Heading for the dog park with a dog-reactive dog?

FEAR_AGGRESSION_FeaturedGaining some insight into how their dog might be feeling can be a big motivator for people who use heavy-handed methods with their dog-reactive dogs, and can potentially make all the difference.

They may commonly label their dog ‘aggressive’ and resort to using force, which makes matters even worse. Without realizing it they are giving their dog no other options but to behave aggressively and he may even be pushed to redirect his frustration/fear/anger onto them. This is very damaging to their relationship. A dog should be able to trust the person who is restricting his freedom by having him on a leash.

Unfortunately many people still don’t know that there are other options. They may have been influenced by ‘quick fix’ methods seen on TV or the internet. It’s a question of education.

In order for people to have sufficient motivation to put in the necessary work, they must be convinced that what they are currently doing is wrong. Not only is it cruel but also it is inefficient.

To be convinced they need to understand their dog a bit better. I find that using a human analogy can help.

Prong collars, choke chains, rough handling, force and other aversive methods when a dog is in a situation he perceives as scary (whether or not he really is in danger is irrevelant – he perceives it as danger), is rather how they themselves might feel if they were the human in the story below:


gorillaThe Parable of the Gorilla and the Human in the Lion Park.

Gorilla takes his Human for his daily walk in the Lion Park.

A Prong Collar around Human’s neck is attached to a heavy chain. The Gorilla holds the heavy chain tightly in his Big Hairy Hand.

Human knows there are Lions about although he can’t yet see one. He thinks, if I walk QUICKLY we will get out of here sooner and he Strains on the Chain.

Pulling ahead Hurts his Throat.

Gorilla Yanks him back and SHOUTS at him. He holds Human Tightly beside him, tightly next to his Big Hairy Leg.

Human is now so scared he barely feels the prongs piercing his neck.

Human’s eyes dart to the Right for Lions; Human’s eyes dart to the Left looking for Lions; Human struggles to turn his head to look Behind for Lions.

Then a stick snaps somewhere. Human JUMPS.

There    is     a     Lion     lurking.

Human feels Very UNSAFE. He’s Very Scared.

Then in the distance……from the undergrowth……coming towards them……….emerges a……………………LION.

Human is TRAPPED.

He can’t Run. He can’t Hide.

THE LION IS GETTING CLOSER……….and the Gorilla just keeps on walking!

The Chain tightens.

In Fear for his Life, Human Yells and Screams, GO AWAY, GO AWAY, GO AWAY OR I WILL KILL YOU, whereupon Gorilla makes Loud Angry Noises and KICKS Human with his Big Hairy Foot.

Then he Grabs Human by his Hair with his Big Hairy Hand and Forces him to his Knees.

He holds him there.

Human waits for the Lion to POUNCE. He holds his breath. He freezes………

This time Lion merely Sniffs him and walks on.

Another time Human knows he may not be so lucky. Another time there may be Two Lions, or Three Lions. There may be Lions in front and Lions behind as well.

Anyway, the next day Gorilla puts a GAG over Human’s mouth before they enter the Lion Park.

That will fix him now, thinks Gorilla.

Thus ends the Parable of the Gorilla and the Human in the Lion Park.

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Positively Expert: Theo Stewart

Theo Stewart is a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer and a full member of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers. She is also a qualified schoolteacher.


25 thoughts on “Heading for the dog park with a dog-reactive dog?

  1. Kerry Sauriol

    so what is the solution? Our dog is dog reactive mostly to SMALL dogs who then of course freak out and the situation escalates. We want her to go to dog park to RUN she needs the exercise but have been terrified to do so due to the way she reacts to other animals. She is worse ON leash and I totally get why...but would LOVE ideas on how to get back to the park.

  2. Jack Bobeck

    Great parable! The bond between the dog and the owner is so important. The dog needs to be able to trust the owner, and know that the owner is there to protect the dog. This of course is developed with training, training and more training, simple commands, building trust and it does take time. But once the dog knows that the owner is more important than some other dog on the sidewalk, in a park or anywhere, then the dog has an outlet and a way to focus their attention. Owning a Dog Daycare at Happy Hound Dog Resorts has really shown us that off leash playing is so critical to the socialization of dogs and allowing dogs to act like dogs, off leash, with supervision from our staff. Put a leash on a dog and you get a different behavior as compared to allowing them to see others off leash. Truly amazing stuff!

  3. Karen

    Why in the world are you taking your dog "reactive" dog to a dog park! Head somewhere else! This is completely irresponsible. We don't take our dogs to the dog park to be training guinea pigs for your ill-mannered dog. Dog parks are for FRIENDLY dogs that GET ALONG with other dogs. If yours doesn't, stay home with it or keep it leashed and in your own personal space, or train with people who know and accept the risk of your aggressive (err, excuse me, "reactive" dog)!

  4. Karen

    She doesn't need to go to the dog park! Why do people have this obsession? If she needs exercise, walk her! A 30 minute to an hour structured power walk is great exercise. If you aren't physically able to manage this, get a treadmill for her exercise.

  5. Andrea E Schank

    if you need to take your dog to a fenced in area to run because you do not have a fenced in yard then find a park with a fenced in baseball field where he/she can run alone and still be safe. If you know there are some dogs she/he can be around, ask them to join you or ask them if they have a fenced in yard where they can play. My border collie mix never liked the dog park, BUT, she loves one on one with other dogs in our fenced in yard. My niece just adopted a husky mix on mother's day and we were told he was dog friendly. He is dog selective. Luckily, he gets on with my border collie mix and her bff another husky mix, both females, but has shown aggression towards other dogs both male and female. So, the 2 (or 3) play here or at our local park where there is a fenced in baseball field. I will not put other dogs in danger and neither should you. My dog resource guards with all other dogs other then the 2 mentioned above, so if another dog does come over her trigger are removed and if we are out at a lake (she loves to swim) or park and another dog comes, we leave. You need to be a responsible dog owner. JMO

  6. Gerry Glauser

    Kerry, look for dog parks where the people are watching and managing their dogs, then spot the regulars and go talk to them. Some trainers may help, but few tend to be familiar with this. Many regulars will also bring their dog over to yours in a small area, to begin working with her with a smaller group. You can also find times where only a few dogs are there, or set up play dates. We have several new dogs come each week to our local dog park, and most adjust quickly, with some guidence. Where the article spoke about leashes and restraint, we try to have ALL dogs unleashed in the entry area, before they enter the park. Any restraint that prevents escape when a dog is scared is abusive and can be dangerous.

    Having said this, there are dog parks to avoid, so watch the people first.

    As for reactive dogs not belonging in dog parks, they cannot learn social skills unless given the chance. And that is far more a human than a dog issue. Do dogs need this? While a long walk is exercise, dogs are social animals. I have taken many reactive foster dogs to the dog park, learning the social skills they needed to get adopted. Before doing this, however, you do need enough obedience training to be able to control your dog reasonably.

  7. Kerry Sauriol

    Thanks Gerry. Yes we are hoping to get some one on one help with her.Andrea she is selective as we have another dog who she gets along with just fine. That dog needs the off leash areas as she loves playing fetch. But it is a bit of a juggle keeping everyone healthy and happy. And yes our local part was no good as filled with owners who were happy to stand in a corner smoking and not watching their own pets.

  8. Karen

    Dog parks are the absolute worst place for a dog to "learn socialization"! Dogs do not need to be able to play in large groups of strange dogs all with varying temperaments. A well-socialized dog should be able to pass other dogs on a walk and ignore them. A well socialized dog should be able to greet another strange, mentally balanced dog without showing aggression or shyness. A well socialized dog should be able to play well with a couple of dogs that it is familiar with. YOU should be the one providing your dogs socialization needs. If a dog is friendly and relaxed and non-reactive in chaotic groups and enjoys it and you feel the risk of a dog park is worth it, then by all means, enjoy! I used to take my own dog but really don't anymore because almost every time I go, some one brings in a fighting breed and we (and usually others) have to leave. But for dogs who are shy, nervous, aggressive, quick to react, etc., the dog park is no place for them.

  9. Gerry Glauser

    Local play dates with neighbors also works well, as good dog parks may not be available. I found one good one out of 4 near me. Learning to live with well-known housemates over time is not the same skill as learning to meet new ones, for both dogs and people. We acquire and develop skills through practice, not through "...should be able" as inferred from other skills. And not all other people are friendly and balanced...oops, I meant dogs maybe, but it's advantageous to learn how to handle them. Many fosters come through here, and their skills in greeting new dogs will impact their adoption likelihood and often their quality of life.

    Many of them were shy, nervous, aggressive or quickly reactive. So what? A few just ended up sitting and watching, but enjoyed the outing. All of the rest did just fine, especially the pits.

    As for your comment on the person being the sole (capital "YOU") provider of their dog's socialization needs, that's a whole other discussion. Similarly with your comment on "fighting breed". We actually had one of those a few weeks ago, but a half-dozen people together got him to leave. Him being the person, as his dog was fine.

  10. Gerry Glauser

    Kerry, one other suggestion here. As your dog is difficult to manage on leash and otherwise, I would focus on that area before any dog groups. Without more control, you can't guide them in a group. There are several possible reasons for high reactivity, and a good trainer should be able to provide you with good on- and off-leash exercises that will make introductions much easier and safer.

  11. Karen

    So what?! Are you kidding me? How irresponsible - *that* is the reason most experts advise to avoid the dog park! Again, I don't go to the dog park to help someone socialize their unbalanced dog and my dogs shouldn't be put at risk because someone doesn't have enough common sense to know some dogs don't belong at the dog park! I also foster dogs and I tend to get the real problem ones that have been through countless "behaviorists" and trainers with no success. I solve the leash aggression and other issues usually within a month but I don't take them to the dog park! When they are doing well, they learn to greet other dogs, with that owner's expressed permission, while wearing a muzzle for good measure. Between people like you and people who bring pit bulls to a dog park (pit bull experts and most pit bull specific rescue organizations preach against this, no matter how "friendly" or "well socialized" you pit bull may be or have historically been.) dog parks have become a dangerous gamble!

  12. Karen

    Why? Because I don't take my dog to the dog park to be attacked or mauled by an anti-social dog or fighting breed? Because I believe in being a responsible dog owner and not making *your* problem *my* problem?

  13. Karen

    I have had dogs my entire life and never even heard of a dog park until about 15 years ago. How on earth did all those dogs and people manage, since the beginning of time, in the country, in town, in big cities, without dog parks! Of course, only in the past 15 years or so has every one walking a dog felt it is not only acceptable, but a requirement to allow their ill-mannered mutt to invade your dog's personal space because "he wants to say hello"! It used to be people just passed each other, with their dogs beside them, with a friendly nod and kept going. Now every time I see someone coming with a dog, especially on a Flexi lead and/or a harness (that's their sign - I see that and I know they have no control over their dog!), I have to cross to the other side of the road to avoid having my dog accosted by their "oh he's just really friendly" dog! It is very rude/poor dog etiquette to allow your dog to approach another leashed dog. Countless times I have had my dog under command, on a sit or down stay, and people will let their dog pull them right over to my dog if I don't intervene quickly enough - then they act like *I* am the rude one. I saw one man go bat sh-t crazy on a lady one day on the sidewalk. He was at an outdoor table at a restaurant. The patio area had a small ornamental fence around it and his English Bulldog was sitting on the opposite side of the fence, but beside his table. A dog came along, dragging his owner behind him (with the requisite Flexi and harness) and was all over the man's well behaved dog. The man asked her politely at first to pull her dog back but she was flip and said, "Oh he just HAS to say hello to every dog he sees". The man asked her more firmly to move away from his dog and this dingbat's response was, "He's just being friendly". At that point, the man tore her a new a-hole. And rightfully so - in front of everyone. She left in an indignant huff saying how rude some people where! Courteous dog owners, as this thread indicates, are few and far between.

  14. Karen

    The way you deal with a leash aggressive dog is to teach him that his focus belongs on YOU, not other dogs. When YOU become more important than his surroundings, you will be able to walk a dog without issues. When he sees YOU as the pack leader and YOU set the tone, you won't have to worry about a barking and lunging dog on the leash. It isn't about his relationship to other dogs - it's about his relationship with YOU. A dog needs to be able to walk safely and quietly past other dogs it encounters on the sidewalk, maybe in stores, or at the vet's office. A dog needs to be able to remain by your side while you talk to someone else with a dog by their side. A dog does not need to be able to go into a group of completely strange dogs and play like they are litter mates or lifelong buddies. A dog does NOT need to tolerate another rude dog that invades his space on the leash. Now I do not want my dog developing an issue with other dogs so when he is on the leash, I intervene and body block strange dogs so they cannot get into his space. But again, people do not take their well-socialized dogs to the dog park to be training guinea pigs for people trying to "socialize" their unbalanced dog by bringing it into a group of strange dogs!

    I have rehabilitated reactive dogs (the really nasty little terrier took a whole month before I could walk him on a busy avenue, passing other dogs closely, in a flat buckle collar). I have all the compassion in the world for these nutcase dogs UNTIL it affects me or MY dog. I had one dog that was so aggressive she tried to go after my little dog at every chance for the first week (and she could have easily killed him). She was on a short leash, right by my side, or inside her crate for several days and even then, I had to keep a careful eye on mine to make sure he didn't try to approach her unnoticed by me. She hit a baby gate so hard she almost knocked it through because he dared come within 10 feet of it. Her teeth were broken off from charging and hitting the fronts of kennels and crates. She had never been able to be turned out with other dogs at the shelter and only senior kennel staff could open her kennel door. She went after people and dogs alike. Not only did she and my dog finally become fast friends, she could interact (not play, like every foster I've had, she did not understand how to play) nicely with several of the dogs on the block. She could pass strange dogs on our walks. However, I would have never taken her to the dog park with a large pack of dogs! I did take her several times when it was empty to play, but got her on a leash and left as soon as someone arrived. I took her so she could really let loose and run off-leash, not to "socialize" her.

  15. Karen

    Do you have friends, neighbors, or relatives with well-mannered dogs? Invite them out for a leashed walk. Don't try to get the dogs interacting but think more "parallel play" (to use a toddler milestone term). As you go along and everyone is relaxed, let the dogs start interacting more. If your dog handles that well, maybe have a playdate in the backyard. Do not introduce dogs for the first time inside one dog's home or territory. Make the introductions on neutral ground. I have a sport's field near my house, on the next block. Several of us from a couple of streets take our dogs to the field once or in some cases twice a day. Most of the time that I tend to go, we're alone but other times, there are others there. This small group of dogs are familiar with each other and all get along and all (except my current foster, because it's against the rules) get let off leash. My foster is on a 40 ft. line so he gets to interact too but I can't let him off leash in unfenced areas. There are never more than 3-4 dogs. One neighbor has 3 Tebetans so anytime he is there when I am, that's 5 dogs! There is a big poodle that none of the dogs like because he is so out of control. He never stops running and leaping and he just knocks them over and runs through them - but none of them are aggressive. At my last apartment, we had the same situation with a school field and it was typically the same 2-3 dogs there each day at the same time. The dogs you encountered depended on the time of day because everyone has their own schedule. If you make note when you're out walking, you will likely see the same people with their dogs each time. Strike up a conversation with one of them and ask if they may want to walk along with you and your dog.




  16. Valerie Proctor Davis

    I've seen quite a few fearful and nervous dogs become friendly and confident after enough visits to our local dog park. Lots of owners are sensible people who use the opportunity to let their dogs get accustomed to new people and dogs at a distance.

    And even people with dogs who don't want to play with others will come very early or very late and let the dog run by itself. A dog park is just a large fenced area; your results depend on how you use it.

  17. Cynthia Nelson Zulla

    I don't bring my dogs to dog parks - my Golden is pretty dog aggressive but gets along just fine with my Rat Terrier. The Golden is a rescue (at 4 mos old). I think she had to scrap for food - I can not feed my two in the same area - the Golden intimidates the Rattie away from her food or just flat out fights for it. I'm 54 and walk both dogs at least 2 times if not 3 times a day. The Golden is on a prong collar. I tried a harness; she broke it the very first walk we took. The Rattie does fine on a harness. Here's my take: I am responsible for maintaining control while bringing my dogs out for public time. The prong collar makes that a workable option for me. I don't hurt my dog - I control her - she responds to me pulling up on the leash attached to the prong collar. I live in a neighborhood where stray dogs are frequent or owners who think it's ok to walk their dogs "off-leash"...which never ends well. No one has that much control over another being. If dogs get spooked - they will bolt. No amount of you calling them back will fix the inevitable introduction to my dogs (on leash) and it can get ugly fast. I've been bitten once. Not by my dog. But my dog was part of the altercation. I'm tired of the "no-prong collar" judgement. It works for me and my two very loved dogs. I don't bring them to situations where I know they could be challenged. And I wish others would do the same (put their dogs on leashes when walking, it's the law in my city).

  18. Valerie Proctor Davis

    @kerrysauriol:disqus, bring her to the park at a time you know it'll be empty. Let her get very accustomed to the space before she meets other dogs there. Then bring her at slow times or arrange to meet other dog she likes. Keep your leash wrapped around your hand and keep an eye on the gate so you can remove her at once if you see a small dog come in.

    Often at my local park people bring their small dogs into the large dog side, so people with a large dog that doesn't play well will take it into the empty small side. Nobody minds as long as they vacate for small dog owners who want it.

  19. Jo Mama Yo

    Mine to. Larger or calmer smaller dogs she has no issue with. But snarling barking dogs she is reactive to.

  20. Helperdognme

    Not all dogs are cut out for dog parks. And among my friends (service dog handlers) very few take even their pet dogs to dog parks because they are not safe, and really aren't good places to socialize a dog, especially one who is already dog reactive.

  21. Michelle Cory

    i rescued a fear reactive dog, and didn't due anything to make, her not trust me. I feel after a year of biting she was never going to trust me.I loved her and protected her. The groomer said she could do anything to her, because cosette did not feel her fear. I layed i bed with her and slept , we were loving and she still lashed out out of fear. so what was i supposed to do?

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