I was recently reminded of an interesting experience I had once on a trip to a dog park when Henry was a puppy. The park was divided into two areas- one for dogs over 20 lbs. and one for dogs under 20 lbs. After passing through a series of two ‘checkpoints,’ Henry and I entered the 20 lbs. and under area and I released him from his leash, after closing the final gate.
Henry took off running, happily bouncing his way towards three medium sized dogs. As I approached the two women, I said ‘hello’ as I watched the (now four) dogs begin to sniff at each other. I noticed immediately that I was not exactly invited to join the conversation and therefore moved further up the hill to admire the view.
The owner of the three dogs, my little Henry was now trying to befriend, was giving instructions to the younger woman about feeding times, etc. and although I tried not to eavesdrop, I overheard her mention one of her dogs needing a little extra attention or else she could get mean.
My ears pricked up slightly at the mention of a snappy pup and I maneuvered ever so slightly closer to where the dogs were playing, just to keep an eye open.
I watched silently at what started as an innocent sniff turn into a rough tumble, which then led to the three dogs forcefully tackling Henry. As I moved in a bit closer, with an obvious growing concern, the owner suggested, “That’s just how Lulu likes to play. It might seem rough but she’s harmless.”
I laughed with understanding but something in my gut felt uneasy as I watched Lulu bark and growl at Henry. Henry was usually the one nipping on Cowboy’s heels at home, so I thought, maybe he was enjoying the spar. But then I noticed him shyly looking up at me, with those big eyes, and felt if he could talk he would say “Mom…? I’m scared.”
Although I wanted to scoop him up in my arms, I didn’t want to seem overbearing and sensitive. I also thought, maybe she’s right. She knows her dog better than I do, maybe that’s just how they like to play and it’s good for Henry to socialize with all sorts.
As I was talking myself into remaining calm, I heard the squeak of the entrance gate and turned to see a much larger dog entering the park. A mixed breed, which certainly seemed to be over the 20 lb. mark at first glance (!), but before I was able to say anything, the owner of the other three waved a knowing hand at the new approaching owner. They greeted each other as the five dogs (Henry included) barked and sniffed, running in circles. I felt my pulse quicken at the site of the pack and although I wanted to enjoy the experience, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. Were they having fun? Was Henry enjoying this game?
Again, I stood by silently and watched the initial play turn into a very rough tumble. I couldn’t help but notice the larger dogs were taking turns with Henry, growling, biting and toppling him over. He held his own for a few minutes but as the antagonism increased, he became a little overwhelmed and came running towards me. I bent over to give him a little encouragement when the large dog pounced on top of him. I said “Okay, let’s calm it down.”
Now the two women and a man were laughing at the site of their dogs over-taking little Henry as he tried in vain to escape. Henry eventually yelped and I looked at the man as if to say “can you please control your dog?” As I struggled to remove my baby from the frenzy the man nonchalantly walked over and grabbed his now drooling dog off, making a comment about how some dogs like to play rough.
I didn’t want to over-react but knew it was time for us to make a graceful exit. As Henry and I walked down the path to the car, I reflected on why that experience felt so uncomfortable and realized it had an air of bullying about it. Did some owners enjoy their dogs being bullies? Was it perhaps a way for them to exorcise their own childhood traumas through their pets or was I being overly-protective and too analytical?
As we walked, we passed a lady with a little pug. Henry greeted him with what I sensed was relief and I laughingly acknowledged his recent experience being careful not to say anything out of turn. To my surprise, the lady said, “Well Max, let’s come back later.” When I looked at her with a confused expression, she said “One big grey mix, a Terrier and two Lhasa Apsos?” I had to nod yes. “Max has already met that crew. We like to come when they are not here.”
On the drive home, I thought how sad it was that as doggie parents, we had to keep our babies out of the ‘schoolyard’ when others might play a little too rough. Good parenting doesn’t only pertain to our human babies. I also realized that I had shied away from saying anything for fear of being disliked by the regulars or thought of as being prudish. I felt a tinge of regret and guilt for allowing my little ball of fluff to be pushed around a little too long.
Although it is important to socialize our pets with all breeds and personalities, it is also important to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. I have had dozens of positive experiences taking my dogs to parks throughout the country and although one negative experience didn’t deter me from engaging with other pet owners and their sidekicks (including some wonderful Terriers and Lhasa Apsos!), it certainly stuck with me. I encourage people to be kind and conscientious when you are visiting social places such as dog parks and your dogs will follow your lead.