Children as a Mirror – The Great Water Fights!
Let’s imagine Joe, Frank, Bonny and Cathy. All these kids love to play hose water fights. Joe and Frank both tend to hold one other child down and blast them in the face until someone intervenes, or the child starts crying. Bonny and Cathy blast every other child in the face whenever they get the chance. All have been told in the past that this is not acceptable, but continue.
Their caregivers have had enough. Joe and Bonny caregivers decide the best way to deal with this is to strap the children to a chair. However, their chairs are close enough to their hoses that if they really want to, they can still reach over and grab their hoses. Once in a while Joe’s target is in range and Joe tries to blast him in the face with the hose. Bonny occasionally just grabs the hose and blasts children as they pass by. Each is scolded each time they lash out, but are still kept tied to their chairs and close to their hoses.
Frank and Cathy’s caregivers however take a different route. When they target another child, they are given a warning to stop, if they continue they are taken out of the area, away from their fun. If they do stop, they can continue to play. After a few sessions of loosing out all their fun, Frank stops targeting his one child and Cathy begins to avoid squirting other children in the face.
Joe and Bonny, despite getting reprimands, still continue to target other children inappropriately. Frank and Cathy learn that if they target children under any circumstances, all their fun ends.
Now, to another 2 children. Johann and Greta hate the water fights and are scared of all the other children as a result. Johann’s caregiver decides that the best way to help him deal with his fear is to drag him around and let him get blasted. He yells and charges at other children when they approach, and he gets reprimanded. He doesn’t pay attention to the reprimand because he’s too scared to understand. Greta’s caregiver decides that she needs to spend time away from water fights and the throng of kids and takes Greta to a professional Therapist, who helps Greta deal with her fears of water fights and other children.
So what about dogs with leashes in off leash parks?
What do these analogies have to do with leashes in off leash parks? The above are very similar to 1) Bullies (dogs that single out one dog and torment them); 2) Socially inept dogs (dogs who don’t handicap play or play too rough with nearly everyone); and 3) Fearful dogs. Fearful dogs need a special protocol and the safety of being away from fear triggers during most of their rehab, so a fearful dog shouldn’t be on leash (or off) in an off leash park for some time, if ever.
Allowing dogs on leashes in an off leash park does them disservice without a coherent, solid plan to help them learn how to play in an more appropriate manner. Indeed bullies and the inept shouldn’t even be in an off leash area until they have proven that they can control some of their impulses with a few well padded dogs first (dogs that have enough experience to deal with any outbreaks) .
Bullies and socially inept dogs while training may drag a leash. Constant supervision is important so the instant they go too far they can be wrangled and taken out of the park (time-out as correction). Leaving and going home will have even more impact (huge penalty). Solidifying these rules in the dogs mind requires consistency. During the beginning of training, they shouldn’t be in off leash parks.
Putting these dogs in situations where they will fail is unfair to them. Putting them in situations where they have a chance to succeed however, is important. When they have a real choice, they can succeed but those choices should be heavily biased toward success and not to failure.
But don’t they need to be around other dogs to be social?
Socialization means positive experiences. If a dog continues being frustrated or scared, the experience is not positive. If the dog gets worse, the experience is not positive. Only having the right tools to interact in a way that allows all a positive experience should we consider something beneficial.
Dogs don’t have to be friends with everyone, nor do they have to be social if they don’t choose. Some excited dogs forget manners when excited. So is it fair to put them into situations where they will fail? They don’t fail because they want to, they fail because they don’t have the tools to control their impulses. They have trouble controlling their impulses because 1) a bullies target is close by, but can’t get to them to fulfill impulses; 2) everyone around them is having fun and they want to have fun too; and/or 3) they’re surrounded by animals scaring the heck out of them. I don’t believe these situations are fair to these 3 types of dogs. We can’t force an animal to socialize. Putting them into situations where they are frustrated is not likely to improve frustrations or reactions.
So what do you do?
As a professional trainer, and currently a dog walker as well, I believe our responsibility is to ensure that if a dog is a Bully, Socially Inept, or Fearful, that those issues need to be dealt with before off leash areas are introduced. When these dogs lash out at other dogs, either from frustration (1 and 2) or fear (3) other dogs often react in return. There is no measure of fairness for any of them. Dogs who were targeted now look like little hooligans if they bark or bounce around the dog on leash and the dog reacting often continues to display and gets yanked around because he’s on a leash.
Leashes can be in an off leash park but should be used sparingly and under supervision with a goal to removing them in time. I use leashes on puppies, and closely monitor them. Dropping a leash on a puppy and letting them frolic around without supervision is not a valid use of a leash. Bullies and the socially inept need work outside off leash areas before they get a chance to play in those parks. At first, they will be on leash or dragging the leash once inside. As stated above, if they have an oops, they loose out on further chances of play. As they get better, these oops moments happen less and less. They succeed, they learn and they are happy.
We have to remember that currently Dog Training and even more so Dog Walking are completely unregulated industries. Anyone can hang a shingle out and call themselves a Trainer or a Walker. Make sure that the professional you choose can give you good, scientifically backed reasons for their actions. Be your dogs advocate.