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Pet Q&A: My Dog Freaks Out at the Dog Park!

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Q: Elie is a Catahoula Leopard Cur. He has other doggie friends, but he freaks out when we take him to the dog park. He’s so excited that he literally squeals with anticipation. His loud entrance attracts other dogs in packs, and when they advance, Elie gets scared and starts to bark and growl. This scares the other dog owners ( not to mention my husband, and me). We usually end up leaving in shame. We don’t want him to hurt another dog or vice-versa! He acts similarly when we meet larger dogs while walking: Sometimes, if the dog is gentle, Elie will sniff and play, but if the other dog shows any excitement, Elie runs away or gets aggressive. We appreciate any advice you’ve got!

A: Sweet Elie. He wants to make friends, but with all those other dogs around he’s fighting some serious stage fright. Elie could use a small group to practice with before he’s ready to join the party -- sort of similar to how making a friend other than Mom on your first day of kindergarten can eventually lead to joining a sorority, soccer team or book club in college. If he hasn’t had the chance to hang out just dog-on-dog, a park with 15 of them can feel like “group therapy” with a bunch of sociopaths (ok, not that bad…but you get the point).

Fortunately, there are a few actions you can take to nudge dogs like Elie on to the playground:

1. Avoid punishing him. This will only make him more nervous in social situations.

2. Walk Elie on leash across the street from a friend’s dog and reward him with treats as you go. Slowly decrease the distance between the two if he can keep his cool. For some dogs, time spent simply near another dog can reduce the excitement and stress that contributes to reflexive aggression or excitement.

3. Take tasty special treats on every walk. Shell them out liberally when Elie spies any other dog so he’ll make a positive association with on-leash run-ins with other dogs.

4. If you let him stop for a friendly sniff, choose a calm dog and keep it short. Avoid his peers with ADHD: They are potentially in the same boat as Elie -- and then you’ll have two problem dogs to deal with.

5. Arrange small group playdates with well-socialized dogs around Elie’s size and age. One-on-one, off-leash interactions tend to go much better than leashed greetings or group interactions.

There is no cure-all fix for aggression, and even when Elie seems to be comfortable at the dog park he will probably have the occasional slip-up. I highly recommend that you also contact a professional dog trainer. Find referrals at www.apdt.com.

Denise Herman is the founder and head trainer at Empire of the Dog. Denise graduated from the San Francisco Academy for Dog Trainers under the direction of renowned author and dog expert Jean Donaldson (The Culture Clash and Dogs Are from Neptune). Denise has also worked as a staff trainer at the SPCA, taught at Petco and Andrea Arden in Manhattan, and written a series of Clicker Training Kits for Nylabone Products.

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