Dog Park Design

Changing Behaviour Through Environmental Design

Dog park 2 May 16

Understanding the behaviours and needs of the primary users of a space is essential to creating one that is accessible, usable, safe, and attractive.

Creating a dog park involves much more than putting a fence around a section of open space. It’s essential that architects, city planners, developers, etc. consult a professional educated in dog behaviour early in the design phase because the problems that plague dog parks can be dramatically reduced (even prevented) simply by altering its design. 

Common Dog Park Problems (That Can Be Addressed Through Design):

  • Dog Conflicts
  • Defecation
  • Dog Owner Behaviour
  • Damage to Landscape
  • Security/Safety
  • Problems for Nearby Residents

Many of these problems can be addressed in the design phase 

Dog Park Consulting Services

Understanding Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language: Part 1 ; Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class. 

 

My Dog Can Behave in Class But Not at Home

“My dog can do it in dog class but won’t do it on a walk.”

“My dog is okay around other dogs in dog class, but my dog is out of control when I walk my dog in the neighbourhood.”

“Dog class is too stimulating for my dog; the minute he sees the building he is out of control.”

These are common complaints, and they are valid. A lot of dog training is about “proofing” skills (increasing the level of difficulty of the skill by increasing the duration, distraction, and distance you are from your dog), and part of this involves generalizing the skill to new locations. Just because a dog knows how to walk on a leash beside you in the dog training facility, doesn’t mean that dog can do it in the neighbourhood. Traditional indoor dog classes often fail to help dogs transfer skills to the real world.

Don’t get me wrong — indoor dog classes have their benefits. They are sheltered from poor weather and some distractions, and in the case of dogs with less than robust immune systems (e.g. puppies that do not have their full set of vaccinations yet), quality classes can reduce the risks of infection/disease/parasites if the facility operators implement a robust cleaning regime and restrict participation to dogs meeting specific health requirements.

But traditional indoor dog classes have their limits in “real-life” training. Unless the dog owner wants to participate in dog sports and shows, many traditional indoor dog classes are not serving the average dog owner who wants the dog to have manners at home, in the car, and on a walk.

The best places to BEGIN the training are in a low-distraction environments, such as the dog’s home, yard, or very familiar and somewhat “boring” places in the dog’s neighbourhood. (Think of areas with minimal wildlife and plant material/greenery that would contain wonderfully distracting scents.) After the skill is learned at a beginner level of competency, the best places to proof the skills are where dog owners want their dogs to perform the skill (in the car, at the pet supply store, at the park).  Traditional indoor dog classes are good for proofing the dog’s skills — skills the dog already knows — but these classes are generally only useful if the dog will be expected to behave in an indoor environment around other dogs. For the average dog owner, a traditional indoor dog class is not very helpful.

Here are my top 5 picks of the best places to train dogs in Regina (after the dog has learned the skills in a low-distraction environment such at at home):

  1. Neighbourhood Park (the one you will use the most often)
  2. School Yards (not during school hours)
  3. Wascana Park (when it’s not too busy. Start easy and work up to more difficulty)
  4. Pet Supply Store (this is a HUGE challenge, so work on the skills well before trying them in this location, especially Leave It).
  5. Outside the dog park (far enough away that the dogs in the park are a bit of a distraction but not too much)