I noticed a mounting body count of injured dogs coming directly to the emergency room from the nearby dog park.
On the surface, it’s hard to take issue with a dog park. It encourages dogs and their owners to go out and get some exercise, fresh air and sunshine, all the while strengthening the bond between them. With our fractured, modern lives and a spreading epidemic of human and pet obesity (not to mention apartment dwelling), it seems like a made-to-order cure-all for everyone involved. It is hard to find fault with the idyllic image of dogs romping and playing, tails wagging while their owners chat over the small details that make up our lives.
When I first got out of veterinary school about 15 years ago, this was my impression of dog parks; benign wonderlands where forest creatures could romp, and people could reconnect with their pets and each other. You could practically hear the choir of cherubim singing their tiny castrati tunes. I was a big proponent of them (dog parks, not castrati), and talked them up to everyone.
Until the bodies started coming in.
My first job out of school was my internship year at a busy emergency and specialty hospital in California’s midsection. After a bit, I noticed a mounting body count of injured dogs coming directly to the emergency room from the nearby dog park. Actually, ‘injured’ doesn’t quite convey the carnage: torn up, eviscerated and maimed all come a little closer to describing the victims of dog-on-dog violence that I saw on an almost nightly basis during the warmer months.
The stories from the owners of the injured were almost always the same:
“He was just playing when this HUGE dog came out of nowhere!”
“A bigger dog picked him up and shook him like a chew toy!”
“This massive dog just swooped in, bit him and ran off – I didn’t see an owner anywhere!”
The victims were almost always smaller than the attackers, and Yorkies and Bichons seemed to be the most common targets of the larger aggressors, a condition known in the profession as “Big Dog – Little Dog” and abbreviated BDLD. BDLD is what we would write on our dry-erase incoming board when we got the call that a case like this was coming in. The only abbreviations that would strike more fear in our hearts were ‘HBC’ for Hit By Car and ‘GDV’ for Gastric Dilation-Volvulus, or bloat. ‘ABC’ for Attacked by Clowns was a distant fourth.
The injuries, sometimes incurred in just a few seconds, would be horrendous, the trauma massive. Many did not survive or were euthanized due to the finances involved in even attempting to get them better. It is shocking how much damage a set of jaws can do in such a short time; 30 seconds of fighting could lead to weeks of recuperation, multiple surgeries and thousands in medical bills. Many of the owners became victims themselves, usually bitten on the hand or arm as they tried to wrest their smaller pets from the jaws of the larger dogs. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] reports that 885,000 people need medical attention every year for dog bite injuries.) It was sometimes hard for me to tell where the blood was coming from – the owner or my patient. I often informed pet owners on the nature of their dog’s injuries, and then sent them packing to the ER for treatment themselves.
So, needless to say, my initial enthusiasm for the playful and beatific environment of the dog park began to erode around the edges a bit. I saw owner after owner and pet after pet traumatized when an afternoon’s romp in the grass turned deadly.
This is not to say that I think dog parks are inherently bad or the people who frequent them evil. But there is no denying the dangers unleashed when dogs’ ancestral instincts to chase after smaller prey take over. Not every owner has a well-trained and well-behaved companion, and you need to learn how to look out for the other guy and protect your dog from injury. I still think there is benefit to dogs, and their people, of getting exercise and commingling. How can we resolve this conundrum? How can we keep people and pets safe while still getting the maximum benefit out of a dog park?
I have a few tips - a few simple rules of thumb to follow to keep your pet safe when visiting a dog park, and to help you keep your thumbs.
- Know the dogs who are there. I know this isn’t always feasible, but if you know the temperaments and dispositions of the dogs your dog is playing with (say, from prior arranged play dates), you are that much less likely to come away unscathed.
- Know the lay of the land. Are there spots where dogs could interact, and possibly get injured, that are out of your line of sight? If trouble occurs, is there an easy exit? If badness happens, are you ready for it? Be ready for things to go wrong, and be ready to act if they do.
- Watch. This may be the most important one of all – watch what your dog is doing and who they are doing it with. Keep track of the action and be ready to swoop in and break up the fight if you need to. A can of pepper spray, a container of water to throw on heads, or a big stick to pry a dog away from its victim can save a life. If there is a fight, grab the attacker by the back feet to pull him out of the fight. If you have a smaller dog who is romping with a bigger dog, stay alert to the possibility that the play may turn in a direction you don’t want it to. If there is a dog you don’t know who is showing extra interest in your smaller dog, pick your dog up and head out. Similarly, if you notice a dog owner who is not paying attention to their dog, realize that could be a recipe for disaster. Don’t toss your dog in the melee and wander off – you are there to protect them from harm.
- Small is beautiful. A smaller park with less potential for huge roiling masses of dogs is safer than a large one in which large groups of dogs can group and set off the pack mentality. Similarly, a smaller group of dogs is easier to monitor and watch over than a pack of 50. Try going on less-travelled days and less busy times of day when the crowds are smaller. Avoid extra-hot days to stay safe from another killer – heat stroke.
- Consider the alternatives. Although some municipalities provide parks specifically for small dogs and puppies, if you have a small dog, understand that the dog park may not be the safest place to take your dog for playtime. Consider a get-together at your home with dog-owning friends with dogs of known temperament, or a stroll with just you and your dog. Doggie day care can provide a safe place to play and socialize.
Properly socialized dogs can go a long way towards minimizing the risks of a dog park, too. Make sure your dog has good ‘doggy manners’ by enrolling him in a good training program once he is old enough, and ask your veterinarian for pointers on socialization and resources for good classes.
If you own a dog who has aggressive tendencies, don’t go to the dog park and expose others to risk. Not every dog has a suitable temperament for the dog park. Before you go, be sure your dog is comfortable with dogs he doesn't know. Once there, avoid situations that may set him off. In this way, socialization benefits everyone – less chance that a little dog will get bitten, less chance that a big dog will do the biting and you get to keep your hands! Win-Win-Win!
Most of the above tips boil down to logic, attentiveness and a strong sense of stewardship. Do all that you can to keep your dog from falling prey to another dog at the dog park, and to keep your dog from becoming a predator. Your family veterinarian also has resources for you to keep your dog safe, and certainly has the knowledge and skills to help if they do become injured or ill.
One other note – if you are going to take your dog to the dog park, make sure they have completed the full puppy series of vaccines, which usually ends between 4 and 6 month of age depending on breed. Boosters in young adulthood are important, too.
With a little pre-planning, a little common sense and a lot of alertness, you can make sure you never encounter trouble at the dog park and the angels keep singing. They sound way better on this side of the Rainbow Bridge, anyway.
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.