kids’ ball…

In what screwed up world is it ever OK for your dog to scare someone else, or someone else’ dog? I don’t even care if the person who is scared is being unreasonable – which they are not in the stories I shared, I’d like to point out.

This could all be resolved with one simple rule: Check before letting your dog approach someone, or their dog. Not every dog and not every person likes or trusts your dog. Nor should they have to.

You’re told off? Don’t be a dog: smile, apologize and move on

If your dog is making someone uncomfortable, imagine the situation with kids instead of dogs before you brush them off as being precious. Just smile, apologize, and get your dog to come back to you for a second.

cliches

Do the right thing. Don’t share a tired old cliche as an excuse for your dog’s behaviour

Do the right thing: do not argue, lecture, or shame the person asking for your help. Being in an off leash area does not mean your dog – or you for that matter – get to be an off leash bully.

Illustration credits

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