Downtime

The Dogs at the Park Scare My Sweet Little Pup

She loves to run around, but she’s terrified when approached.

A big dog and a little dog face off.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sushaaa/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.

Dear Beast Mode,

We’re lucky to live near an amazing space designated for off-leash dogs. It’s about a mile long and mostly wooded, with lots of bushes to crash through, fallen logs to jump over, and holes to improve upon—it’s basically doggie paradise. There’s a fence surrounding the entire space, with gates at various points of entry. Its proximity to our house was part of the reason why we adopted this specific dog. (We believe she’s a podenco-galgo mix, but that’s just our best guess.)

She’s sweet, but somewhat shy. Whenever she meets new dogs at the doggie paradise, she’s got her tail between her legs during the initial sniff-over that dogs do, and when that’s over, she might be willing to play with the others. My question is not about her, though—it’s what we should do about the pooches that clearly terrify her at the off-leash park. Some of the dogs we meet, especially on the weekends, are large and aggressive enough to the point where they scare me. She’s never been bitten hard enough to draw blood (yet), but there have been encounters that have left her yipping in terror as she’s trying to GTFO with her tail between her legs. Is there anything I can do in this situation?

—Parking Space Needed

Dear Parking Space Needed,

Mary Oliver has a great poem in her collection Dog Songs titled “If You Are Holding This Book.” While it’s only five lines long, copyright law (and good manners) prevents me from including it here in its entirety. Instead, allow me to clumsily paraphrase the kicker: There are few sights in this world better than dogs running around off-leash.

I know what you’re thinking: Do poems have “kickers”? I don’t know! The term seems a little too jaunty to be a serious poetic device, but that’s beside the point. Oliver’s bit about dogs running around without leashes really stuck with me. No matter how graceful or clumsy the pooches may be, the sight of them zooming and zigzagging across a large expanse is undistilled, joyful abandon. But, as your letter points out, it can sometimes be scary, too.

Dog parks are great, but they’re only as predictable as the dogs inside them. A fight can be traumatizing (for both the pups and their humans), and it’s always wise to watch for signs of aggressive behavior (raised hackles, tense posture, etc.) so you can prevent a problem before it starts. Getting your dog to respond to a recall command is super important, and it’s something that should be reinforced consistently to ensure that it remains distraction-proof. You have every right to tell another dog owner that your pooch is shy and needs space, but that only works when they have good control over their own dog—something you can’t always count on.

Even though you identify this as a “you” problem (as well as an “other dogs” problem), consider working with a trainer to help reduce your pup’s nerves during overwhelming social situations. Dogs are empathy machines that take cues from their owners’ behavior, and a trainer will also help you become a more calming influence in these potentially stressful moments. You and the pup feed off each other, so any improvements will require teamwork.

As a regular visitor to the park, you should have a decent idea of what to expect at different days and times. Like singles bars, dog parks tend to get crowded right after work, so aim to go during less hectic hours, like early mornings or midday if you can make it then. Weekends, you note, are like an open mic night full of unfamiliar and unpredictable pups, and there’s no shame in avoiding the park altogether during these times. Could you use Saturdays and Sundays for hikes or visits to quieter off-leash parks? It’s annoying to concede your neighborhood spot, but it’s a proactive way to avoid any unfriendly run-ins while your dog expands her own social horizons.

While that huge park is a great place for your fast dog to get the lead out, it is also a good idea to do some socialization work in more controlled environments, too. Take her to dog-heavy on-leash areas to meet other pups and get her used to all the different ways they may approach. With any luck, the confidence she gains there will start to transfer over to her home turf.

It’ll take some work, but know that it’s possible for your dog to run free and without worry. Poetry in motion—there’s nothing better than that.