By Jim Schutze
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"And she goes, 'It's a public park; I can be in here!'" Tinning says. "I said, 'OK. Do you see all of those Labs? What do you think is going to happen to your baby when they get her scent?' All the color drained out of her face, and she practically ran out of the park. To me, that's common sense."
If public dog parks get a bad rap for anything, though, it's more for fighting than for breeding issues—and discussions about dog fights rarely go far without a mention of pit bulls. This February, a fight between a pit bull mix and an Australian shepherd at the Mockingbird Point Dog Park only heightened the controversy. When the dogs began to fight, the owner of the shepherd pulled out a switchblade to separate them; instead he accidentally stabbed the pit bull's owner in the face. The shepherd's owner argued that he was merely defending his dog, and the pit bull's owner did not press charges. But when another fight involving a pit bull mix broke out at Unleashed just two days after its unofficial opening, the Acrees' insurance company required them to ban pit bulls altogether.
As a dog park regular, Jim Christian has his own share of war stories, and a lot of them involve pit bulls.
"The city has problems with pit bulls," Christian says, as the subject of one morning discussion returns, inevitably, to dogs. "It's people throwing testosterone fits and using their dogs to do it. Any dog will go off. The problem is, pit bulls are built to do more damage," he says.
"The owners are the problem," Pelton-Shapiro agrees. "There used to be a guy with two pit bulls. He'd come in and brag that it had been a week since his female had killed another dog."
To Arrington, the animal behaviorist, banning one breed won't solve any problems.
"I don't think you could say certain breeds—any more than you could say certain races of humans—are more prone to killing or fighting," Arrington says. "I don't like to talk breeds because their DNA is all the same. They look different, [but] they're all still dogs."
And any dog can get in an argument, she adds—"just like children. Usually there's an object involved—a ball, a toy, a chewy. Generally it's going to be a little spat over a prized object, and they'll [snarl] and then it's over."
That's not to say that things can't get ugly. Just recently, on a crowded Saturday at the dog park, Christian and his three dogs were minding their own business when a pit bull came up to Luke and challenged him.
"So Luke starts fighting her, because he's got to protect his pack," Christian explains. "Well, I wasn't going to pull her off, because I got 17 stitches in my hand from another pit bull earlier this year. So I pulled Luke off, and the best I could do is just kind of kick the pit bull away."
As for the other owner, "He was just watching," Christian recalls, shaking his head. "He said, 'They're dogs! Let 'em fight it out!'" Christian wasn't inclined to do so, but it was worth asking Arrington: What should an owner do in such a situation?
"You could put the word 'never' in capital letters: NEVER let them fight it out," Arrington says. "Not at a dog park. Letting them fight it out could mean the death of one of them." The solution, she says, is to avoid fights by training dogs appropriately and banning those individual dogs that are aggressive.
While the Mockingbird Point park does post a list of rules, one of which bars aggressive dogs and requires any dogs exhibiting aggression to leave the park, there is little enforcement in the dog park, aside from the efforts of dog park regulars such as Christian, Pelton-Shapiro and Tinning.
Unleashed now requires owners to fill out a questionnaire about their dogs' behavior and, if they're leaving a dog for day care, submit their pets to a brief behavioral exam of the dog's temperament.
"We can kind of tell when they come in the gate," Kelly Acree says. "You just start watching basic temperaments, which change from minute to minute in many cases, and keeping an eye on how they're all interacting together: Are they playing fair? Is one cornering another?" So far, adds Kelly, Unleashed hasn't had to turn away any dogs. Not so in the public dog park.
"There are those jerks out there who bring a dog that shouldn't be around any other dogs," Tinning admits. "You have to be willing to say, 'You need to leave,' or [call] the police or animal control. It doesn't happen very often, but it happens."----
More often than not, the social interaction that occurs at a dog park is positive—though dogs aren't the only species socializing. Tinning says that once the park at Mockingbird Point became official, people started coming because they just enjoyed the whole dog park experience.