by Erica Browne Grivas, Guest Blogger
January 20, 2016
Maybe that’s because my dog and I were almost raised by dog walkers, or at least trained. Here’s a little background: Nearly three years ago my husband and I decided to add a dog – our first- to our family. Somehow, although we were looking for an adolescent dog, we chose an eight-week old, just-spayed puppy from Seattle Humane. That’s another story.
We live in Tangletown, so Woodland Park is our “home” dog park. It’s only one acre – but it has a unique topography in that there is a hill in the center surrounded by a lower path. The tree cover of the maples at the top is perfect to shield all but the most serious downpour, and regular volunteer gravel raking parties keep away the mud. As soon as Mojo was fully vaccinated, we began going to Woodland Park five days a week, usually around 10:30 or 11:00 – primo dog walker time. By noon there may be three or more “packs” in the park, and depending on the energies and personalities involved, the space can feel spacious or crowded.
My perspective was: the more the merrier – more tails to chase, butts to sniff, and muzzles to test with sticks. By and large the packs kep t to themselves. Mojo loved it. He was a social butterfly, an equal opportunity player.
Of course he was also low dog on the totem pole, and there were a few incidents when he was ganged up on by a mini-pack, or schooled by a senior.
However, when these incidents occurred, I felt safer to be in the company of several “pros”, who had seen it all and then some. Mojo and I were both learning canine social cues, and here were translators at the ready.
It’s natural for new owners, especially with puppies, to be protective, but it’s equally important to know when to butt in and when to let the dogs work it out, which only comes with experience and observation. Dog parks offer a level of observation you would have to spend hours of class time to get. I learned to distinguish play growls from challenge growls, to pick a dog up from the hips in a fight, and when to distract Mojo if he was enjoying a chase more that the chasee. I regularly sought walkers’ advice on training techniques, local resources, and interactions.
Keeping to the same schedule, we ran into the same packs and walkers, which had two benefits. First, the dogs were a known quantity. That meant the packs already had their social order picked out, and Mojo knew where he fit in, which reduced squabbling.
Likewise, the walkers also knew Mojo. When Mojo became an adolescent, and began telling dogs “You’re not the boss of me,” one walker, Gwen Harper, would point out to me when Mojo was giving an appropriate rebuke and when he was pushing it. Learning to observe his and other dog’s body language as closely as possible has been the greatest addition to my toolkit as an owner. Online resources abound on this; here is one simple guide to dog gestures from tip to tail: http://www.tailsfromthelab.com/2012/08/29/learning-to-speak-dog-part-4-reading-a-dogs-body/
For input on the divide between walkers and the rest of us muggles, I contacted Charlotte Bontrager, steward of Woodland Park Off-Leash Area since 2012, who although she has no way of tracking attendance, says “I would bet that per square yard, we are the busiest OLA in Seattle. Asked about what are the main complaints she sees regarding walkers in an emailed Q & A, she wrote:
“The top complaints are: Dog walkers bring too many dogs, there’s no way they can control and look after them all. Dog walkers don’t clean up their dog waste. Dog walkers take advantage of the dog parks by using them for free as a place of business. They don’t give back or show up to work parties. All they do is stand together and talk while their dogs are left under-attended. Dog walkers are crowding the park with their big packs.”
A walker herself, she sees these as misperceptions.
“Also, I would like those who have judgments to realize that things are not always as they seem. Most dog walkers are very knowledgeable about the dogs in their pack, as well as dog behavior in general. Dogs very naturally stick together in a pack, making the management of multiple dogs possible. Most dog walkers are diligent about picking up poop, be it from their pack or from other dogs. Just because something looks unmanageable to one person, does not mean that this perception is accurate.
How many is too many?
My opinion is that dog walkers should bring no more than 10 dogs to the park at a time. I have seen some groups with as many as 17. I say 10 is a good number simply to reduce overcrowding.
I look at it this way: Many of us cannot fathom being a police officer and successfully managing the general public as they do. However, with the right experience and training, it is done. Most certainly there are some “bad seeds” in the dog walker line of work, but in general, we are not only capable, but conscientious and good at what we do.
She also thinks the divide is only going to get deeper.
“As for overcrowding, this issue will only become more prominent in time, dog walkers or not. Seattle has more dogs than children. Our city is growing rapidly. Each dog brought by a dog walker represents a tax-paying citizen or family that resides in Seattle who, without our support, can’t exercise and socialize their dog as much as their dog may need.”
The answer, Bontrager felt, was for “the community to view dog walkers as assets of the park.” To help make that happen, she established WOLF (Walkers are Off Leash Friends), which has dog walkers pay membership dues, work a required number of work parties, and follow best practices training techniques. Signage at the park door describes the funds and efforts contributed by walkers. Check out more on Woodland Park’s evolution here at Seattle Greenlaker.