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Dog Parks and Bites: What You Need to Know

By: Tracy Hall

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Off-leash dog parks are great places to socialize your dog, meet other dog lovers, and enjoy a sunny day. But in just a few seconds, a peaceful afternoon can turn into a nightmare should two or more dogs begin to show aggression.

Just like humans have bad days, even the sweetest dog can become aggravated enough to snap. The right combination of stressful elements such as a strange or aggressive dog, not enough food or sleep, or even the desire to guard a favorite toy or person can result in dangerous behavior. Dogs can also be injured during playtime, particularly if one dog is much larger or more rambunctious than the other.

If your dog bites or is bitten by another dog, there are steps that you can take to protect yourself and the animal that you love.

Who's Responsible?

One of the first questions that many people have in the case of a dog bite is who is held responsible. In short, the consensus is that the owner of the dog that bites is considered responsible.

Nearly all dog parks are designated as "use at your own risk." This means that everyone who uses the park has read the park rules, agrees to abide by them, and takes responsibility for their dog's actions. In doing so the park is released from responsibility should a bite occur. According to these rules, if your dog bites another dog it is your responsibility to pay for treatment of the injured dog. Before entering a dog park, be sure to read the rules and restrictions associated with that park to remain informed.

Occasionally, an owner might inadvertently violate a park's rules by bringing in a dog that is not suited for the environment. This can include aggressive dogs, very young dogs, female dogs in heat, and dogs that have not been vaccinated.

Nearly all dog parks include a rule expressly forbidding aggressive dogs from using the facilities. The problem is that not all owners understand what constitutes an aggressive dog, or they downplay the behavior. In cases where incidents occur as a result of broken park rules, it is best to consult a lawyer as well as notify the organization that runs the park.

The First Minutes Matter

Whether your dog is the biter or the bitten, the first few minutes can be crucial in treating serious injuries and preventing further attacks.

If you see a dog bite occur, ensure that all involved dogs are separated and safely contained. Assess how much, if any, damage was done. Some minor scrapes and scratches can be treated at home; check out our veterinarians' tips on treating minor bite wounds here. If any animal involved shows significant damage such as excessive bleeding, visible bone or muscle tissue, or difficulty breathing or walking, immediately contact an emergency veterinarian. Do not keep an injured dog waiting in pain while you discuss details with another dog owner. You should remove your dog from the park immediately following any bite, whether minor or severe. A recently bitten dog may be frightened and defensive and the risk for a repeat incident is much higher if the dog remains in the area.

Keep It Calm

Many dog owners care deeply about their pets. Seeing them scared or injured can be extremely traumatic. Even the calmest person can become emotional when a beloved animal is involved. Remain polite when discussing the incident and avoid confrontational language. Remember that the health and safety of the animals comes first. If emotions are running high, don't be afraid to exchange information and discuss the incident after both parties have had time to calm down.

If Your Dog Bites

If you find that your dog has bitten another dog, check and secure your dog then seek out the bitten dog's owner. The owners can then exchange information and establish guidelines for contact (e.g. "I will take my dog to the veterinarian tomorrow morning and call you with the results"). Some dog parks encourage the completion of an incident report following any bites, so be aware that a witness or owner might choose to submit a record.

If Your Dog Is Bitten

After checking and securing your dog, return to the area and look for the other dog's owner. Unfortunately, some novice or irresponsible owners panic and flee before they can be contacted. If this is the case, witnesses might be able to help identify the owner and fill out an incident report.

If non-emergency medical attention is necessary for your dog, promptly make an appointment for an examination and keep detailed records of the charges, including itemized receipts.

Establish and stick to an agreement for communication with the other owner. In some cases you might find that medical care is unnecessary. If this is so, a short phone call to let the other owner know can relieve a large amount of stress. After all, they might be worrying about your dog too!

After the Bite

After the incident it's important to gather what information you can from the experience. If your dog was the biter, think about the circumstances that led up to the bite. Was your dog tired, hungry, hot, or thirsty? Was your dog playing with a much larger dog or with a toy? Analyzing the situation can help you better understand your dog and identify risky situations.

Thinking about what happened also can help you understand ways to make you dog's time at the park safer. For example, some herding dogs have a strong prey drive that can be triggered by smaller dogs. If your small dog was injured by a larger dog, consider limiting their play to designated "small dog" areas or those areas without a herding dog already in them.

Biting is a natural behavior in dogs, but one that has been actively discouraged for generations. No dog is 100% guaranteed not to bite, and accidents do happen. By being a responsible dog owner you can handle a scary situation with confidence and safety.

Always consult a legal professional with concerns about any legal issues surrounding your pet. Understand the rules and regulations for every dog park you visit, and you'll be prepared in the case of any incidents.

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