Thursday, June 03, 2010

Of Dogs and Dog Parks: Myths and Truths


In the U.S. the first official dog park opened in 1979 in Ohlone Park in Berkeley, California. Today, more than 600 city- or county-sanctioned off-leash areas exist in the U.S. Sooner or later, dog owners in a community without a dog park will plump for a dog park--a facility set aside for dogs to exercise and play off-leash in a controlled environment under the supervision of their owners.

Typically, a dog park will feature an area fenced off on all sides, separate, double-gated entry and exit points, benches for owners, shade on hot days, water, utensils for pick up and disposal of feces in covered trash cans. Every well-designed dog park should offer separate areas for large and small dogs. Those that don’t can best be described as “accidents waiting to happen.”

Arguments in favor of establishing a dog park usually go like this: “Dogs are descended from wolves. And wolves are pack animals. Therefore, dogs, being pack animals like the wolves they are descended from, need to run with a pack.“

Dogs are indeed genetic wolves. The fatal flaw in the dog-park advocates’ argument, however, lies in their ignorance of the fact that in the wild, wolves don’t live in packs of unrelated wolves. Early research on the social lives of wolves was based on studies of captive wolf populations composed if unrelated individuals forced to live in enclosures. Captive wolves are almost never members of natural families. The image of wolf packs and alpha wolves promulgated by self-promoting dog-behavior “experts” is wrong and has no foundation in fact.

In no way do the relationships in wolf families resemble the actions of heterogeneous collections of unrelated wolves in captivity, nor do they have an alpha male who fights other wolves to maintain his dominance. The latter is a behavior worked out by captive wolves to overcome the artificial conditions of their captivity. Animal expert Temple Grandin characterizes such captive wolves (and this includes dogs brought to a dog park to socialize) as a “forced pack.”

The Truth About Wolves
Thanks to intensive research by animal biologists like Dr. David Mech (pronounced “Meech”) who made a 13-year study of wolves in the Canadian Arctic, the last stand of the wolves in the wild in North America, we now have detailed knowledge of the social interaction that takes place among wolves. In the wild wolves live the way humans do: in families made up of a mother, a father and their children, all clearly understanding their hierarchical familial relationships.

Wolves exhibit traits and characteristics that humans might emulate in their desire to live together amicably. So-called “wolf packs” are merely families consisting of a mom and a dad and their pups at various stages of life. In no way do wolf families resemble the assorted breeds and sizes and temperaments of dogs that might be found in a dog park. Wolves mate for life and are monogamous. Young wolves from previous breeding seasons support their parents in the training and raising pups of later litters.

Some popular dog-training manuals talk about “pack leadership” and tell new owners that they must establish themselves as the pack “alpha.” Such concepts are based are based on outdated captive wolf studies that imply a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy. And they are hopelessly wrong. What every newly adopted dog or puppy needs is not for his owner to be a domineering alpha wolf but a foster parent to guide him or her in growing up to be a socially well-adjusted dog through patient, firm and loving training. Dogs were meant to be friendly companion animals, not cowering submissive slaves.

Another argument frequently heard from proponents of dog parks is that dogs need exercise. Indeed they do. But the conventional wisdom of dog-park advocates holds that exercise can only be achieved by allowing dogs to run unleashed with other dogs. This is errant nonsense. Veterinarians will tell you that a good brisk walk of an hour each day will give even large breeds all the exercise they need, and will benefit the dog walker as well. Dogs need people, play and the opportunity to explore and learn. Only people can satisfy those needs.

Not only do dogs come in all shapes and sizes, they come with a variety of dispositions and personalities. Small dogs can be unexpectedly aggressive, and large dogs can be surprisingly laid back. But the combination of a large, aggressive dog and a small, timid dog is usually fatal. And the incendiary combination of two large and aggressive dogs engaged in a fight to the death is not a pretty sight. One reason groups of dogs in dog parks can act unpredictably is that most dogs have lost the submissive behaviors and signals that allow wolves to live together in groups.

Although dog owners bring their dogs to dog parks to socialize, the chasing and nipping that sometimes occurs is incipient aggression and can turn into something more serious. Also, aggressive behavior on the part of large dogs toward smaller dogs may not be the result of aggression but what animal behaviorists call predatory drift, the ancient inclination to hunt small game as prey. The killing of smaller dogs in dog parks by other dogs has been reported many times in newspapers—but such reports are usually only carried locally and are not widely circulated.

Anyone foolish enough to bring a dog to a badly designed dog park that fails to separate small breeds from large is asking for trouble. It’s surprising, too, that dog owners blithely expose their dogs to the hazard of a dogfight in dog parks and yet are totally unprepared when a dogfight occurs. All dog owners should know what to do to stop a dogfight. Here are six tips to remember:

How to Break Up a Dogfight

(1) Screaming or yelling at a dog or dogs in a dogfight is ineffective.

(2) Never reach for the collar of an attacking dog. You risk being severely bitten. And be careful about what you say to the owner of an aggressive dog; such owners are often also aggressive and unreasonable.

(3) Some dog owners make it a point to walk with a walking stick or a cane. But even being struck forcefully with a stick will not stop some vicious dogs.

(4) One of the most effective tools a dog owner can carry is pepper spray. A canister of pepper spray may legally be carried and used in all 50 states, although some retrictions may apply. In New York, for example, pepper spray is sold only in drugstores and by licensed firearms dealers. A squirt or two in the eyes of even the most vicious attacking dog will take the fight out of him and causes no permanent damage.

(5) If you don’t have pepper spray, one technique is to step behind the attacking dog and grab him by his rear legs, lifting them off the ground. This will put him in a “wheelbarrow” position and render him less able to continue attacking your dog or you.

6) In the final analysis, the best way to stop a dogfight involving your dog is not to put your dog in a situation where a dogfight can happen.

Labels: , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?