Lessons in etiquette for off-leash areas

It’s a good day at the dog park.

The sun is shining and Fido is calm and listening to your commands as he sniffs the trees and bushes. The off-leash dog park is bustling with activity. For many, this is doggy heaven on Earth.

You round the corner and Fido perks up as the two of you approach another dog. This dog has his head low, his body in a straight line and is making direct eye contact with Fido. All of a sudden Fido starts barking and sprints towards the other dog in an aggressive manner.

Dog trainer Reanne Heuston takes her “pack” of eight for a walk at a southwest off-leash area.

Photo by: Allison Chorney

“When dogs are staring at each other, it’s like they are calling each other’s mama’s bad names,” said Reanne Heuston, dog trainer and owner of Pest to Pet Training.

She said the staring can cause even well-mannered dogs to act out.

Heuston, who sometimes walks 10 dogs at one time, keeps an eye on her pack and watches for this behaviour. If the stare becomes too intense, she is quick to correct the dog and changes what the dog is focusing on by offering a ball or a treat.

She said there are big lessons to be learned in dog body language but added people usually don’t take the time to learn them.

“Most people know how to read their dog until it comes to aggression,” she said. “Just because a dog is wagging its tail, doesn’t mean it’s friendly.”

She said there is a common misconception about dogs with their hackles up. The hackles are hairs along the back that rise when the dog is angry or alarmed. Heuston said most of the time a dog is doing this because he is nervous or insecure, and not because he is aggressive. The hackles make the dog appear bigger in attempt to make what is upsetting him go away.

Another common upset at the park is overly excited dogs that forget, or haven’t learned, their manners.

“Some people’s dogs are overly rude and (the owners) don’t seem to care or they say, ‘Oh, he’s just being friendly,’” Heuston said.

She described dog manners as: coming when called, not jumping on other dogs or people, not mounting or putting a paw on the other dog’s back, and no intense eye contact.

Heuston suggested settling your dog down before entering the park. She said dogs are excited and full of adrenaline, and if they don’t get the time to calm down they might forget their manners in the park.

Rude dogs will put other dogs and owners on guard and attract negative attention, she added.

Dog owner Khiha MacFarlane has had issues with other dogs approaching her American bull dog, Ellie-May, when Ellie-May is on a leash. MacFarlane said Ellie-May has some aggression issues that they are working on. Part of the work requires the dog to remain leashed.

“It’s about respecting or remembering they are dogs and they’re not going to act like people,” MacFarlane said.

Heuston said sometimes people don’t realize the dog on a leash needs space to be taught discipline.

“Generally, if I see a dog on a leash I call my dogs to me and ask (the other owner), ‘Can they say hello?’”

People who have control of their dog should be able to call their dog off.

Doug Anderson from Animal and Bylaw Services said, “Under control means the animal is within hearing distance of yourself and responds to commands.”

If the dog doesn’t respond to the command immediately, you could be facing a $100 fine that comes with a “dog not under control” charge, though Anderson said the fine is not common.

He said in most cases, when a complaint is made the incident has escalated to the point where the “dog not under control” fine becomes secondary and is not issued. In many cases, the uncontrolled dog has wandered out of the off-leash area and the charge becomes “dog at large.”

For owners that have experienced an outburst from Fido in the park, they know the embarrassment and frustration that can go along with it.

“I know what it’s like to have the rude dog but I know what it’s like to work and make them behave and listen,” Heuston said.

By being consistent in training and keeping Fido in a controllable distance, the dog park can be a great experience for both you and your pup.

“(The dogs) get more exercise. They get to socialize and meet other dogs,” said MacFarlane.

achorney@cjournal.ca