Alaska Dog Works

Dog Parks vs. Dog Sports? You Decide

By Robert Forto

I wrote this article a few years ago when we lived in Denver but it very much applies here in Alaska or anywhere where dogs mingle. As you will read, you will learn about our one-of-a-kind Growl Class. If there is a need for that here we will offer it.


At my training center, Alaska Dog Works and in my behavioral practice most of the problems we face are from dogs not getting enough or dogs getting into “trouble” while at the dog park. For those of you that read my articles you will know that I do not like dog parks. They are an ill-conceived idea by city planners that do not know anything about canine behavior.

Of course some do it right, like the nation’s only indoor dog park in Dallas, TX, Unleashed. They have trainers on staff and run the park more like a dog daycare rather than a canine free-for-all. But these conciseness people are few and far between.

Just this past month, The Association for Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) ran an article on this very issue; Inspiring Dog Owners Into Dog Sports and Out of Dog Parks (Sue Sternberg pg. 10-11). I just want to expound on that article for pet owners than may not have access the magazine.

The Dog Park Madness

Almost daily I get a call or an email from someone telling me about the problems they have with their dog because they think he is aggressive, or a story about how their dog was attacked when they were on walks or running loose at a local dog park. I have even addressed this problem and have a class that meets on Saturdays. I call it my Growl Class. You would be surprised of how many people have signed up for it. Not just owners with Colorado’s classified banned breeds. We’ve had everything from miniature poodles to Old English sheep dogs.

People ask me how to deal with overly aggressive dogs that belong to other owners. They ask me to show them how to handle their dog so that they can “teach” someone at the dog park how to handle their dogs. They ask me questions about their own dog not trying to stick up for or defend themselves when they are approached by an aggressive dog. Many people have watched television shows and they were told that the dogs need to work it out for themselves. I say–so far from the truth!

The concept of dog parks was well intended but not a researched enough idea by the local, state, and city governments. The idea of a park is to bring people and families closer together-not to build internal strife and conflict that sometimes resembles doggie gang warfare! Many dog parks allow dogs to run off-leash in lush acreage of surrounding utopia–what a disaster. The main problem stems from people who just do not understand canine pack structure. The City Council’s that set up these open space wonderlands are politician’s not canine handlers–they should have consulted an expert. What it equals is that the dogs in these parks are out of control. Too often as well, the owners are completely oblivious as to what their dog is doing at the dog park. The owners are often observed using cell phones or doing other things that distract them from monitoring their own dogs’ actions.

The average dog owner does not take the time to understand, much less install, pack structure. They do not know how strong the pack instincts are in their family pets. These drives can, and often do, click into high gear when a dog is taken into a park with strange dogs. I meet with people every day that come into my training center and they say that this dog is the alpha dog because he is the male, or he is older, or he is stronger, or he is my favorite. Canine pack behavior is a very complex dynamic that should not be under-estimated. I spent the better part of my career studying pack structure with a team of thirty-five Siberian husky sled dogs. I lived and slept with these dogs. I became a part of their pack. I learned many life lessons from them. The most important one: do not under estimate at dog’s potential-ever.

When a new dog comes into a park that other dogs visit every day the new visitor is often seen as an intruder into “the personal territory” of the regular visitor. More often than not they are not seen as a new found friend. This often leads to either territorial aggression, dominance aggression or fear aggression. Instincts kick in and pandemonium develops. Owners are running and screaming towards their dogs, a fight breaks out and the utopia is now in chaos. Someone inevitably gets hurt.


When a group of dogs, three or more, are allowed to run together in an area where there are no strong pack leaders (human pack leaders), they instinctively try to establish a rank order, or pecking order. If there are several dogs that want to assume a certain rank within this new pack there are often problems. Too often, this results in dog fights to determine what rank a dog will assume.

It is a mistake to assume that every dog in the park is a well-mannered, well-trained pet. Just because its playing with other dogs does not mean that it will play with your dog. The issue of rank has already been settled with these other dogs and the game may be going according to their rules. Your dog will not know the rules and can easily get into trouble. Too often when a fight breaks out between your dog and the leader of this pack the other dogs in the pack will also jump in and go after your dog.

The vast majority of dogs do not want to be pack leaders. They are perfectly happy with their owners assuming the position of leader. As such these dogs expect their pack leader–their owner– to protect them. That’s why these dogs will run to their owner when they fell threatened by another dog. When an owner does not protect his dog the dog is in conflict and loses confidence. When the owner ignores the perceived threat their dogs often move into fight or flight.

When you stop to think about it, normal people would never expect their young children to fight adults that were threatening their home. So why do people expect their young dogs to show aggression to older dogs? In most cases, the owners simply lack the understanding of pack drive and dog training. People get caught in the trap of thinking they have a German Shepherd from working police bloodlines and it should be tough!! Well, it doesn’t work that way.

When new owners assume the position of pack leader and they do everything right when their pup is young the dog will grow up to be a confident adult dog. When owners drop the pack structure ball their dogs grow up to be dogs with aggressive issues (either overly aggressive or fearful). This is the primary focus of my work and why my aggression management classes are so successful. Canine training is not about training the dog. It is about educating the owner. I have been known to say that dog training is 90% people and 10% dog. I wholeheartedly believe that. I have conducted many seminars called “Leader of the Pack” and there is a weekly show on cable that promotes “Be a Pack Leader.” But do you really know what that means? Do you know how much work, how much time and energy, how much of a commitment it is going to take to give you that empowerment? Being a pack leader to your dog can not, and should not, be compartmentalized in a 30-minute program where the magic of television makes everything alright.

Dog fights are scary business. They could literally mean life and death. I am sure you have heard the horror stories. Is this something that you are ready for? I have been bit hundreds of times–often by the cutest dogs in the neighborhood. I have respect for all dogs. And I make it my business to earn theirs. Aggressive dogs need to be dealt with by a professional. Not an arm-chair quarterback at a dog park shouting “leave it!” because they read a book, or watched a show or attended a chain store puppy class.

My Growl Class is a course out of necessity. People love their dogs and they love the outdoors. But dog parks are a plethora of chaos. Research shows that three out of four dogs are not trained. My definition of training has always been: “Control for you, routine for your dog”. If you have a dog that needs work with aggression. If you would like to better understand canine pack structure or if you are tired of your dog getting into fights at the dog park give me a call and we’ll talk about it.

Canine Sports

At Alaska Dog Works we pride ourselves in being the premiere canine training center in the region that specializes in canine sports and working dogs. I have been involved in almost all canine sports at one time or another in my 19-year career in working with dogs. I have been a professional musher, I finished three Siberians in conformation (dog shows) and two as Obedience Trial Champions. I have competed in protection trials and taught many people how to dog sled, scooter and skijor. What does this all mean? It means at Alaska Dog Works we can teach you and your dog the true meaning of intrinsic drives and proper exercise and to many dogs the thought of having a “job” to do is reason to celebrate!

As trainers we need to think outside the box a bit and encourage people to try new things with their dogs. In my opinion the dog park should be an option of last resort. What happened to the days of just walking your dog around the block a few times? Instead people are paying thousands of dollars at a doggie daycare because they feel guilty to leave their dog home alone while their child is a latch key kid with a cell phone with mom and dad calling on them every ten minutes to see if they are okay. Insanity.

In fact, most sports that you can participate in with your dog are relatively inexpensive, often less than a cup gourmet coffee a day, if not free.

Where do you go? Alaska Dog Works of course. But if you are outside of the Rocky Mountain Region you may want to seek out a training center that offers canine sports classes like agility or competition obedience, tracking or even canine freestyle (dancing with your dog). There is even an organization called Dog Scouts that is like boy/girl scouts for dogs! In the Dog Scouts you and your dog work toward earning merit badges in a variety of sports and activities while promoting good dog training and proper behavior. Dog Scouts even has a camp that you can attend with your dog in Michigan, I think it is.

Give the Dog a Bone

As with any physical activity, the reward has to outweigh the work. Think about it. Is working out at the gym that fun? No. I hate it but the reward of losing weight and training for the Iditarod and feeling good about myself makes me go to the gym every other day.

Canine sports are no different. Once you find a sport that you and your dog enjoy it is easy to get hooked. What a better way to build friendship with fellow dog owners, keep your dog exercised physical and mental fit, and doing something that you enjoy.

“It’s a tough time to be dog. There is so much less access to open spaces, off-leash exercise in secluded rural land, owners have less time, busier schedules and a lot less financial freedom,” says Sternberg.

When an owner and their dog get hooked on to something they love and they excel at this will build a lifetime of bonding, training and community with your dog. This will not only help you and your dog but the community in which you live.

The time is now! Get out and do something with your dog and leave the gourmet coffee to the people that don’t have a dog!

If you would like to find out more about canine sports training or having one of the best trained dogs in the world, contact us at Alaska Dog Works at 907-841-1603.


Alaska Dog Works is a premiere dog training company located in Willow, Alaska. We train all over the Anchorage, Mat-Su Valley and anywhere on the road system. If you live in rural Alaska we have worked with many clients that fly their dogs to us for training and we can deliver your pet back home after camp. Give us a call today at 907-841-1603.