how should a dog person be?

Excuse Me, Ma’am — Your Dog Is a Bully

Photo: Nicholas Koh/EyeEm/Getty Images

As in any social situation, interacting with dogs and their owners at the dog park requires attention to rules of etiquette that may not always be obvious. Should you let your dog beg for affection from other humans? What should you do if your dog is clearly being bullied but the dog bully’s owner doesn’t seem to think anything is wrong? Should two little boys be allowed to eat their lunch in the dog park and rudely “shoo” away my dog while also repeatedly opening the gate and leaving it open? And should I be able to perform a sort of “citizen’s grounding” on these children, taking away their access to TikTok for two weeks?

While I am quite sure of the answers to the last two (“No!” and “Yes!!!!,” respectively), the others can be a little more difficult. For help, I reached out to Mary Burch, an animal behaviorist and the director of the American Kennel Club’s “Canine Good Citizen” program, to dispel some of the mystery from many of our dog-park etiquette-related questions. Let’s see what she says.

What should you do when a dog is bullying your dog, or if you see that your dog is, in fact, being the bully? 

Canine bullies can be tough to handle, and if a dog is truly a bully, the behavior may require some systematic treatment away from the dog park in order to improve the dog’s behavior.

At a dog park, you might be looking at a bully if the dog constantly chases other dogs (beyond normal play), pins them to the ground, barks constantly at other dogs, and intimidates them by doing things like not letting small dogs come out from under a bench.

Hopefully, you’ve got the social skills to talk to the bully’s owner. Try to be friendly and educational rather than showing that you may be annoyed: “Your dog is beautiful. This is great that you’ve brought him to the park, but have you noticed how he is pinning my dog down? I don’t feel comfortable with this. Do you think you could intervene and not let him do this?” A video of the bully in action might be useful in the future.

If you don’t have it in you to talk to the other dog owner about his or her dog’s behavior, you could simply ask the dog owner how long he or she plans on staying. (Hopefully, that will be a hint.) If the dog owner doesn’t plan on leaving soon, you should remove your dog from the situation.

Should you allow your dog to interact with other dog owners at the park — jumping on them, looking for affection, things like that?

An important part of the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Responsible Dog Owner’s Pledge is that responsible dog owners never let their dogs infringe on the rights of others. If your dog is happy and eager to meet others, you can ask, “Would you like to meet my dog?” Give the person a choice. Then remember that other dog owners come to the park to spend time with their own dogs. Keep visits with your dog short.

I read on the AKC’s website that you should avoid letting your dog run in a pack at the dog park. Can you explain why?

The problem with letting your dog run in a pack is that, with a larger number of dogs, things can quickly get out of hand. You don’t know the dogs, and there may be one or more that have a problem with dog-to-dog aggression. If a fight breaks out in a pack, your dog could be in trouble, and if a large number of dogs are involved, you might not be able to do much about it.

Dogs in a pack can get “hyped up,” and their play can be rough. Even if dogs aren’t aggressive, there may be body slamming and other inappropriate play that results in dogs getting injured. In general, running in a pack is not healthy, beneficial socialization for your dog.

Should you stop your dog from playing with another dog’s toy, or are any toys brought to the dog park fair game? 

In general, it’s not a good idea to bring toys to a dog park, especially your dog’s favorite toys. Your dog may be perfectly behaved, but there could be dogs at a dog park that would be aggressive with regard to taking all the resources, and those resources include someone else’s favorite toy.

The exception to this might be if you go to a dog park during times when your dog is the only dog there. Then bring a ball or Frisbee and have fun.

How can you tell when playing turns to fighting that should be broken up? 

The key to distinguishing between canine play and fighting is knowing how to read canine body language. If you plan on visiting the dog park regularly, this is an important skill for keeping your dog safe.

Dogs who are playing may growl, show their teeth, and fall down to expose their bellies. To the person not familiar with canine body language, this can all look like fighting. But when dogs are playing, you may also see a play bow. These dogs will have loose, relaxed muscles. They often chase, stop, and chase again, showing that this game is fun. This whole routine is called “play fighting.”

Dogs who are fighting have different physical signs and behaviors. Their muscles are tight and not relaxed, and the hair on their backs may stand up (this is called “the hackles are up”). The mouth appears tight and nearly closed, as opposed to the happy, relaxed, goofy grin of the playing dog.

When dogs are fighting, one dog will often try to escape or will leave the scene as soon as possible. With play, the dogs are having fun and come back for more.

What level of training should dogs have before being brought to an off-leash area? 

Dogs coming to a dog park should be under instructional control — this means they respond to basic instructions. Probably the most important is “come.” Basic training provides the foundation you need to keep your dog safe.

What should you do if your dog starts humping another dog?

If your dog is humping another dog at the dog park, you should redirect your dog to another activity. Humping can be a simple play behavior, or it can be a sign of a dominant or insecure dog. No matter the cause, because of what people perceive as sexual connotations, for most of the human observers, it is AWK-WARD.

One reason to stop the humping is that the dog being humped usually does not like this activity. Humping is different than when two breeding dogs are actually “tied.” In this case, there should be no attempt to break up the dogs.

How can you tell if your dog is being an absolute menace that everyone else is secretly annoyed by? 

One way to decide if your dog is a menace to others at the dog park is to observe your dog and objectively ask yourself, “Is this a dog I would like to be around? Am I enjoying being with this dog?” If your dog is the constantly barking, pushy, yapping bully jumping on every person or dog, there’s a good chance that the people at the park aren’t thinking good things about you.

Excuse Me, Ma’am — Your Dog Is a Bully