Dog Behaviour In The Park

I love studying the behaviour of dogs almost as much as I love studying the behaviour of people…so the two species combined can keep me amused for hours! When out with some clients recently on an exceptionally warm and sunny day for the time of year, once they left the park, I did not want to go home, so decided to get some coffee and sit with my dogs whilst observing what goes on…kind of ‘research’ and kind of skiving! I had been walking with my clients and so my dogs were happy in a down-stay chilling out in the shade of the trees whilst I conducted my study…and sipped on a macchiato!

Dog And People Socialisation
The area where I had parked myself is a busy area for all, be that joggers, ramblers, families picnicking, and my area of specialism – dog walkers. I very much enjoy walking my own dogs and particularly in busy areas – I enjoy the meeting and chatting with other owners and exchanging pleasantries with passers-by and chatting about all manner of subjects with people at the cafés!

I always enjoy watching the dogs engaging with each other – trying to learn all the time more of the nuances of dog behaviour and interaction. I am always amazed at the gregarious nature of dogs – playing with the majority of dogs that they meet – having a run around and then charging back to their respective owners. It appears that nothing could be more normal. Of course, in terms of canine society it is not normal.

The Dog’s Territory
Dogs are of course intrinsically pack animals and as such reside in packs and keep newcomers away. It is our early socialisation and desensitisation to life as we expect our dogs to live it that produces such harmony and social fun in the park. Dogs become accustomed to ad-hoc meetings with other dogs and learn that it can be great fun indeed!

I was sitting fairly close to the car park so that I could observe people arriving with their dogs. It was a fairly constant flow of people in various vehicles with all manner of breeds and types of dog. First up was a white van man with his 2 young Bernese Mountain Dogs. He released the two dogs from the van and out they jumped, clearly excited at the excursion ahead…and no wonder!

Opportunistic Dog Behaviour
Initially, for about 30 seconds, it all appeared quite calm. Then one of the dogs, promptly followed by the other took off in the direction of an elderly couple with a flask and some sandwiches who were sitting on a bench. Circling the people, clearly looking for food, the owner had to change the direction of his walk (after bellowing a bit) to go and get his dogs. After some circling around the bench, he managed to get hold of both dogs and began walking again. The dogs, then shot off over to see another dog walking in the distance and once again the owner had to change the direction of his walk to retrieve the dogs. He then disappeared off in to the woodland following his dogs! He returned about an hour later, still being led about by his dogs navigation system!

I couldn’t really concentrate on him at this time, because my focus was taken with a bellowing lady and a little Patterdale Terrier bitch. I had met this lady earlier when I was walking the dog shot over to mine at top speed and all I could hear was her owner shouting ‘BE NICE!’ – a phrase and tone that implies the dog was going to be anything , but nice! She was fine with my dogs and seemed quite a sweet little thing. When she emerged from the woodland, the little dog took off after a Border Collie and as was becoming predictable, her owner screeched ‘BE NICE!’ and once again the little dog was sweet.

Dog On Dog Aggression
Also just arriving was a well-dressed lady with a very elderly dachshund, bellowing lady once again screamed ‘BE NICE’ when her dog took off towards the dachshund and attacked it immediately. The dachshund owner had to pull the terrier off and passed it back to bellowing lady with a few terse words. Bellowing lady then continued her walk with the dog running free and hoping that her catch phrase would help with her aggressive dog!

Whilst listening to bellowing lady’s screams becoming quieter as she got further away, a new male voice could be heard somewhat closer shouting Tyson, Tyson, Tyson, Tyson in a rather angry and ineffective way. Fortunately, before I got to see Tyson, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier he had been caught and was now straining on a chain lead with his young male owner who was in the presence of a girl and a young child.

Lack of Basic Dog Control
They then stopped at sat on the grass fairly close to me which made me uncomfortable. He then let his entire male dog off of the lead as he played football with the child and the girl sat on her mobile phone. Tyson ran around the place, trying to mount all passing dogs and was left to his own accord totally – the owners did not even look to see where he was. Then there was a commotion and the Staffordshire was in an altercation with a Golden Retriever – that is when I decided to leave.

I was rather annoyed; I was sitting and enjoying the day and my dogs were under control and relaxing. I had a number of dogs with me and do not relish the thought of having to control someone else’s dog because they are unable to! Therefore, I was forced to leave the park. No wonder, people are so anti-dog with behaviour like this. This young man clearly feels that the park belongs to him and his dog whereas the majority of us feel like we must share it and allow others to enjoy it!
To me it is quite common sense how one should behave when walking dogs, but it seems that some just do not know. So, what is etiquette, the law and our responsibilities as a dog owner?

Dog Law And Your Responsibilities
Well, this does change according to where you are, but generally you are required to keep your dog(s) under control and not to harass / frighten people. The law of course is very clear on the matter and if people make a complaint about your dog, you could find yourself in very hot water indeed.

There are various schools of thought about whether or not you should put your dogs on a lead when you see other people approaching – some take a view that their dogs have the right to do whatever they like – charge up to people, bark at them or have the right to play with and approach all other dogs – well they do not. It is ‘best practice’ to recall your dogs and put them on a lead if other people put their dogs on a lead. Last week, when walking through the countryside, I witnessed a Border Collie (covered in mud) run over to and jump up at two ramblers who were wearing white. This is completely unacceptable and makes all dog owners appear negligent.

Dogs should have the right to freedom and free running daily, but should be trained and managed correctly around people, other dogs, horses et al. Allowing your dog to run after and pursue other dogs as a matter of course is not acceptable. Many dog owners may have dogs that what forever reason are not very sociable with other dogs that are kept on a lead and your dog running over is dangerous and places other people in a position that they should not be in!

Reinforcing Your Dog Training Control
When I walk out with my dogs, I make a point of calling them and making them walk to heel or sit and stay when meeting other people – whether they have dogs or not. It can be very daunting to approach people with dogs – not all are dog lovers and as friendly as your dog may be, it matters not!

Depending on where you live, the rules may be different. For example in cities in public parks, dogs are generally allowed much more engagement – this is an accepted part of park life and therefore becomes an expected norm. Because there are generally more people around, dogs are fairly indifferent to the people passing them – however this is not the case in rural settings where people appear less frequently, making it more unusual and therefore more interesting.

London parks tend to be a very social setting for dog owners and are an accepted part of the scene by the majority – except the occasional foreign visitor who takes umbrage!

So where you are walking dictates to some extent the rules. What you must bear in mind is that your dog does not have the right to approach all other dogs and other dogs do not always have the right to approach yours. Obedience should be taught in order that you can recall your dog – so often, I hear people exclaim ‘it’s OK, he’s friendly!’ as their dog comes hurtling toward me. Well that is all well and good, except, sometimes they are not friendly and sometimes the other dogs are not friendly and you should not be imposing your dog on others who do not wish their dogs to engage with yours for whatever reason.

Dog Park Manners
I am often asked whether dogs should be introduced on lead or off lead. Again this depends. On the whole dogs are happier off lead to engage – this gives them the option to display full social greetings; to instigate play, to run away etc. However the vast majority of dogs are happy to meet on lead or off. Rather depends on where you are and the dogs involved. Some dogs are more reactive on a lead than others due to restriction, possible owner anxiety and so on. This should be dealt with as a matter of course rather than avoided.

There does appear a lack of thought for others regarding putting their dogs on leads if they don’t have a good recall when there are other dogs about; this may well be a genuine lack of understanding and mindfulness in most cases – some owners simply don’t realise what the consequences could be if a problem occurs due to their dog being off lead and not under control and being allowed to cause a nuisance of itself. So many problems can occur – chasing and popping someone’s football in the park, grabbing food from a picnic lunch, chasing a horse / jogger etc. causing another dog and owner anxiety or injury, jumping in a lake and chasing wildfowl and not returning, running across a road – the list is pretty endless.

Dog Owners Are In Charge – Not Dogs
There are some who comment ‘my dog would never hurt another person or dog’ – but these people fail to understand that dogs are dogs and not mini-humans capable of the same rationalisation/restraints and moral code as us.

There are so many beautiful places to enjoy, from beaches, city parks, the open countryside, lakes, woodland and all. I for one love taking my dogs to all of these places and more. We all have the right to enjoy these places without fear and harassment. We all have the responsibility of ensuring that dogs are seen in a positive light. So many public places are restricted to dogs simply due to the behaviour of dogs in the past for example, many of the beaches in the UK are not accessible – due to the bad behaviour of dogs or owners failing to pick up after their dog. Just remember, when you are out with your dog, your are representing not only yourself and your dogs, but all dog owners, so make sure to care for your dogs and TRAIN your dogs!!

Golden Rules for Dog Walkers:
Do not allow your dog to run up to people at their volition
Do not allow your dog to pursue other dogs as a matter of course
Do train your dog a solid recall and stay
Do pick up all faeces deposited
Do NOT feed other people’s dog without asking
Do NOT touch someone’s dog whilst they are trying to recall it
It is not your right to touch or otherwise engage with someone else’s dog
Do demonstrate to others that you have control of your dog
Do not allow your dog to worry livestock or horse riders 

Principal of The Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour and Training
Ross McCarthy MA FCFBA MBIPDT MGoDT AMBPSCA
www.rossmccarthy.com