Treats at the Dog Park?

Last week I discussed whether or not bringing toys to the dog park was a good idea, given the chance of conflict (both human and canine).

In the comments, Jessica from You Did What With Your Wiener mentioned the related topic of bringing treats/food to the dog park, which shouldn’t be left out.

But before I dive into discussion, I’d like to start with a true story.

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Until Moses was fixed, he was not at all food motivated.

There would be the odd time he’d show some interest, and pockets were certainly lined with cheese and dried liver when in the show ring (aka: How to Ruin a Pair of Pants in One Easy Step!), but if we could’ve somehow harnessed the scent of in-heat female dog, then maybe we’d have left with more than default participatory ribbons.

Once Big Mo’ went in for the ol’ snip-snip, however, the quickest way to his heart soon became food.

Fast-forward a few years to a sunny weekend when I decides to take Moses for a nice afternoon walk at Nose Hill Park, a large multi-use park here in Calgary that has a huge off-leash area.

Moses at Nose Hill Park

Moses at Nose Hill Park

We were walking in the off-leash area when three women approach, orbited by their off-leash dog.

Moses and the dog had a great greeting, but as a lab or lab-type, the play style was too quick for Moses and he declined the game of chase with the dog, instead lumbering over to greet the women who were oohhh-ing and ahh-ing over him.

“He’s so big!” “He looks like a bear!”

The usual conversation about Moses and his size ensued between me and the women, and the women pet and greeted Moses while their dog bounded around in the distance.

Then one of the women wanted the other dog’s attention and called his name and reached into her jacket pocket for some treats.

And Moses noticed.

He plunked himself right in front of her, gave her his best puppy eyes, and began to drool (as Moses does).

How can you say no?

Treat? For me? Please?

“These aren’t for you, buddy,” she replied, tucking the treats back in her pocket and petting him on the head.

So Moses craned his neck and sniffed at her pocket.

That’s when the tone of the interaction drastically and instantly changed.

“No!” She exclaimed. Then she grabbed Moses’ ear, pinched, and pushed downward.

Moses yelped, hit the deck, and looked at me like “Why did she do that?”. The yelping was out of surprise more than pain, I’m sure – both of us were extremely startled.

As someone who struggles with Resting Bitch Face on a regular day, I’m not sure if the look on my face communicated actual murder or just attempted, but she took notice and went on the (very weak) defensive.

Her friends were already extracting themselves from the situation, following after their dog down the path.

homebush

“I have to go out after this!” she tried to explain, following her friends. “I don’t want to get these pants dirty.”

I’d like to say I was the bigger person, taking the high road, offering forgiveness on behalf of Moses and I, and wishing her peace on the rest of her journey.

I’d like to say that, but I can’t, because that was not the case.

Instead I shouted after her as she retreated “Maybe you shouldn’t wear good clothes to the dog park! Maybe you shouldn’t pet dogs if you don’t want them to pay attention to you! Maybe if you wanted him away from you, you should’ve backed up or walked away or asked me – his owner – to do something! Maybe leave the treats in your pocket next time!”

Moses and I then headed in the opposite direction to continue our walk, during which I muttered to myself and thought of hundreds of more clever – and crude – things I could’ve said in the moment.

Moses – in the great way that dogs do – shrugged off the situation as quickly as it happened and had a wonderful time exploring the park and meeting other dogs.

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That’s my most memorial experience of treats at the dog park, so as you can image, I’m on the fence.

And as someone who probably doesn’t go to the off-leash more than once per month mostly because of potential interactions like this, I was soured by the experience for a couple of months.

I do understand that a lot of people use treats for training and can still be in the stage of relying on them for certain behaviours, so maybe keep them on hand just in case.

And unlike toys, treats don’t necessarily illicit the same resource-guarding concerns in dogs if doled out discretely and sparingly.

But problems can still arise when other dogs happen to notice the treats and want in on the action. Do you hold back the treats and deal with some canine persistence until something else catches their attention? Or do you share?

And if you’re tempted to share, then you open up several other concerns. Does the other dog’s owner even want you to share with them? Does the other dog have a food sensitivity or is on a special or restricted diet? Maybe the other owner doesn’t want you to reinforce their dog’s behaviour.

Coming back to the toy subject, I’ve seen owners with treats try to coerce dogs (theirs or not) to drop stolen toys in exchange for food. Frequently works – the dog will drop the toy, but will have gained a new focus.

Cute print from Etsy shop MarkJAsher.

Cute print from Etsy shop MarkJAsher.

I’m actually hearing that some dog parks have no-toy and no-treat rules, which is not something I’ve seen locally.

As with most dog laws (off-leash designation and leash lengths, for example) these regulations are only as good as compliance and enforcement, but I’d be curious to know statistically how well they do to achieve their intended results of fewer altercations.

As for me, I don’t bring treats to the park and it wasn’t anything I’ve ever truly considered, but I can see why some might. For the most part, it doesn’t bother me as long as those with the treats expect food flaunting to get some canine attention.

Then again, I also don’t dress in my expensive jeans to go to places where dogs of all kinds are free to run loose… but that’s just me.

I think Kristine from Rescued Insanity said it best: “This is a dog park. A dog park for dogs who do dog-like things.”

Bringing Toys to the Dog Park – A Good or Bad Idea?

I used to think that taking toys to the dog park was just a recipe for trouble.

I am no longer quite so definitive or absolute on that idea.

I mean, sure, you may run into that super-possessive or obsessed dog that could start a fight if it doesn’t know how to share toys, but I’d say that realistically that’s a small minority of dogs, and I’d like to hope owners of those dogs would have enough foresight to avoid the park in the first place. (Rational self reminder: you know what they say about common sense.…)

But recent trips to the dog park over the holidays have really made me wonder if that no-toy policy is maybe a bit too rigid?

There were tonnes of people playing fetch with their dogs and I saw no such melee.

In fact, maybe toys can be a good thing.

Toys sure are a great distraction – a good way to get a dog into a socializing environment where other dogs aren’t the only things to focus on.

Playing fetch also keeps dogs moving – quickly and at great distances. This way, large, tight groups of dogs and people don’t congregate in one specific spot in the park; those always make me nervous.

And it’s a great way to provide exercise and play, with a little bit of structure, rather than just letting dogs run amok at the park and not interact with them.

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Way, way back: Practicing fetch with puppy Moses. (Forgive the ridiculous outfit – all fashion rules are forgotten during dry suit diving surface intervals.)

Granted, this won’t change whether or not I bring toys to the park.

I will continue not to.

Neither Moses nor Alma is a reliable enough retriever for my frugal self to put dog toy investments at risk.

Bonus puppy Moses photo from the archives - same day as the above, curled up with our scuba gear

Bonus puppy Moses photo from the archives – same day as the above, curled up with our scuba gear

Moses won’t fetch anything that is thrown particularly far away. He won’t even budge. He’ll just look at you, his expression saying “that was silly – you had it right here and now it’s WAY over there – what are you planning to do about that?”

A rare Moses retrieve

A rare Moses retrieve with Alma bouncing in the background

And if you lob it short enough that Moses is motivated to fetch, it’s just once and then he wants to find some snow (winter) or shade (summer) and gnaw on whatever it is that you threw. Or he’s happy to play tug with you. But fetch is not his game.

Moses, frisbee-gnawing

Moses, frisbee-gnawing

Alma is similarly unreliable. She likes to run and will occasionally fetch, but her philosophy is very grass-is-greener.

If another dog is there providing competition for ball or frisbee, she’ll fetch with approximately 90% consistency. The other 10% of the time she’ll fetch and then drop the object far away from where she got it, but also far away from the other dogs and whoever discharged it.

If she’s alone (or with Moses), there’s no real competition for her, and after a handful of throws she’s done with retrieving. She may still run to the frisbee, but then sniff it and walk away nonchalantly. Then, when you go pick it up, she feigns interest again just up until you throw it again. I think this is her way of getting us to fetch.

Alma returning a big stick - both Newfs' successful fetching rates increase drastically if water is involved

Alma returning a big stick – both Newfs’ successful fetching rates increase drastically if water is involved

Needless to say, I won’t bother carting toys – toys that I’m likely to end up fetching myself – to the dog park.

If on the move, Moses likes to carry the frisbee

Besides, I see the dog park as valuable socialization time and training time – the dogs get to meet and play with other dogs and we all get to work on our obedience skills in a high-distraction environment.

But there are still lots of people who bring toys to the park, and that’s maybe perfectly okay if the dog – and the dog’s human – is good about it.

I say human because I’ve come to realize that maybe dogs aren’t the real issue I should be concerned about when it comes to toys and parks.

Maybe it’s the people.

This became vastly evident when we were looking after Crosby and I took her to the park.

Crosby LOVES fetch!

She will happily fetch each and every time you throw something. She brings the ball right back and patiently waits for you to throw it again. And if another dog beats her to it, she hurries back to politely wait for the next throw.

"Throw it again!" - Crosby

“Throw it again!” – Crosby

The thing with Crosby is… very infrequently do dogs beat her to it.

That canine is quick!

She can overtake labs and collies from behind to make first contact. For a Newf owner, this speed is bewildering and impressive.

Crosby beats the competition

Crosby beats the competition

So this means that when another owner throws something for their dog, even if Crosby is late on the draw, she can get that ball first and very likely will.

Of course, not being familiar with the other owner who threw it, she takes the toy and runs – towards a familiar human – to have it tossed again. In other words – she is a perceived Ball Thief.

This can make some people irrational. “Your dog stole my ball!” “ Your dog retrieved our ball!”

Like some malicious intent is read into a dog’s natural inclination to chase and capture a fast-moving object.

It’s bizarre. And wildly off-base.

Even if the protesting isn’t verbal, you can see the frustration in the furrowed brow of the toy-owner as you sheepishly return their stuff.

Like it’s a pain-in-the-ass interruption that ruined their dog park groove.

To that I say two things:

1. Don’t bring toys to the park if you’re unwilling to lose them.

If you bring expensive balls to the park, you need to be prepared to leave without them. Fetch-induced losses happen all the time – balls are often lost in perfectly innocent, non-theft incidents. It’s dog park force majeure – outside of anyone’s control. Besides, I hear from other toy-bringers that there’s a sort of dog-park toy karma: one day you may lose one, the next day you may find two. Like looking for lost balls on the golf course. Someone should track this phenomenon – I’d like to see some statistics.

2. Don’t be an idiot.

Dogs are dogs. Like a squirrel, an in-flight frisbee is irresistible. Even Moses will be interested in an ariel object if it’s headed in his general direction/aimed right at his face (and if you think for a second about giving me the stink-eye because Moses got your toy slobbery, I highly recommend you reconsider that thought or keep it to yourself).

There is no nefarious intent when a dog retrieves a toy that wasn’t thrown “for” them; they have no concept of property ownership. Relax. The other owner will do his/her best to return your item. Just keep in mind a dog with a newly retrieved toy is certainly more likely to play keep-away if all of a sudden there is an unusual increased interest (by both their owner and this new stranger) in them and their loot.

Crosby fetches, with Alma in hot pursuit

Crosby fetches, with Alma in hot pursuit

Perhaps this is the real reason I don’t actually go to the dog park that often – sometimes other dog owners are just nuts.

Now I wonder if this sociological observation is just my own experience.

What’s your policy on bringing toys to the park? Have you lost or gained in personal toy count as a result? Have you seen toy-related tension between dogs and/or humans at the park? Are you a crazy person who gets all bent out of shape because some other dog retrieved the ball intended for your dog?