Dog Parks: Not Just For Dogs. Alternatively, How the Dog Park Has Made Me A Better Owner.

When I first moved to my current location for graduate school, I was firmly rooted in the camp that dog parks were nothing more than a gathering place for rowdy, possibly aggressive dogs owned by people who could not be bothered to train their dogs to sit. (Please read the rest of this post before you start slinging bags of dog poop!)

Fast forward nearly 3 years, and I cannot imagine my life without my local dog park, the dogs I’ve grown to love, and the owners who have become some of the closest friends I have ever had. When I first began frequenting my local dog park, I had just gone through a breakup, and because I’m human, I needed to get out of the apartment that seemed to only house memories. As luck would have it, a group of people were just starting to become “dog park regulars” and we hit it off instantly. Granted, it was months before we knew each as anything more than, “Geordi’s mom,” but very quickly the dog park became the highlight of my day, and all of us connected through our mutual love of our dogs. All of of this is not to say that there were not occasionally rowdy, just downright obnoxious dogs (with owners who could be described the same way!). Those dogs and people are always a possibility at dog parks, but you learn ways to recognize them and more importantly, you learn ways to deal with them whether it be physically removing yourself from the situation (i.e., moving to another section of the park or leaving altogether). This is part of being an advocate for your dog and it’s the most valuable lesson the dog park has taught me.

My 12 year-old Beagle, Geordi, is a prime example of the kind of situation that most owners warn of when they advise people not to go to dog parks. I would agree, were not for how on top of him I am and the fact that I take active responsibility for his possible behaviors. Geordi has never been a “merry go lucky hound” as the Beagle breed standards states the Beagle should be. He has always had a chip on his shoulder and he couldn’t care less where you are or about other dogs most of the time. There is one exception. If an intact male dog comes into the dog park, Geordi becomes aggressive. This behavior worsened once Geordi was neutered, and I have been in contact with animal behaviorists regarding this issue. As of yet, I have not found a solution. Due to this, if a dog I do not recognize begins to enter the side of the park Geordi and I are on, I always ask if the dog is neutered and then I explain why I am asking.* If the dog is unneutered and intent upon entering the side of the park we are occupying, I take Geordi to the other side, or we leave. My other dog, a 9-year old Brittany named Paris is the epitome of the low-key, friendly dog park dog. Out of the two, he is the one I worry about the least but I still keep my eyes on my dogs at the park and if things start going awry, I act. Being a dog park-goer has taught me how to stand up for my dogs and how to withdraw them from stressful situations without worrying about offending another owner. These are things that as an introverted people-pleaser were difficult for me in the past. On top of friends and advocacy, the dog park has been a networking goldmine.

I have become friends with professors at my university in a multitude of departments. These connections have opened doors for me that would have remained closed in terms of research opportunities and mentors across fields willing to look over my work and offer advice. Many of my dog training and dog grooming clients have also come from the dog park. They were friends first. In fact, I honed my dog grooming skills by grooming friends’ dogs for bags of coffee before I ever began charging money for my services. These people talked to other people, and my clientele base has grown.

Becoming a better advocate for my dogs, the friendships, and networking I have found through the dog park are reasons that I recommend dog parks to clients who I think are ready for them. There are always inherent risks when you place a bunch of dogs in an enclosed area, but I believe that if both owner and dog are prepared, the benefits outweigh those risks.

Please comment with your dog park experiences and opinions, whether you agree or 1235124_10153175103980640_1903458074_ndisagree. I look forward to reading them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Unneutered dogs are not technically supposed to be in the dog park but this rule is usually not reinforced unless an unneutered dog is causing problems with multiple dogs and a physical safety of dogs or people becomes a concern.

Pictured: My Brittany, Paris (yes he is a male, named after a Star Trek Character) at our local dog park.

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Looking into What Your Dog is Looking at.

Have you ever wondered what part of your face your dog pays attention to the most? Good news! There’s science for that!

Researchers at the University of Helsinki are looking into what might be going on with dogs when they look at the faces of other dogs and humans. In particular, the researchers were interested in whether or not dogs pay more attention to a dog or human face that is threatening (i.e., aggressive dog face or angry human face). We humans (as well as other primates) pay more attention to things that could potentially be threatening and after all, this makes sense from a evolutionary standpoint. No species ever got anywhere ignoring what could mean bad news. Now, good ol’ fashioned eye-tracking technology is showing us how are dogs do this!

In research involving animals (or humans too young to speak), the go-to way to figure out what grabs and holds attention is eye-tracking software. In this case, researchers utilized eye-tracking technology to track what dogs focus on the most when they look at faces by analyzing the length of time the dog looked for and the order of where the dog looked first. This may not sound like a big deal, but whatever a dog gazes at the longest, is what is capturing the dog’s attention the most, and by extension, what is most important to the dog at that moment in time. By analyzing data from multiple dogs’ gaze patterns, researchers can begin to get an idea of just what your dog is paying attention to when he is staring at you.

How they did it. For this study, researchers clicker-trained 31 domestic dogs to lie in front of a blank monitor while resting their head on a chin rest. The dogs were trained do this unprompted, were not encouraged to look at the monitor, and held the position for at least 30 seconds. Researchers then projected images of canine and human faces onto the monitor in the hopes of figuring out whether the emotion of the faces affected what facial features the dogs looked at the most.

Three separate emotional categories were used: Threatening (aggressive dog faces and angry human faces), Pleasant (Happy dog faces and happy human faces), and Neutral (expressionless dog faces and expressionless human faces). Each face was presented to an individual dog with a break between the presentation of one face and the next.1 The order of species and emotion of the faces was randomized so the dogs would not be able to anticipate what might be presented next.

What they found: Dogs look at faces using the same strategies that we do. Dogs adjust how they look at faces based on the emotional content of the face they are looking at. Regardless of species, dogs fixate faster on the eyes and midface area than on the mouth, and the eyes are more likely to be what the dog looks at first. This might be because the eyes are such an important area for communicative intent in both dogs and people. Where things begin to differ between dogs and humans, is the mouth.

When viewing pleasant human faces, humans look at the mouth presumably because the smile is the biggest indicator of good mood in our species. Dogs on the hand, look longer at the mouth of threatening and neutral dog faces. This makes sense when you think about how important a dog’s mouth is in conveying aggression (i.e., wrinkled muzzles, snarling, bared teeth, tight lips).

What this means: Dogs make use of the emotional content on your face (and the faces of other dogs). This, as far as we know, is the first evidence that a non-primate uses emotional information when looking at faces! Which, you know, is pretty awesome.

  1. A break between the presentation of each face (what scientists call an inter-trial-interval) is needed so that the presentation of one face is not influencing the presentation of the next face, and so that there is a clear start and stop point for data analysis.

Tl:dr: dogs adjust how and where they look at the faces of other dogs and humans based on the emotion those faces are displaying.

References

Somppi, S., Tornqvist, H., Kujala, M. V., Hanninen, L., Krause, C. M. & Vainio, O. (2016). Dogs evaluate threatening facial expressions by their biological validity-evidence from gazing patterns. Plos One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143047