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.


So, yesterday I was upset with my dogs


I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of the irrational thoughts I had yesterday and how those irrational thoughts led me from being happy to miserable.

Overgeneralization: My dogs NEVER listen. They ALWAYS pull.

Mental Filter: Even though they behaved very well for most of the walk I focused on the small amount of time their animal instincts kicked in and could not hear me.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: I’m a failure. I can’t get my dogs to listen and that reminds me of other areas where I am currently struggling (work or romance etc) which leads me to conclude (at least for 30 min that I am a total failure.

Luckily I do not buy into these irrational thoughts for very long and today I am left with a sore left ankle, but my healthy thinking has returned 🙂

I wanted to make my dogs happy, now I feel like a failure.


Therapist introspection can be really good from time to time. Today I tried to capture my puppy’s moment of hyperactivity with a walk. My intentions were good. I saw he had lots and lots of energy and I wanted to help him bur some of it off. So, I harnessed him, his  fur brother, and fur sister up for an evening walk. I know how much they love walks.   Image

Oh boy. The four of us head out and my black & white beauty spies a kitty in the bushes. Before I can quite realize what is happening, my ankle is twisting and I’m down on the sidewalk. My dogs have never succeeded in actually knocking me over before. All of a sudden I went from being thrilled to be out on a walk with my fur babies to being a little bit frustrated, a little bit sad, and a little bit disappointed. 

It reminds me how often in life we start out happy and with good intentions only to end up hurt, sad, frustrated, or some combination of these emotions and countless others. The difference for me is that after the fact I usually appreciate these experiences (after the fact, of course) because it reminds me of why I want to be a mental health therapist. I mean, we all get mad sometimes. We all get sad, we all get _________. And we could all use some time to vent and put things into perspective.  Some reactions are normal, but sometimes they aren’t. Or, sometimes frustrations build up until we lose our tempers over things that seem like they should be no big deal. In reality, we aren’t losing our temper over that one little thing, but all of the annoyances we have never bothered to deal with that we have let internally build up until we just cannot take one more thing.