Take a close look at this photo I took out here at a dog park near Cesar Millan’s ranch (where I am attending a 2-week class). I decided to spend some down time watching dog park behavior, which is kind of a pastime of mine. This happens every day, multiple times a day in dog parks all over the world, but more so here in the United States. Dogs are already in the park, an excited dog and a frustrated human start to enter the park through the foyer, and it gets even more exciting. However, humans love to require a quick ending to this excitement by REDIRECTING the dogs’ attention. Instinctually, dogs don’t redirect; they block or correct depending upon whether they choose to address or ignore the behavior (redirection is a human invention). Because there seems to be a time limit, humans then try to manhandle or physically block the dogs’ vision.
Seems to work, right? Obviously, this dog’s attention is diverted and he will get calm because the human is picking him up by the collar so his paws are off the ground. In short, nope; not at all. What it means is that the dog’s brain is still excited and she didn’t wait long enough for it to calm down. When it IS calm, walk in and lead the dog into the new environment; even if you have been in the park a zillion times, every time is a new time because of the mix of energy already there.
In this case, the dog entered first in a highly alert state but because the other dogs clearly were not that interested no real fight started. That’s not to say that there were no issues; the dog came in growling and had there been a dog in that same state of mind it WOULD have been a fight. And I’m fairly certain the humans would be adding to that excitement in their efforts to break up the fight. (In fact, one small nervous/anxious (not front of the pack) dog kept helicoptering the owners and going after every dog within range… their response? Laugh and remark how he thinks he’s the boss of the dog park. Other owners’ reaction? The same thing. Actually, he’s clearly the boss of those two and – to a degree – everyone else within range and it’s dangerous for him to not be calmer.) The point to this is that it is easier, safer, and less stressful to prevent things from happening rather than to intervene. So, what should happen?
First, practice managing excitement before any thing else. Most humans don’t practice this at all. Then, manage excitement as you leave the car and before you enter the first gate. If your dog is pulling you to the gate, that’s too excited. Next, take the leash OFF before you go into the park; here is where you manage the energy at a different level.
Entering the park is an exercise most humans miserably fail at. If there is too much excitement, wait. If it seems okay, open the gate and walk in calmly ahead of your dog and through the other dogs. Don’t stand there in the way or call the dogs out or talk (pretty much at all!) because they are not listening to you – they are reading and processing the energy by the greeting dogs. You are creating an environment and sending a message to the other dogs that you have a bit of knowledge about pack leadership.
What’s the biggest challenge? Stop creating a false narrative, which humans love to do… “he’s afraid because he was attacked by a dog”, or “he doesn’t like playing with big (or small) dogs”, or perhaps the worst one, “he just likes playing with his ball or toy” (which creates COMPETITION and an overly-excited state of mind that is rarely controlled by that human). If you consider the three activities that dogs are involved with (follow/play/explore), follow is important to engage the instinctual brain. If not, and you let the dog always decide what to do or create a story to appease yourself, you become a follower and your dog does not respect that. If your dog follows you but can be without you, that is a healthier dynamic than a dog or human that protects (a.k.a. “helicopter dog” or “helicopter owner”).
Don’t get me wrong, I love my dogs and we are all connected. But just like a healthy human relationship, it’s not necessary to be in their space ALL the time, or theirs in ours. If you aren’t sure, video yourself or think of how that might look as you enter the park – would you make fun of that person or think that they look like they don’t know what they’re doing? Well then, don’t be like them!
Until the next time, be calm, confident and actually be a pack leader for all the dogs you meet!