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Article from The Cape Cod Chronicle: Dogs, And Owners, Learn Dog Park Behavior In Brewster

July 5, 2023

By: Debra Lawless

Shortly after 4 p.m. on a hot, sunny afternoon, seven dogs and 15 dog parents stand in a large semi-circle in the half-acre “small dog area” of the Brewster Dog Park.

Facing them is Certified Professional Dog Trainer Rick Alto. Alto, a Brewster native, is a member of the park’s board of directors. This is the inaugural one-hour Friends of Brewster Dog Park Educational Workshop, and the topic is navigating a day in the park — safely. All “well-socialized” dogs were invited to the free event.

One thing to remember from the start: Not every dog is an off-leash “dog park dog.”

Earlier, while greeting participants near the check-in desk Alto says, “education and safety are my most important things. That’s why I’m involved.” For 36 years Alto worked as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service. After he retired, he opened ExFed Dog Training in Brewster. He trains, boards and consults on canine behavior and offers guidance on health and wellness.

Jane Derman of Dennis is here with Sandy Beach, a “mutt from Alabama” who is a mix of cattle dog, dachshund, chihuahua and more. “She’s a sweetheart,” Derman says. Derman brings Sandy Beach to the park in the summer when the town’s beaches are closed to dogs. “She loves to run around.”

The dogs here today range from large to tiny. Normally, this particular mix of dogs would not get acquainted because this area is restricted to dogs under 30 pounds. In the fenced acre adjacent to this, for the 30-plus pounders, a lone Siberian husky, a pet of one of the dog park volunteers, observes the proceedings.

Alto explains that if a small dog plays with a pack of larger dogs, something called “predatory drift” might occur. A large dog might see the smaller dog as prey, and grab, shake and kill the smaller dog. “It’s not personal,” he adds. “But it’s a thing.” That’s why dogs are normally segregated by weight here.

And dogs in the park cannot be walked on leashes because a leashed dog cannot flee a situation and might instead opt to fight it out. “The dog park is large. If they don’t like something going on, they can get away,” Alto says, if they’re off-leash.

Dogs must wear their proof-of-rabies vaccination tags in case a skirmish or fight breaks out and someone’s skin is broken.

Alto suggests bringing training treats such as Zuke’s, which are each the size of a pencil eraser, and doling them out as reinforcements for good behavior.

As Alto speaks, one dog gnaws a small piece of mulch. Another, staring into the wooded area beyond the dog park fence, lets out a big “woof.” A second dog echoes the bark into the woods, but it remains unclear what they spotted. When Alto blasts an air horn, 14 canine and many more human eyes focus on him. Because it grabs attention, an air horn can be an effective way to break up a dog fight and the park is equipped with four for emergency use.

Alto reads dogs’ body language. A growl is not necessarily bad, and a tail wag could mean many things. A “soft wag” is okay, while a slow wag might be a warning sign of aggression. A dog with its tail down and ears back is stressed.

Talk about dogs, and the conversation is eventually going to get a little bit indelicate, even gamy.

Take “butt sniffing.” “A quick sniff, that’s normal,” Alto says. Something more prolonged is aggressive. Proper etiquette calls for allowing your dog to take that quick sniff, and then saying, “let’s go.”

A woman asks about her Havanese’s humping behavior. Alto says that 99 percent of the time it’s not sexual but rather an attempt to dominate another dog.

After about half an hour, Alto shifts to what he calls “open field socialization.” He tells the participants to walk their dogs counterclockwise along the asphalt path ringing the area, keeping six feet between themselves and the next pair. The group begins its march, and at a certain point Alto, who stands in the center of the field scanning for any signs of “negative body language,” tells everyone to unleash their dogs at the same time.

At this point one dog, now off-leash, relieves itself against a tree. Three dogs head for the sandlot in the center of the area and begin to wrangle.

“This is normal play,” Alto says, observing them. “Teeth are being used.” Sandy Beach races over and digs.

Laura Downing and Zipper are here today from Wilton, Conn., visiting Downing’s father in Chatham. Zipper is an American field golden retriever with a reddish coat. While Zipper does well in dog parks, Downing doesn’t usually go to them because they can be “problematic.” But for Downing and Zipper, this park is an exception.

“This one is so well staffed with docents and volunteers I feel safe,” she said. Also, “I love the water features.”

The Brewster Dog Park at 631 Harwich Rd., just behind the Brewster Police Station, was years in the making and opened on May 21, 2022. Stealing a tagline from Disneyland, it bills itself as “the happiest place on Cape Cod.” It is handicap-accessible, has sand play mounds, dog watering stations, misting fire hydrants and more. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk.

Link to article on Cape Cod Chronicle website:

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