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A Romp in the Park or a Barroom Brawl?

Study finds incidence of aggression is minimal at one Indianapolis dog park

Study finds incidence of aggression is minimal at one Indianapolis dog park

Friendly greetings like this one were found to be more prevalent than aggressive encounters at one city dog park.
Given all the posturing and preening that occur whenever a group of dogs get together for a social hour, it can be hard for anyone to decipher the intricacies of what’s really going on among our canine friends at the local dog park. Rumps wiggle, bellies roll, legs sail, and fur flies in a second-by-second display of lust for life. Most of it is play, but some behaviorists and trainers worry that the herd environment may actually increase the risk of “interdog aggression” and teach dogs to behave like bullies.

In what may be the first study of its kind, three researchers at Butler University in Indianapolis set out to explore the idea, observing and videotaping dogs at the city-owned Broadripple Canine Companion Zone from March to November 2001 (“‘Bark Parks’—A Study on Interdog Aggression in a Limited-Control Environment,” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2003). Of the 177 subjects studied, only 5 percent were identified as “aggressors” in a total of 14 clearly aggressive conflicts.

Aiming to determine not only the frequency but the severity of dog-to-dog aggression, Melissa Shyan, Kristina Fortune, and Christine King first examined previous research to find out what distinguished an aggressive act from play behaviors, dominance displays, and social greetings. Aggressive encounters, they determined, are more intense and more invasive, involving active pursuit and physical contact that’s often painful. Victims of aggression display responses distinct from dogs on the receiving end of a playful tease, retreating, submitting, or lunging and charging back. Recipients of play proposals, on the other hand, “respond either with their own play behaviors or, if uninterested in play, by behaviors that terminate the interaction,” the authors write.

Aggressive encounters observed at the Canine Companion Zone were brief, with dogs ending them quickly or owners intervening right away. “In no case did we observe or receive reports of damage or wounds,” the researchers wrote. “Dogs did sometimes yelp, scream, and whimper when attacked, but wounds were nonexistent.”

In searching for demographic patterns, the researchers found that breed types did not play a role in the aggression they witnessed. Age, however, was a factor. Aggressors were generally adults and were significantly older than their victims, who tended to be puppies or young adults—a finding that supports previous research concluding that conflicts in free-ranging packs were initiated by adult dogs 85 percent of the time.

Interestingly, all five female aggressors were spayed and all four male aggressors were neutered, while half of the twelve victims were unsterilized.

A “self-selection” process on the part of owners may have accounted for the fairly low incidence of aggression, the researchers wrote. Most people stayed away from the park if their dogs couldn’t play nice, and those who did show up tended to keep their dogs on leash or well-separated from others. “There also is a self-enforcement or self-policing function,” the researchers wrote. “If too many attacks occur, owners of nonaggressive dogs pressure owners of aggressive dogs to leave the park. We observed owners verbally confronting owners of aggressive dogs or physically shunning them by actively taking their dogs to other areas of the park.”

While the researchers note that their results are specific to only one site and may not be representative of other parks, the Canine Companion Zone does seem to be similar in operation to commonly recommended models for dog parks across the nation. The two-acre site is surrounded by a chain-link fence and includes two waste depositories supplied with pooper-scooper bags. Owners use electronic keys to enter the park; they receive keys and I.D. tags for their dogs after showing evidence of current vaccinations and signing park liability waivers. Perhaps it is this level of formality—and lack of anonymity—that provides strong incentive for the kind of good human behavior necessary to making dog parks friendly and unthreatening public spaces.


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