The psychology of dog parks


Dogs, and their humans, see and experience the world very differently.

For example, when a female has a litter of puppies and one of the pups is not thriving, what will the mother and thriving pups do? They will push it aside. Weak bird in the nest? Pushed out. Animals do not support weakness. Humans however, will find those weak, struggling animals and try to nurture them with an eye dropper every two hours, heating pad, or heat lamp to save them. We are humans, it is what we do. And we seem to be the only species that nurtures runts and weaklings.

For whatever reason, people project their humanness onto their animals, a term called anthropomorphism.

For example, there is a woman at my local off-leash park and she has an adorable pair of adolescent dogs who were formerly used as bait puppies. That IS really sad and her dogs really are adorable, but she has difficulty reading their current body language because of their past and she is fearful and over-protective of the two dogs. When they start to rough-house and roll around on the ground with other dogs, she becomes anxious and afraid then says to other dog owners that that it is her dogs who are “scared to death” when, really, it is she who is scared to death.

Another example of anthropomorphism is dog owners projecting their own thoughts or feelings onto their dogs. Yes, dogs do have thoughts and yes, dogs do have emotions, but sometimes owners who were bullied in their own childhood will think that their dog is unhappy or being bullied when their dog is engaged in normal play or social ranking behaviors.

Humans and dogs communicate very differently.

A human’s main form of communication is through speech while dogs are all about body language and energy. Dogs are very physical and they pounce on one another and they chest-bump one another. This makes many humans nervous or uncomfortable because we do not always know hot to interpret dog body language. Maybe we are afraid that our dog will get injured, maybe we are afraid the other dog will be injured leading to a lawsuit.

As humans, we find what we are looking for. If we are fearful, we will see all of the dangers. Pet owners project their fears into their dog’s body language.

Cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder and he has been studying the body language of dogs since the 1970′s. One interesting discovery of his is that, while humping can be dominance, humping a playmate during a romp was often an invitation to nearby dogs to come join the fun.

Humping is one behavior that is so misunderstood by humans and leads to conflict at dog parks. There are different types of humping and dominance humping leaves you in no doubt. It is quick, determined, and ferocious. Most humping is non-sexual, non-dominant, and is simply used by some dogs as a means of bonding, an invitation to play or, an attempt to find their place in the group.

Off-leash dog parks, which should be a place of fun and relaxation, sometimes become major stressors.

A lack of knowledge about the behavior of dogs often led to inter- and intraspecies conflict. Cesar Millan himself wouldn’t stand a chance at the local dog park because no one seems to agree and they are all experts.

What behaviors are *really* aggressive, which dog is or isn’t bullying, which dog owner is being unrealistic. And certainly our own personalities and behaviors shape how we interpret the behaviors of other humans and dogs.

Dog parks: where human psychology and dog psychology collide.

The first thing that we must learn is to become aware of how we are feeling so that we can address any weak areas. Are you anxious when your dog is misbehaving? Do you feel sorry for your dog? Remember, weakness is interpreted by dogs and other animals much differently than people. Do you feel intimidated by other pet owners?

Just like humans, dogs have wildly different personalities. Some dogs just immediately do not like one another’s energy. Some dogs are naturally introverted, some are anxious, some are happy-go-lucky and are confused by the timid-aggressive dogs. Timid dogs and aggressive dogs can benefit greatly from behavioral therapy and I highly recommend it.

I also recommend therapy, cognitive or behavioral, for timid or aggressive pet owners. While dogs are not able to see the world from our perspective, with a little help we can learn to understand the world from a dog’s perspective.


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