Social Behavior of Dogs at an Off-Leash Park in Newfoundland

A study of free-running dogs showed sex, age, and size influenced behavior.

Posted May 06, 2018

Dog parks can be ethologists' and citizen scientists' dream

I like dog parks and see them as wonderful places to collect detailed data on many aspects of behavior (for example social interaction patterns with other dogs and with humans, social organization and group formation, gender and age differences, and peeing and pooping) and activity patterns of dogs who are running off-leash. I understand that not everyone shares my view of dog parks, and in a recent essay called "Dog Parks Can Be Fun Places To Go, But The Dog Has To Agree" I noted that if a dog doesn't like going to a dog park, then don't take them there. It's very simple decision; if you enjoy going to a dog park, allow the dog to tell you whether they also enjoy it. Why go to a dog park if it doesn’t benefit the dog? As in all interactions between humans and dogs, we must take into account the dog's point of view -- what they want and need -- and listen to them very carefully.

One study called "Social behaviour of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) in a public off-leash dog park" by Melissa Howse, Rita Anderson, and Carolyn Walsh with which I'm quite familiar has just published, and it contains very useful information for future studies of dogs at these venues. This research essay isn't available online, but Ms. Howse's thesis titled "Exploring the Social Behaviour of Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris) in a Public Off- Leash Dog Park," on which this piece is based, is available for free. Here is a summary of this important study. Prior to this project, Ms. Howse notes that there had only been six similar studies, plus one conducted later at the same place, called Quidi Vidi Dog Park, by Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier and her colleagues, “Exploring the Dog Park: Relationships between Social Behaviours, Personality and Cortisol in Companion Dogs.” Thus, it's possible to compare the results of these two studies at the same location, but with different dogs.

Using focal animal sampling and video recordings of 220 dogs, of whom sixty-nine were included in her focal sample, Ms. Howse discovered that in the first four hundred seconds following entry into the dog park, “on average, focal dogs spent 50% of their time alone, nearly 40% with other dogs and 11% in other activities; time with dogs decreased and time alone increased over the first six minutes. Some behaviours were very frequent (i.e., more than 90% of focal dogs initiated and received snout-muzzle contact to the anogenital and head areas), while others were rare (i.e., 9% and 12% of focal dogs initiated and received lunge approaches, respectively). Dog density and focal dog age, sex, neuter status, and size were found to influence some behavioural variables.” (page 2; page references are to Ms. Howse's thesis)

All in all, Ms. Howse learned that sex and age influenced social behavior, and the dog’s size was also important. She found that older dogs generally spent more time alone, and older females spent the least amount of time interacting exclusively with other dogs compared to all other sex/age combinations. There was also a good deal of mutual chasing; males eliminated (peed and pooped) more than females; and older dogs eliminated more than younger dogs. Smaller dogs were also more likely than larger dogs to receive running/leaping approaches from other dogs.

Serious aggression was never observed

Consistent with other studies in dogs parks, Ms. Howse never observed serious aggression, observing that, “indeed, aggression in dog parks may be unlikely...due to the personality characteristics of dogs brought by owners to the dog park, owner intervention, and/or other factors. Thus, canine aggression may be better studied in other contexts where it is more likely to occur (i.e., multi-dog households, feral groups).” (page 100) In the published essay the researchers note that they also never observed serious aggression among 151 non-focal dogs. They also note that their observations are consistent with Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier and her colleague's findings at the same dog park and also with those of Shyan, Fortune, and King's observations at another dog park. My own observations also support these findings. 

Two studies at the same dog park yielded some different results

Another aspect of Ms. Howse’s study is that her data differ from those of another project conducted at the same dog park after she completed her observations. For example, Ms. Howse observed that play bows were initiated by 23 percent of the focal dogs within the first four hundred seconds of entry into the dog park. In the other study conducted at the same dog park, 51 percent of focal dogs used play bows over twenty minutes, a time period three times longer.

It wouldn’t be surprising that the rate at which dogs use play bows changes over the course of a visit to a dog park. This would be a wonderful topic for future studies. I wonder if dogs use play bows more when they first arrive at a dog park, when they try to play with an unfamiliar dog or with a dog they don’t know well, or when they first begin playing to establish a “play mood.” Then, when play is in the air, they may use bows less frequently. I discovered that play bows are more stereotyped when they are first used to initiate play than when they are used after dogs, coyotes, and wolves are already playing (for further discussion please see Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and references therein).

It's clear that when we begin talking about the behavior of the dog at the dog park, we soon see that we can’t make general statements with any reliability. Ms. Howse explained that some of the differences between her study and the other one done at the same dog park could be due to differences in observation durations, dog groupings, and definitions of dog-dog activities.

The stress a dog is experiencing may also be a factor in his or her behavior at dog parks, and this also is important to consider when comparing results among different studies. For example, in a study done at the same dog park as Ms. Howse’s study, Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier and her colleagues discovered that “cortisol was correlated with dog park visit frequency, such that dogs which visited the park least often had higher cortisol levels.” Cortisol is a measure of stress levels, and these data indicate that when we study the behavior of dogs at dog parks, we need to pay attention to how frequently they visit and possibly who’s already there. Of course, an individual dog’s familiarity with his or her surroundings as well as with the dogs who are there can also influence their behavior, including how they play and if they try to run the show or hang out on the periphery.

Being a naturalist at a dog park and becoming "fluent in dog" can be a win-win for dogs and their humans

Clearly, we need much more research into what dogs do at dog parks, with particular focus on individual differences. Ms. Howse concluded: “Given the number of questions generated by the present work, and that dog park studies remain scarce, it is obvious that observations of dogs in dog parks should be greatly increased." Dog parks hold much potential for answering questions about intraspecific sociality of companion dogs, which will help us to better understand dogs as complete and unique social beings, and possibly aid in our ability to protect or improve their welfare.” I couldn’t agree more.

Please stay tuned for discussions of future studies of dogs at dog parks. When people take the time to become amateur ethologists and citizen scientists they can acquire skills that can truly benefit the dogs with whom they share their lives. It's really fun and educational to become a naturalist at a dog park and to learn more about what dogs do when they're able to run freely with friends and other individuals, canine and human (for more discussion please see "New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior"). 

When we become "fluent in dog" and  come to know, understand, and appreciate the details of who a particular dog is -- what they want and need and how they interact with other dogs and humans -- it can enhance our relationship with them and it's a win-win for all. 

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