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Wallflower at the Dog Park

Oscar is a Lab Shepherd mix, 4 years old, and recently adopted by a young and very earnest couple.

No one knows, of course, what Oscar’s back story is. He was found wandering too close to the Northway and brought to the shelter, where he languished for several months. His kennel demeanor was quiet and withdrawn, not exactly what most potential adopters would find engaging. When people approached his cage, he turned his head so as not to see or be seen by them.

The young couple had asked to spend some time with Oscar in the small room set aside at the shelter for such meetings. It didn’t take long for Oscar to relax in their presence, wag his tail and thoroughly enjoy their attention. He rubbed up against their legs like a cat, even flipping over for a belly rub, long legs kicking in ecstasy. The couple were completely smitten, and vice versa.

At home, they made it their mission to help Oscar become an all around happy dog. They envisioned him greeting guests with enthusiasm, engaging excitedly with the neighborhood dogs, making friends at doggie day care, and have a good old time at the dog park.

Despite their admirable goals, Oscar, being Oscar, was not capable of doing any of those things.

He hid in the bedroom when company arrived. He was a reluctant leash walker. At the sight of another dog on the street, his tail tucked under and he pulled toward home. At day care, he made a beeline for the time out crate and hung around there despite the staff’s attempts to get him out to play with the other dogs.

Oscar’s first dog park visit was a disaster. He refused to get out of the car. When he was cajoled to at least walk around the enclosure, he did so quickly and furtively, then stood with his owners while the other dogs chased each other in play.

Oscar’s owners despaired. They felt Oscar was missing important social elements in his life. They were determined to get him trained to accept, and eventually, want to be a party animal, happy to be with humans and dogs alike.

Here’s the thing: yes, Oscar could be trained to sit and stay when introduced to new people. He could learn to walk past other dogs without trying to disappear. But doggie day care? A dog park? Why subject him to situations that were obviously distressing to him?

Oscar’s temperament, his essential personality, was reserved and cautious. He felt most comfortable with his little family and their daily routines. His idea of happiness was to be with his people, playing a canine version of soccer in the yard, hanging out at their feet in the evening while they watched TV. He loved finding the sunny spot on the kitchen floor and snoozing the day away there, getting up to have a drink of water and move to a new spot as the daylight traveled the room.

I equated Oscar to the person who avoids cocktail parties and large gatherings. The noise, the pressure to interact, the unpredictability, is just too much for a sensitive soul.

I advised Oscar’s owners to have more realistic goals for their dog. We could help him gain confidence, and the ability to be in uncomfortable situations without trying to run away. But it was clear that Oscar would be happiest at home, not at doggie day care, and most definitely, not at the dog park.

Not all dogs desire the company of other dogs, nor do they need to. Its so much more important that dogs like Oscar enjoy their human family first, and that includes relatives, friends and other visitors.

Just because there is a dog park in your community, does not mean that your dog belongs there. Don’t feel guilty, or that you are depriving your dog if you don’t bring him there. For more information about the pitfalls, and the benefits, of dog parks, click here.




"When our latest rescue started to nip people, we decided to give Rachel a try before making him a dog that would have to be in a crate when people visited. Unbelievable--one two hour session later, the transformation was amazing. Rachel is a true dog behaviorist--she understands why dogs do what they do and, most importantly, how to change that behavior."

"Rachel was very patient in explaining techniques. I was amazed to see my 3 year old Lab finally walk with a loose leash. I have wanted to have my dog walk without a prong collar. The voice command Rachel taught me worked. I have already recommended Rachel - my trainer put me at ease when I was anxious about this new experience!"

"It was as if we had a different dog at the end of the session! Rachel was thorough, professional, and personable. Not only was Rachel incredibly organized and thoughtful, she provided a DVD for my children to watch about how to act with dogs. She made us feel comfortable and encouraged!"


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