Six Steps for Avoiding Conflicts at the Dog Park
By Sam Desmond***
We’ve all been there as a pet parent, especially if you bring Fido to the dog park. Someone has accused your beloved fur baby of bad behavior and you’re foaming at the mouth in defense. The insults come and you’ve lost control of the situation. The exact opposite of your intentions has now happened—you’ve turned the social scene your dog whimpers in the car for into a place of contention and anxiety.
Debra Hamilton, a former Westchester litigator who now practices mediation and conflict resolution for people in disputes over animals and is the founder of Hamilton Law & Mediation in Armonk, NY, gave an informative and effective presentation to LI-DOG’s November 16, 2017 meeting at the Plainview Public Library on how to avoid fruitless, confrontational episodes with fellow dog park attendees, neighbors, and even those soulless wonders who ‘just don’t like dogs’.
The key mantra of Hamilton’s presentation was to remember that our gifted, intuitive dogs will always feed off our energy and even if it means, “being right second,” we need to remain calm and act in their best interest. Drawing from her experience with contention, diametrically opposed positions, and fierce, maternal love as a PTA Vice President, Hamilton has devised tools and methodologies for keeping your best paw forward during heated situations involving our canine kids.
Two handy, mnemonic terms to remember in addressing such situations are “AKA” and “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” AKA stands for Address the Problem; Keep the Relationship; Appreciate and Acknowledge the Other Party. Together, these two terms make six easy steps for addressing conflicts and resolving issues over animals at the dog park, in your neighborhood, and even within your family!
- Address the Problem.
Often our knee-jerk response to a complaint about our dog is: “Are you kidding me? Learn about dog behavior!” or “That person’s just a psychopath!” Instead, Hamilton advises focusing on the problem, not the person. Use inclusive terms like “our dogs” as in “we need to talk about our dogs for their safety,” because “your” or “my” instantly shuts off receptive listening in both parties. Also, instead of making accusations, ask questions and ask for more information. For example, instead of starting with “Your dog is vicious,” ask “What happened? Did you see him or her snap or seem to bite?”
- Keep the Relationship
Of course you don’t want to have to stop coming to the dog park or have a neighbor you have to avoid every time you get the newspaper. Hamilton reminds us “not to kill the messenger” and to learn to talk to someone who doesn’t agree with you. For example, genuinely see the other person as an individual with needs and/or someone who also loves their dog. For example, “I can tell you love your dog very much and are concerned for his or her safety.” Or for a neighbor complaining about your dog, “I understand you work nights and to be awoken by a dog barking in the early morning is disruptive to your sleep.”
- Appreciate and Acknowledge the Other Party.
Appreciate and acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Appreciation does not equal agreement, Hamilton noted. To appreciate the other person’s feelings, your go-to phrase should be, “Please tell me more.” Often the opportunity to speak allows the other person to calm down enough to actually talk. Also, when responding, don’t start with “no” or “but” but rather, “Yes, I can see how you might interpret that behavior to be predatory and why it’s alarming to you. My dog’s breed is high energy and very playful as a result.” The key is to avoid adding fuel to the fire by saying things you will regret later. “Sometimes it’s okay to be right second,” said Hamilton.
Stop talking. Just listen. This shifts the momentum of the conflict. Often people run themselves out of anger when they are allowed to expel all their grievances. Plus, if there’s no aggression to respond to, the other person may have to acknowledge the overreaction they’re guilty of. And you look like the better person to onlookers (i.e. the pack supports you!) Plus, listen for solutions and be solution-oriented.
Drop the need to be right first. Focus on the bigger picture, which is the well-being of your dog. Again, being right second is okay, said Hamilton.
Let criticisms roll off your back the way your beloved fur baby does. Go with what’s being presented to you and channel it back to positivity. Then, choose the time to respond. Do not respond in the moment and regret what you said later, said Hamilton. It’s all about reining in your emotions, learning how to ask questions and listening, she said.
Socialization is quite the adventure for everyone, but we can hedge the arguments by being present with our dogs (i.e. don’t be on your phone at the dog park!) and acknowledging (unbelievable as it is) that not everyone will automatically see Fido as the loving mush you know him to be.
For more tools and techniques for dealing with disputes over animals, pick up a copy of Hamilton’s book Nipped in the Bud, Not the Butt: How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts over Animals, available on Amazon.
If you follow Hamilton’s suggestions, you’ll likely end up with better relationships and fewer conflicts over your fur baby!
***Sam Desmond is editor-in-chief of arts magazine HiConcept, a features writer for The Bayport-Blue Point Gazette and The Sayville Gazette, and an editorial contributor to LI-DOG. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 917/532-9460.