Why Do Dogs Fight at Dog Parks?

Discover why dogs fight at dog parks and what you can do to reduce exposure to triggers that may evoke altercations.

Dogs fight at dog parks for several reasons and some of them can be quite easily avoided if dog owners take some preventive steps. Although, play with other dogs plays an important role in keeping dogs well-socialized and happy, in some cases, dog parks should be avoided to prevent the onset of potential behavior problems that may be difficult to overcome. It's important for dog owners to follow dog park rules so to lower the chances for potential altercations. Knowledge about potential triggers that can cause escalation towards aggression is therefore fundamental for all dog park attendees.

Why Do Dogs Fight at the Dog Park?

While dog parks may provide dogs with a good opportunity for socialization and off-leash exercise, the biggest drawback is the risk for altercations. Fortunately, many altercations are mostly loud and no dog gets seriously injured, but these sure are often enough to cause dog owners concerns about their dog's physical and emotional wellbeing. Not to mention, there are risks as well to humans who can become victims of re-directed bites should they get in between two or more fighting dogs.

Interactions Gone Wrong

One main reason dogs fight at the dog park is because some type of interaction goes wrong. Often, altercations erupt when a dog starts acting pushy and ends up bullying another dog. At other times, dogs in a state of sustained arousal may be prone to squabbles as their excess energy may spill into aggression. Not to mention, dog fights triggered by dogs with different play styles who may not be compatible with the play styles of other dogs.

A main problem with these interactions gone wrong is that dog owners may not be capable of distinguishing play from aggression. They fail to recognize the early warning signs of play escalating into a potential fight. Interestingly, a study conducted by Tami and Gallagher in 2009, found that, when individuals were shown video recordings of interactions among dogs, they had a hard time distinguishing aggression from play fighting. Surprisingly, among these individuals who were mislabeling behaviors, were included dog trainers and veterinarians!

For example, many individuals perceived piloerection (raised hackles) as a sign of potential aggression in dogs , but raised hackles led only to aggression 40 percent of the time; whereas, excess mounting led to aggression 85 percent of the time.

Of course, careful and vigilant observation of dog-to-dog interactions comes close to zero when dog parks transform into social centers where dog owners gather to chat, exchange news and send text messages rather than monitoring the interactions among dogs.

Prevention: Many deteriorated interactions can be prevented by learning how to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate play and the precursors to aggression. Fights can be prevented by giving dogs timeouts for when play gets too rowdy and out of hand. All dogs participating at the dog park should ideally respond to their owner's cue to detach from the play and come to the owner as needed.

The Use of Leashes

Although leashes may seem like a good way to keep dogs under control, dogs on leashes may actually trigger fights. One main reason is leash frustration, the canine equivalent of a temper tantrum which often takes place in dogs who have a history of being allowed to meet and greet any dogs they encounter.

The following cliche' happens quite frequently at the dog park: a dog gets out of the car and starts pulling the owner towards the dog park. The dog is overly excited at the prospect of playing in the park. As he gets closer, the excitement spills into frustration from being on the leash. The dog starts now pulling even more, barking and lunging while the dog owner yells at the top of the lungs while pulling back on the leash which only further feeds the dog's arousal. By the time the dog reaches the park, he is very fired up and other dogs feed off his arousal and this can lead to problems.

Leashes may also cause aggression (on top of other people or dogs getting tangled and possibly falling) when dogs enter the park's play area on leash. This occurs because leashes prevent dogs from displaying appropriate conflict resolution, and for this very reason, several dog parks have started prohibiting leashes in play areas.

Prevention: train your dog better impulse control before frequenting a dog park. The Premack Principle may turn helpful. Remove the leash before entering any play areas. Many dog parks are nowadays equipped with a holding pen at the entrance of the park so to safely remove your dog's leash.

Presence of Resources

For a good reason many dog parks do not allow toys or food on premises: they are potentially perceived as resources from dogs and these may case fights to erupt. Some dogs will try to guard their own toys, others will try to "steal" them from others and some more may try to challenge any dog who is in possession of a toy.

Toys and food though are not the only resources dogs may guard. Some dogs may also guard their owners sitting on a bench or even innocent inanimate objects found on the ground such as a candy wrapper or cigarette butt. Some dogs may even guard water bowls. Dogs prone to resource guarding may potentially trigger fights, hence why their presence can pose a main risk.

Prevention: Dog owners should leave their dog's food and toys at home to avoid the potential for resource guarding problems. Dogs prone to resource guarding may pose a danger to other dogs and people and shouldn't frequent dog parks.

Cases of Predatory Drift

Sometimes, larger dogs may perceive small dogs ar prey. There may be precipitating factors such as a large dog accidentally injuring a small dog and then attacking the small dog upon hearing him yelp in pain. What happens in this case, is that the dog "drifts" into prey drive. Among dog trainers, this phenomenon is referred to as predatory drift.

Prevention: Fortunately, accidents as such can be prevented by frequenting dog parks that divide play areas for small and large dogs.

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