Size matters at the dog park

  • Article by: DEBORAH WOOD , Newhouse News Service
  • Updated: May 7, 2008 - 2:25 PM

Pint-sized pooches shouldn't mix with the bigger breeds if you want your pet to stay safe.

The Pomeranian was playing with two big dogs in a dog park.

"The big dogs went after him like he was a rabbit," said John Castle, owner of the small dog.

Recalling news stories about a Pomeranian that was killed by another dog recently in a dog park, he realized, "It could happen to me."

His Pomeranian won't be returning to their dog park in Portland, Ore.

Dog parks are harmless fun for most dogs, with one exception: little dogs playing with big ones.

"If there's a huge size difference, they can get hurt; it doesn't have to be an attack thing, it can be too-rough play," said veterinarian Dr. Kathy Keenan.

Understanding dogs, and their body language, can keep your dog safe. There also are alternatives for dogs that aren't a good fit for a dog park.

The key is keeping an eye on your dog and on the others. Stop a problem before it escalates into a fight, attack or chase.

"When dogs are happy and playing together, it's a 50-50 relationship; it's 'You chase me, I chase you, I'm on top, you're on top,'" said Tanya Roberts, a Humane Society training and behavior expert. "As soon as it doesn't seem to be on equal levels, that's a big red flag."

A dog that's having fun "looks like a noodle," she said. His body is relaxed. His face is in a doggie smile, with his tongue lolling out. He gives and receives play bows (elbows on the ground, rump happily in the air) to the other dogs. This dog is telling you he's having fun, and he says the other dogs are safe buddies to play with.

Signs that a dog is frightened include a tail that is low or tucked, hanging out in the corners of the park and coming over to his owner as if asking for help. "The dog will go to the human and say, 'Hi. Can you help me out here?' They'll look at you right in the eye," Roberts said.

If your dog isn't happy, look around to see why.

If another dog is behaving badly, the fault is with the owner, which can present a problem.

"The majority of problems we have are with people," said Lauree Edwards, who heads the volunteer group that operates an off-leash dog park in Aloha, Ore. "We've had some fights."

Many aggressive dogs often have aggressive owners, so choose your words carefully.

Rather than saying another person's dog is "bad," explain that your dog is shy, or worried, or afraid. Ask for help from the other owner. If that doesn't work, leave the dog park.

"You don't let a bully keep picking on your child; you take your child out of the situation," Edwards said. "You can always come back later."

Roberts was at a dog park when two big, boisterous dogs were playing happily. A small, fragile Italian greyhound happened to be nearby. When the high-energy dogs inadvertently crashed into the small one, the Italian greyhound yelped in pain and was rushed to the veterinarian's office with a broken leg.

The bottom line is big dogs and little dogs should never play together at the dog park. While carefully supervised, gentle play with larger dogs can sometimes be safe at home or at a well-managed day care, it's a recipe for disaster at the park.

Some dog parks have small-dog play areas. If there isn't one nearby, there are alternatives.

Pet day care or training facilities may have regular small-dog play hours.

There also are people with the same dog breeds who get together in homes and parks. A group of dachshund lovers, for example, might regularly rent space in a dog park for their dogs.

Not every dog is a dog-park dog. Those that are aggressive, shy or fragile aren't having fun. Look for alternatives. Maybe it's a play date with a dog yours feels safe with. Maybe it's a walk with just you. Maybe it's a game of fetch when there aren't any other dogs around.

  • BAD DOG? WHAT TO WATCH FOR

    Packing up: When two or more dogs are chasing another, it can be a prelude to disaster. It's especially worrisome if the dog being chased is smaller or more timid. Get your dog away from that situation immediately.

    Mounting: A bully behavior, with one dog showing another that he (or she) is boss. If your dog is mounting, tell it "off" and don't allow that play. If another dog is doing this to your dog, take your dog away.

    Running at another dog in a straight line: Dogs at play run in round, graceful, looping arcs. When one dog runs straight at another, that can be a sign that it isn't playing.

    Tense body, hard stares: A long, hard stare combined with a body that looks like a steel rod is a sign that a dog is showing it doesn't want to play. If another dog gets in its space, there could be trouble.

    Recommended reading

    To learn more about what your dog is telling you, read "Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide" by Brenda Aloff (Dogwise Publishing, $39.95, 370 pages). It's available at www.dogwise.com.

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