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Is It Okay to Bring Fearful Dogs to the Dog Park?

I say no. I've been there, and exposing fearful dogs to what scares them is not the solution.

 |  Feb 13th 2014  |   7 Contributions


Our city has an amazing dog park. It’s 32 acres of rolling hills, trails, a creek and a separate area for small dogs. Unlike some dog parks, the wide-open spaces allow visitors to keep moving, rather than stay clumped together in one small area. As far as dog parks go, it’s pretty much the cream of the crop.

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A beautiful day at the dog park.

A few weeks ago, I accompanied a friend and her dog to this beautiful park. The day was a bit chilly but otherwise gorgeous, and by the time we arrived, the place was teeming with dogs and humans.

My friend’s pooch Daisy is the perfect dog-park dog. She loves meeting other canines and people. She’s energetic and outgoing, yet is adept at reading other dogs’ body language and behaves accordingly.

However, not every dog is as suited to this environment as Daisy is. As soon as we walked in, we met a woman with two dogs. One dog was obviously relaxed and happy to be there. The other walked close to her owner with her head down and tail tucked. We struck up a conversation and the woman blithely mentioned that her second dog, “really doesn’t like the dog park ... she’d rather be out in a field somewhere chasing a rabbit.”

To which I thought (but didn’t say), “Then why in the heck would you bring her here?”

After parting ways with the woman, my friend and I encountered many other dogs and people, all of whom seemed to be enjoying their day. We leisurely walked the loop and headed back to the parking lot.

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Getting love from Daisy (left) and another happy dog-park dog.

As we were leaving, however, a man with a massive dog on a leash entered the park. Obviously stressed, the dog lunged and barked ferociously at anyone and anything nearby. The man jerked on the leash and “commanded” his dog to be quiet. You can imagine how well that worked.

Watching this, my heart broke for the dog. He was clearly telling his human (and anyone else who would listen) that he was uncomfortable and unhappy about being there. The first dog we met was doing the same thing with her human, albeit in a completely different way. Yet both owners -– the people who were supposed to protect them -– were failing them. And ironically, they both probably thought they were helping their dogs.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been there.

Last month I wrote a story for Dogster about adopting my fearful dog Mayzie. As someone who had never had a fearful or reactive dog, I was completely unprepared and uneducated about how to deal with her issues. She hadn’t been properly socialized and had never (to our knowledge) stepped foot out of the backyard she had been raised in. She had no idea there even was a larger world outside that chain link fence.

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The world sure is big!

So I did what I thought was best to get her over her fears: I started exposing her to lots of different places and experiences. We sat on the patios of restaurants. I took her to outdoor malls. We went to pet supply stores. And yes, we visited the dog park.

Guess how that worked? It didn’t. If anything, she seemed to become more fearful. She was completely overwhelmed and I was doing nothing to show her that she could trust me. Rather than proving to her that I wouldn’t put her in harm’s way, that’s all I was doing. Of course, I knew she was safe. But she didn’t know that.

And bless her little brindle heart, she tried to tell me. She shivered. She gave me the whale-eyed look. She licked her lips and yawned and tucked her tail. I saw what she was doing but I wasn’t hearing what she was saying. It wasn’t that I was trying to be cruel. I truly, in my heart of hearts, thought this was the way to help her.

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Look into my eyes. What am I trying to tell you? It has something to do with treats. Think hard.

It’s natural to think that exposure to something frightening will make you less scared over time. But just imagine if you’re afraid of snakes and every morning before you wake up, your significant other dumps a box of snakes on the floor and then locks the door. I’m betting that’s probably not going to make you less afraid of snakes. At the same time, it’s not going to do a lot for your relationship with your significant other either.

Basically I was dropping Mayzie in a room full of snakes every day. But it took something to scare me before I finally figured it out.

We were sitting on the patio of a local coffee shop and I had hooked Mayzie’s leash to my chair. I left her with my husband while I went inside to grab some sugar. While I was gone, all hell broke loose. According to my husband, she tried to follow me, pulling the chair behind her. The noise and movement sent her into a panic, and in her attempt to get away, she slammed the chair into the table, sending it and our coffee flying. Luckily, my husband grabbed her before she ran into the nearby street. When I came back (mere seconds later), the place was destroyed and Mayzie was curled up in a ball, wild-eyed and shaking.

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Don't worry. I forgive you.

Not long after, I stumbled upon Debbie Jacobs’ Fearful Dogs website and also found a great positive-reinforcement trainer nearby. With the help of these amazing resources, I started paying more attention to and honoring Mayzie’s signals. In those early weeks and months, we worked primarily on building trust and a relationship with each other. Slowly, I began exposing her to more things and experiences in a controlled manner, always careful to try and keep her under threshold.

Nowadays, there are still places I don’t take her like, yes, the dog park. Mayzie enjoys other dogs but only after slow introductions, and she would be completely overwhelmed at a dog park. Do I wish sometimes that I could take her? Of course. But if she’s not going to have fun, what’s the point? We have plenty of other things we can do together that both of us enjoy.

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Not another dog in sight. This is great!

I recently told our trainer that I feel incredibly stupid that I took the “expose her to everything” approach at first. “No, you weren’t stupid,” she said. “You were well-meaning.” And she’s right, of course. I wanted to do the right thing; I just didn’t know what it was.

I’m sure those other dog owners I encountered at the park were trying to do the right thing, too. I hope for their sake –- and especially their dogs’ -– that they figure out there’s a better way.

Your turn: Have you ever unintentionally put your dog in a bad situation? How did you handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.

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About the Author: Amber Carlton is owned by two cats and two dogs (all rescues), and is affectionately (?) known as the crazy pet lady amongst her friends and family. She and her husband (the crazy pet man) live in colorful Colorado where they enjoy hiking, biking and camping. Amber is a freelance copywriter and blogger for hire and also acts as the typist and interpreter for her dog's musings at Mayzie’s Dog Blog. She encourages other crazy pet people to connect with her at her business website or on TwitterFacebook orGoogle+.

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