As a veteran vet of 20 years in the small animal ER, one of the most heartbreaking emergencies I've seen over the years goes by the name of "Big dog - Little dog" in medical slang. It's heartbreaking because not only does the bigger dog usually win, human bites (while they try to break up the fight) are common, and in most cases these fights arise out of a simple desire to take your dog for a walk.
Dogs love walks, and they love dog parks as well. And as our country gets more used to the idea of dog parks, more and more folks are taking their dogs - of all sizes - to dog parks to play. Most of the time, that end up with everyone having fun, but in some cases it ends in tragedy or near-tragedy for the little ones.
Little dogs have tendency to not look in the mirror and realize that they're small - they have big hearts, full of courage and sometimes take on a dog many times their size with disastrous results.
At first glance, it's hard to find fault with a dog park - it encourages dogs (and their humans) to go out, get some fresh air and sunshine, and strengthen the bond between them.
I have seen many trauma cases come from dog parks, and the victims are always smaller than the attackers. Yorkies and Bichons seemed to be the most common targets. The injuries, sometimes incurred in just a few seconds, can be horrendous. Many of the owners become victims themselves, bitten on the hand or arm as they break up the fight. CDC reports that 885,000 people get medical attention every year for dog bites.
Here are some tips and tricks to help you keep your pet (big or little) out of trouble at the dog park.
1. Know the players. I know it isn't always possible, but if you know the dispositions of the dogs your dog is playing with, you're that much less likely to have a fight.
2. Know the park. Are there areas where dogs could interact, and get injured - somewhere out of your line of sight? I case of a fight, is there an easy way out? Be ready for unplanned things, and be ready to act.
3. Be alert. This is the most important one of all - watch what your pet is doing and who they're doing it with. Be ready to jump in and break up a fight if you need to. Pepper spray or a big stick to pry a dog away from its victim can save lives. Dumping water on them works sometimes, but do what you can to avoid getting bitten. If you have a smaller dog and they're romping with a big dog, stay alert. If there's a dog you don't know who's showing interest in your small dog, pick them up and head for the exit. Don't toss your dog in the park and wander off - you're there to keep them safe from harm.
4. Look at alternatives. If you have a little dog that's not a safe place, a dog park may not be the best place to take your pet. Consider a play date at your house with friends with dogs of known temperament, or a walk with just you and your dog. Many dog parks have areas just for small dogs. If your local park doesn't have one, apply for funding to create a little-dogs-only zone.
Make sure your pet has good dog park manners by enrolling them in a training program, and ask your vet for tips on socialization and resources for training classes. If you own a big dog who has aggressive tendencies, don't go to the dog park and expose other dogs to risk. Socialization benefits everyone - less chance that little dogs will get bitten, less chance that big dogs will do the biting.
Most of these tips come down to logic, attention, and a sense of stewardship. Do everything that you can to keep your little dog from becoming a victim at the dog park. Your vet also has resources to keep your dog safe and has the knowledge and skills to help if they do become injured.
With pre-planning, common sense, and lot of alertness, you can ensure you never encounter trouble at the dog park, no matter what size your dog is - or what size he thinks he is.