Supporting Insanity – Rumble at the Dog Park

This post is part of a series where struggling pet owners submit pleas for help to the expertise of blogland. Everyone’s experiences are unique. If you have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments. What you think common sense may be revolutionary for someone else. You never know what may resonate with someone and keep one more animal out of a shelter. My hope is that together we can help good people, and good animals, feel a little less alone.

I recently received an email revolving around a scenario many of us relate to, probably a little too well. Dog parks can be a lot of fun, but unfortunately they can also be set-ups for disaster. It can be very difficult for good dog handlers to navigate the complex human and dog personalities that emerge.

 Today’s question:

I’m not entirely sure if what I’ve got is a training issue, thought it sure felt like it at the park tonight. We live in an incredibly dog friendly neighborhood and there are around 20+ dogs at our park most evenings. Both Angelo* and Kody are dog friendly and we have never had a problem at the park before tonight. I’m not even sure it was our problem. Here is what happened:

Angelo was playing and wrestling with another park regular, slightly bigger than him, a beagle/coonhound cross. They were clearly playing, with appropriate cues such as the play bow, perky ears and relaxed up right tail. While wrestling the did try to mount each other occasionally, but since both were responding appropriately, the other owner and I let them work it out themselves (a quick bark and the other backed off and they would go back to wrasslin’). Everything seemed okay until a third dog joined in.

This dog was a bulldog, who probably outweighed Angelo by 10 lbs. He immediately pinned Angelo and mounted him. Taking advantage of the situation, the other dog mounted his head. I hung back a second, seeing if he could handle it himself, but he was definitely overwhelmed and started growling and snapping. I intervened, picking him up and removing him from the area. Not much later, his buddy came to play again and everything seemed fine, until the bulldog found us and the same thing happened.

I can’t say I blame Angelo. It seems like a logical response to me, but I received several comments from others that “vicious” dogs aren’t welcome. Should I have reacted differently, do you think? Is there a better way to handle it? I’m reluctant to teach him not to growl, as I kind of feel like turning off his ” alarm bell” would be more dangerous than knowing when he is being pushed past his limits. Should I be intervening? I know some trainers recommend not too, but is it fair to leave him in a situation where he has no chance of winning? It’s very likely to come up again, as this new dog owner is becoming a park regular.

Thank you so much for reading and for any suggestions you might have!!

Now it is your turn, pet lovers. If you have any suggestions for Angelo’s human, please share them below. The more support, the better! Thank you so much for taking the time to help.

*Names have been changed

If you have a question you would like answered, fill out the contact form and I will post it up as soon as I can. All submissions will remain anonymous.

26 thoughts on “Supporting Insanity – Rumble at the Dog Park

  1. I would definitely allow your dog to growl. That is a warning sign to other dogs to back off. If your dog wanted to bite, he would have. Seems to me as if the growling/snapping was his way of saying, “I’ve had enough.”

    If you feel like you need to help your dog out of the situation, I would do so. Trust your gut.

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  2. If you aren’t going to protect your dog, who will? I wouldn’t allow that situation to happen. Ideally, the other dog owners would call their dogs away, even if it is just briefly to distract them from the inappropriate behavior. If they don’t, then you need to save your dog.

    Just one more reason I do not go to dog parks… unruly dogs and unruly owners. Your dog shouldn’t have to put up with that.

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  3. that makes me mad that other dog owners would call your usually friendly dog “vicious”. it’s obviously just trying to defend itself. the bulldog seems to be the problem if anyrhing. if this was a childrens playground and an unknown child wandered into a group and played rough, should the other children or parents sit back and let that child misbehave?

    the bulldog’s owner should take some rssponsibility. and the other dogowners could certainly be less catty.

    i meet people like this all too often, the latest incident just today with 3 littledogs that yapped and lunged at Georgia. we had to reign her in and remove her. the littledogs’ owner, as usual, did nothing to reprimand his dogs nor did he apologise.

    if i were you, i’d find a dogpark with more cosiderate, reasonable and knowledgeable dogowners.

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    • No worries! It happens to even the techno-whizzes among us. Thank you for persevering and sharing your thoughts!

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  4. My one concern for you is that you could have been hurt protecting your dog from the overly aggressive attention of the bulldog and friend. And sometimes when people intervene, we can make things worse because we cut off some of the ways dogs can back away from each other.

    You were entirely right. And the only thing I’d suggest is intervening a little earlier with the owner of the rude dog. Where was the bulldog’s person? Mounting is not cute and most dogs hate it.

    People who are smart about dog group interactions usually create distractions (clapping, high pitched calls, jumping around) before behavior gets out of hand. They’ll even do it to break up clumps of dogs getting a little too bunched up. Apparently no one in your park did that. But you can do it in the future.

    And finally, I avoid the dog park at busy times. We go early in the morning when there are fewer dogs and people are there more for their dogs than to socialize with each other or exercise their dogs without any work on their part.

    The appropriate response to the other folks talking about vicious dogs? “Yes, what was the person thinking who didn’t correct his bulldog’s behavior?”

    Great question to post, Kristine. I’m sure you’ll get some very interesting and passionate responses.

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  5. In my opinion the owner of the bulldog was at fault here.

    I think it is perfectly appropriate for a dog to growl when mounted. I can always tell in the car when Sampson is trying to mount Delilah, because I hear a little growl from her. I also think if the growl doesn’t work it would be appropriate for the dog to snap at the other dog. I don’t think that makes your dog vicious and anyone that says so, doesn’t understand the hiearchy and protocol of the dog world.

    We have seen a few tiffs where I train and my trainer says as long as they aren’t putting teeth on someone it is normal.

    No-one is going to look out for your dog except you, if you feel you need to rescue your dog then you should do so. Always trust your instinct when it comes to your dog.

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  6. We don’t allow our dogs to growl. Not ever. Not at people. Not at other dogs. We try to make the dogs understand that we are in charge of protecting them and that is not their job.

    Of course we have them with other dogs a lot at hunt tests and at dogs shows. Many times they are in close proximity to other dogs and aggression can get the dog banned. Sure they may not have started it, but who needs to try to sort things out (if you even can) after an incident.

    We are not fans of dog parks because it can put the dog in a bad situation. Many dogs playing off leash is not always a good thing. Plus since we would correct a growl (and for sure a snap), how can you correct that if it is between two dogs mixing it up at a dog park? Do not ever get in the middle of a dog fight. If the dog will recall, try that, but getting between two dogs mixing it up may result in you getting bit.

    For these reasons we avoid dog parks and would rather get together with people we know to let the dogs “play”. However now that our dogs are older we don’t really do that either. We try to find fun things to do with them to exercise and tire them.

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  7. Honestly, the owner of the bulldog should have removed his/her dog. He/she was the aggressor in this situation and was being a bully (not reference to breed but his behavior). If it were me, after the very first inappropriate incident with the bulldog, I would have either moved out of sight (if possible) to let my dog play with his playmate OR left the park completely. I’m the only one I can rely on to protect my dog and prevent these things from happening… I generally don’t do dog parks…but on the rare occasion I do, I’m quick to leave if anything happens that makes me concerned… i’d rather be safe than sorry.

    Dogs really play best in pairs… my suggestion for most people is to avoid dog parks and instead find some dog friends to have small play-dates with.

    I would not have corrected your dog for defending himself against a bully, his behavior was an appropriate reaction to an inappropriate behavior. A growl is simply a form of communication….if you correct out the growl you can create a very dangerous dog (this is different than teaching a dog not to feel like they NEED to growl). The result can easily be a dog who bites “out of nowhere”… except they DID give clues they were about to bite but they were subtle enough to go unnoticed… a growl is an important warning because almost everyone understands what it communicates.

    So yes, when your dog is being bullied by another dog who is not being well controlled you should absolutely step in… i wouldn’t say go in ripping dogs off your dog, but be proactive… if you see a dog behaving with other dogs in a way you feel concerned about, get out of there… if a dog is being totally inappropriate with your dog and you can see your dog is uncomfortable… get out of there.

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  8. I think the other readers have made some very wise comments and suggestions, so I will leave it to them for the most part. The only thing I want to jump in about — and this seems to be controversial — is that I think it’s VERY important to allow your dog to growl when he/she feels it’s necessary. Teaching your dog to suppress growling does not change the way they feel in a situation, it just keeps them from displaying their feelings. If they are not making it known to other dogs (or adults — or possibly most important of all — children) that they are uncomfortable, then how should the other party know? I think that teaching a dog not to growl just makes it more likely that the dog will, at some point, snap or bite “without warning”. Most well-socialized dogs have a spectrum of discomfort, from avoidance/lip-licking/other calming behaviors to growling to snapping to biting. If you take away the growl and force the dog to jump straight from subtle calming behaviors to the scary snap, I think you’re creating problems.

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  9. Argh. This is the very reason I am not a dog park regular: the other owners!

    Your dog is not vicious and I would not worry about teaching him to not growl. Growling is perfectly normal dog behaviour – even though it is relatively rare. Your dog needs a way to tell other dogs to basically PFO without resorting to other measures (and when they’re just not picking up or are ignoring all the other body language cues).

    It is unfortunate that the other owners don’t recognise that and have labelled growing as “vicious”. But their lack of education is not your fault or your dog’s.

    Yes, they should probably be the ones intervening when their dogs are exhibiting inappropriate behaviour at the park, but if it looked like a situation that could escalate, I don’t necessarily think your intervening was wrong.

    However, picking up your dog to intervene is not something I would do or recommend. You’re putting your hands in some potential danger and risk making the situation worse. Especially if you happened to get in there with a worried voice in a frantic state, escalating the situation.

    Instead, I would recommend using your own body to get in there and do what is called “splitting”, which is when you basically move between the dogs in the inappropriate situation, literally splitting them up. You body block the behaviour and then walk away (preferably silently and calmly).

    You can see dogs themsleves do this to each other at the park if you pay attention; they’re just moving through the interaction, one of many calming signals dogs exhibit (see the work of Turid Rugaas for more/better info). The two dogs can then go back to playing nicely, or sometimes they decide to seek another playmate instead.

    If the humping continues after a couple of splitting attempts, that would be my cue to try the park another time, since clearly that dog needs to learn some park etiquette. It’s unfortunate that the best one to give him a lesson (that would be your dog by growling) is the one deemed inappropriate.

    At most, there is one dog at the park you can control (ideally yours, and some people don’t even have that), so going to the park is inherently risky. In my opinion, there are often better socialisation opportunities (e.g., play dates, walks with friends, training classes or play times through training or dog daycare facilities).

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  10. I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t already been covered by the other commenters, but you are absolutely right to be reluctant to teach your dog not to growl. Growling is a warning sign that you WANT… it says “Hey, stop or I’ll bite you.” If you dog gets in trouble every time he growls, he will learn to skip the growl and go straight for the bite. This situation was the bulldog owner’s fault, not yours.

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  11. I just wanted to jump in echo what Aleksandra said. Ditto the other posters (the bull dog sounds like the problem), and growling is actually a good thing. It’s a warning behavior that you want to let your dog express. Dog parks in general make me uncomfortable, partly for this reason. It doesn’t sound like you have a dog problem, you have an irresponsible dog owner problem. He should redirecting his dog away from yours when he’s being antagonistic.

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  12. I agree with most of the other comments, the bulldog was in the wrong. Your dog growled to give a warning. He did nothing wrong. He voiced his annoyance with the other dog.

    Sophie hates being humped and will growl to back the other dog off. I let her deal with the situation but if one growl is not enough to subdue the other dog, I will intervene and insist the other owner control their dog. I am fine with a growl and even a snap but prefer it stop at the growl.

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  13. To me, it sounds like the bulldog was the problem in this situation. I would have intervened like you did, and if the bulldog had bothered my dog again, I’d have taken my dogs and left. Dog parks are fun, but to me, that many dogs at one time is too many. I’d go when it’s less crowded if possible. When you have that many dogs, and something does go wrong, other dogs can get caught up in things and pack up very quickly, and getting in the middle of a dog fight is a BAD idea. I know someone who lost part of one of his fingers breaking up a dog fight. There are certain dogs that we, and others, avoid at the dog park. If we go by and one of those dogs is there we don’t go in, and if they do show up, we leave. I know of one dog who shows up and almost clears out the dog park. Is it fair? No. But I am the one who is responsible for my dogs’ safety and well-being, and I don’t have unlimited funds to put them back together if something goes awry at the dog park. You have to use your common sense and intuition when you’re at a place like that.

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  14. Most of us like to avoid conflict with our dogs and with other owners in general.

    You mentioned that this is a new dog and a new owner that has started coming to the park.

    It sounds like they could benefit from learning what is acceptable behaviour at your park (for a start). I find approaching it in a friendly way before things get out of hand has the best results.

    The minute the third dog pushed in and started the humping, I would ask them “Could you please call your dog away” as a good start. Then go over & introduce yourself and clarify that you have found that a third dog just coming up and humping, most dogs will find too much. Try to avoid blaming words like “your dog is RUDE” etc. You could also say that when two dogs are already playing, a third jumping in can sometimes cause problems.

    The warning signs of growling puts everyone on notice the play is becoming too intense and owners needed to check in and change things eg calling the dogs away for a time-out. Everyone is responsible for their own dog’s actions. Prevention is always better than having to make apologies or worse, paying large vet bills. Like others have said, forcing a dog to not growl is not a good idea. Warnings are helpful for the dog and us.

    Try to approach these kind of situations as a learning opportunity for the betterment of all.

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  15. Also- one of our local shelter conducts dog play groups for the sheltered animals, and many of them have poor play manners. They use a combination of squirt guns/hoses, noisemakers (I like a bunch of pennies in an empty altoid tin), and whistles to distract the dogs when the behavior starts to be inappropriate. Once you have distracted them you can call your dog back to you and treat, safely removing him from the situation. Good luck!

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  16. I agree with the general consensus. Your dog was fine, the bulldog was rude. My German Shepherd pup (he’s 9 months) prefers to play one-on-one and plays very well. But once a third dog is added to the mix I really have to watch him, he can get over-stimulated. Also, because he’s a big athletic boy and a ‘dangerous’ breed, I’ve been on the receiving end of muttered “that’s a vicious dog” comments when my dog was clearly the wronged party. (There are times when he’s a brat and getting nippy, don’t get me wrong, but I always leave before anything happens).

    The last time he was happily playing with a lab mix when a smaller, older dog wandered up and started barking in his face and growling. The third dog had been minding his own business prior to this. My dog growled and snapped at him so I called him to me and he came readily, was already calming down. One of the other owners started loudly talking about “knowing a good trainer that can take care of that.” At that point we left, I’m not great at confrontations and I was getting angry.

    IF you ever have to break up a dog fight, the #1 rule is: don’t. Don’t break it up unless you must. But if you must, the best way I’ve seen is to get two people (or 1 person per dog) and you grab the dogs around the waist and drag them away at angles from each other. If you try to grab collars or heads you’re more likely to get your hand chomped. Most of the time you never get this far as clapping, shouting, attempted recalls distract one or both dogs and the fight is over.

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  17. I hate to say it, but I have learned I am always at fault at the dog park. No way around it. I have pits. They can sit there while Big Carl attacks them and people tell me to be careful because the Chihuahuas parents are gonna be pissed.

    Kari
    http://dogisgodinreverse.com

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  18. Yeah… growling… humping… repeated humping… blaming the wrong party… sounds like a dog park all right.

    I ALWAYS remove my dog from these situations. He doesn’t want to be in them anyway and is happy to move away. He FREAKS when another dog tries to mount him. They don’t get very far with it.

    I am very fortunate that 80% of the people I have met at our dog park understand the difference between defense and aggression. The other 20% are idiots the rest of us ignore. While we don’t have a “board of directors” or any official membership, there are people with very strong personalities who know how to make people like the bulldog’s owner feel unwelcome.

    Because I know my dog is not very socially adept I keep a VERY close eye, and my friends have been supportive and encouraging. It’s all in the right attitude, I say. And the bulldog’s owner needs socialization skills. Then maybe he’d understand his dog better.

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  19. You’ve been given such good advice here! It’s very sad that you were put in a situation where your dog was deemed to be at fault and you are the one feeling bad about what happened. If you come across the bulldog again I suggest leaving the park before anything happens, that way you will be protecting yourself and Angelo. You were fortunate not to get bitten when you picked Angelo up, you might not be so lucky if this happens again! Good luck and I hope you have many happy times at the park in future.

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  20. Angelo was clearly in a “tag team” situation where the two dogs ganged up on him. If I saw somebody that threatened me, I’d surely say something to keep that person away. Angelo just did it with the way that he knew how, which was a growl.

    I don’t go to dog parks for that specific reason. Obnoxious people that don’t watch their dogs. The dog park is NOT the place to catch up with the local gossip.

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  21. Wow- lots of great comments on this topic. I also would have removed my dog from the situation – the bulldog was clearly the instigator and I don’t know many dogs that like being ganged up on. (and I think growling in this situation was a totally appropriate behavior).

    My dog has never enjoyed the dog park (too many dogs!) but we do go to an unfenced, off-leash area that has hiking trails and one big grassy area – the dogs all seem to do their own thing and are not all confined to one space. All of the dogs that go to our park are under voice command and very well behaved – which makes me and my dog more relaxed 😉

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  22. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone for all of your feedback. I was really having a crisis of confidence about this and just didn’t knowh how to respond at all, especially when the bulldog didn’t take the hint and back off AND the bulldog’s owner was nowhere to be seen. I absolutely agree with everyone about not training the growl out of him. I would hate to remove that warning and have it get out of hand before we even realized something was wrong.

    The same pup started in on a miniature poodle yesterday and got nipped on the cheek. A very small amount of blood was drawn and It was lucky there was two local trainers there to step in. He seemed to take it well and I think he is joining one of their classes, so hopefully the pup will learn some manners.

    Thank you all again, it really does mean a lot to us.

    PS – thank you for posting this Kristine. I LOVE the pseudonym. LOL, maybe we’ll name the next pup Angelo 😉

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  23. Dog parks are so tricky! Someone needs to tell the bulldog’s owner that mounting is not appropriate behavior for the dog park. There are a lot of dogs that don’t react well to it and dogs that insist on doing it cause problems. Good luck!

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  24. I found teaching Mia to sit when another dog tries to mount her works well. The other dog gets confused when she abruptly stops playing and sits down quietly. It often draws the attention of others and the dogs owners now have to called the dog off or look like bad owners as mine is sitting quietly and theirs is not. No harsh words exchanged and everyone is happy.

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