Why I am a professional dog walkerHow to fit in with other dogs, to be tolerant and to have fun. To keep up a sense of curiosity. To be brave, to be interested, and eventually like that old hackneyed human behavioural statement - to be fully self actualised.
For a dog, being actualised is basically feeling comfortable enough with its human, its pack and with other dogs in the park, that they can make all of their own GOOD choices about how they spend their time in the park.
I don't mean obsessively chasing a ball or other dogs, but having meaningful relationships with their environment and other dogs. For instance my dog loves to explore all of the smells in the park each time so he can know which dogs have been there and when. He will remember each of the dogs smells and know when new ones come in. He will know if they are sick or healthy, their age, and more things about those dogs than we can ever learn with all our five senses, but this only happens when he is social enough comfortable enough to devote each smell time to concentrating on what he is doing and not being anxious about what other dogs are in the park.
Sure we often walk pointer types of dogs, and many times they just seem to be interested in play, but if you take as many videos and photos of each one of these dogs, and observe them from a dog point of view you will see its much more than play. For instance when we first met Altas, all he wanted to do was get at the dogs, play and bark and seemingly make mischief, but that is mostly his energy level talking.
Sure if he can find Kara his bull arab, he will mostly bond and play with her, if she is in the mood, but when she is not, or if she is not at the park, he cleverly (socially) adapts his play level to each and every dog he approaches for play. He knows he has to do that with the dogs in the pack, as he will be riding home with them in the back of the car, but he also knows that these dogs will have some level of anxiety about his approach, because he has the power and strength to take on a bull arab.
He knows if he is going to get a dog to play with him, he is going to have to play at their level or lower, and make them happy enough to engage. That they are going to have to have fun too. That is why he often goes into the submissive position instantly at the start of play with puppies and little dogs.
We walk jack Russell's that have some of the most varied dog behaviour energy levels and attitudes of any breed you will find. From cautious and anxious to bold and exploratory. The fully self actualised jack Russel has a bold stance, is often first to run and greet dogs, and will initiate play if they think that they won't be beaten or injured. They will also spend a lot of time with their nose to the ground and looking out for prey (rabbits and rats in our parks).
Fortunately most off lead dog parks don't have visible vermin as a ratter wont stop until it can bring you its prey. So the majority of the time a fully actualised jack russell, appears just like any other fully social dog. Happy to be there, curious and meeting and greeting dogs in its pack and all new dogs with equal vigour.
How do you know a social dog?There are many 'give aways' but some of the best, are seeing the dogs body language as soon as it gets in the park, and what it does. They are often seen sniffing the park to get the newest information, then they concentrate on the dogs, unless a new dog is immediately near it, then its all about the new guy.
They will take a treat in front of other dogs. Not aggressive, not anxiously. They will just happily and politely take it from your hand. They are confident enough to know that I will treat them fairly and they will get equal treats.
They will stay within proximity of the pack. Sure they will go for mini explores but as we move on, and if I feel they are straying too far away, a single or double recall should bring them back and we move on.
They usually approach a dog with their head slightly bowed or to the side and go to sniff its glands. The other social dog reciprocates, they have done their 'handshake'.
A social dog may still try and dominate another dog, or play submissive to them, but they won't put themselves into too much of a compromising situation and if the other dog doesn't like it they will stop and find another thing to do. If they aren't doing that fast enough, they listen to my instruction to stop.
All of the things you read about in good dog behaviour books play out in the off lead dog park each time we visit. the complex interactions, the need to keep the pack whole and maybe dominate outsiders, the play and curiosity of truly social dogs.
People might say all of this is common sense, but you would be amazed at how often even regulars get major things wrong when it comes to their own dogs. Letting play go on for too long and into aggression or picking their dogs up or giving negative reinforcement.
When I walk I try and be in the moment and watchful of all of the dogs, to make sure they are all getting what they came for, or are at least learning from the other social dogs how to do that. I am usually a guide and observer and a 'nudger' for this to happen.
But seeing all of these dogs, even very social dogs develop further, be happier in their life in the park, and I am told as a consequence change their behaviour to being better at home, that is my main reward.