By Fiona Douglas
Dogs randomly frolicking around off-leash is a heartwarming scene to most people. But not to me, nor other breeders I have spoken to.
To us, it’s a disaster waiting to happen and it’s stressful to watch. Our knowledge of dogs tells us that the calmest and happiest environment can – in a snap – switch to uncontrolled violence of terrifying proportions.
If you have ever be party to two dogs attacking each other then you know how horrific and dangerous this is. With that thought in mind, magnify this 10 fold and that’s what can loom a microsecond away when more than a few dogs come together.
Good news is there are things we can do to reduce the risk so that group play can be much safer for all involved. And then we can enjoy the pleasure of seeing our dogs safely socialising.
Off lead parks and doggy daycare are a high risk environment for your pet for a number of reasons.
Typically these environments have a variety of dog breeds mingling. This means there are many different temperaments at play.
At the simplest level, there are dominant breeds such as the Jack Russell, Chihuahua, Fox Terrier and so on. When these breeds meet it is part of their wiring to posture with assertive body language and warning growls. This in itself is not a serious issue, because it’s how these breeds naturally interact and generally no harm results. In fact you can have two dominant little dogs engaging in what seems to be the most aggressive onslaught, only to find neither one has the slightest scratch. It’s just their wiring.
Where the problem arises is when other breeds are present. They don’t interpret this behaviour in the same way. To them, according to their wiring, the intensity level of the encounter is alarming and arouses their attack instincts. Dogs are pack animals; they naturally hunt in packs. When commotion commences some other dogs will be triggered to go in for the kill. They won’t even realise the target they are attacking is another dog, such is the frenzy of the kill.
I’m not talking about vicious untrained dogs here. I’m talking about the gentlest family pet. We must never forget that our much loving and loyal member of our human family is not a human – they are a DOG. Many country people know the reality that gentle pets can become killers. Sheep and lamb attacks are not uncommonly carried out by a few family pets meeting up and heading off for the kill. This won’t be a ‘one off’; they’ll repeat the behaviour until they are stopped.
As humans, we can find it incomprehensible that our family pet could have this other side; not our pet! This is our fault: we attribute human emotions to our dog, which is so very unfair to the dog.
Reduce the risks – safe play group
Here are some steps that I believe can reduce the risks.
1. Ratio of human-to-dogs
Organise your play group such that every dog has their owner present. This means that if an altercation occurs, the two owners can intervene before it escalates. This contrasts greatly to the doggy daycare scenario where the ratio of humans to dogs would be no where near one-to-one, plus they are not the dog’s owner.
2. Know the dogs and their owners
A dog fight is no joke. From professional experience over many years I know that human intervention will invariably result in getting bitten. With dogs who know you, the bite is not intended for you; you’re simply collateral damage of the general chaos. But imagine with dogs you don’t know? It could well be they deliberately bite you or even turn their attack on you.
(As an aside, dog bites are painful and need medical attention within the hour, however small. Dogs have bacteria on their teeth and the bite injects bacteria into your body, so you need to start antibiotics quickly and check your tetanus protection too.)
So here’s the key: a dog is not responsible for his behaviour; the owner is. It’s important that everyone in your play group knows and embraces this responsibility. Having a wonderful time is a lot easier when you know that others are tuned in to possible scuffles and ready to promptly intervene.
Restrict your group to compatible dogs who know each other. This won’t necessarily stop an incident but, what can be said is, if there are two dogs who consistently arc up then the chances of an incident are greatly magnified. I know here at Dachshund Australia we have our compatible groups of about six dogs who we take out for free runs in our four acre doggy park (see video above). As gentle as all our dogs are, the fact is that the odd pair have personality clashes. For instance, Rusty and Toby we know will have words, hence we don’t invite discord by running them together. In other words, we – as the responsible humans – don’t ‘set them up’.
Think how this situation of knowing the dogs and owners contrasts to an off-lead park or doggy daycare. Who are the dogs? Who are the owners? Is the dog approaching your dog within sight or earshot of his owner? Can you even identify the owner? Note the size of the dogs you see relative to the size of your dog; fact is a big dog can easily kill a small dog.
Recently we were advised of the tragic death of a DA puppy. Just 10 months old. It breaks my heart to see the picture we have of the young owner and his mum beaming with pride with puppy Charlee sporting a mortar board and puppy school graduation certificate. Charlee was popped down safely in an off leash park, with mum having checked there were no other dogs present. Soon – from nowhere – a dog came flying and attacked Charlee. Mother and son fought to get the dog off; amazing they were not savagely attacked themselves. The owner was thought to be the only other person around; a man in the far distance talking on his mobile phone and oblivious to the horror unfolding.
Charlee died from her injuries.
Thoughtless humans exist. They might take their dog out for their open run and socialisation at the expense of others. And what an expense; utter heartbreak.
Let’s not forget the power of hormones. Concerning your playgroup or the off leash park or the doggy daycare, do entire males run together? Or do entire males run with entire females? Or do entire females run with entire females?
Any one of these scenarios is a hormone charged environment that invites altercations; it’s the continuation of the species…the most powerful drive on Earth. And we already know that the most innocent altercation can trigger a possible group attack.
Choose your location for your social group with care. Choose a time when you don’t expect many others to be around, if this is possible. Always do a reconnaissance to assess the danger levels in regard to others at the park. Remember too, like with Charlee, dogs can appear from nowhere in some settings. I’ve had this happen myself just recently. So choose a venue where you have clear view well into the distance; no low hedges and so on.
Doggy daycare checklist
Giving an otherwise lonely dog companionship is awesome. This can take many forms, such as a neighbour taking them for walks when you are at work, or perhaps having playdates with other families nearby. Doggy Daycare is another option to emerge over the last few years and if it is well run, it might well be a safe environment.
Here’s the checklist I’d be asking before I would entrust my pet to them.
- What is the ratio of staff-to-dogs in direct contact at all times (so physically in the same room – not just camera view) with any group of dogs?
- What is the policy regarding grouping dogs according to size (knowing a small dog can be critically injured by a larger dog, regardless of who started the scrap) ?
- What is the policy regarding grouping according to breed temperaments (eg dominant breeds versus non dominant).
- Do they have a policy for assessing individual temperaments (if so, what is it?).
- Do they have a policy of fine-tuning groups according to individual personalities to avoid possible clashes?
- What is the policy regarding the grouping of desexed with entire dogs?
- What is the policy regarding a grouping that includes one or more entire dog(s) with other entire dogs?
- What is the policy regarding grouping an entire bitch with one or more other entire bitches?
- What is their OH&S policy for staff regarding their intervention in a dog fight?
- What protocols are in place in the event a dog fight breaks out? What are these: how will your dog be rescued?
- How far away is veterinary attention?
- What is your insurance cover in the event your dog is attacked?
And you can probably think of more points yourself.
Enjoy your dogs
It’s been a pretty heavy article, but if it can spare one family the untold misery of losing their pet in horrific circumstances then it’s been worth it.
I want to finish on a positive note though. Dogs – like humans – are a social species. They love company. If you can organise a safe playgroup then there is great pleasure to be had by everyone present; dogs and humans alike.