Kids at dog runs and dog parks in Singapore: What the experts say and what dog owners experience

Dog runs and dog parks are supposed to be safe spaces for dogs to interact, say trainers and dog owners, but some owners and parents are making them less so.

A dog running freely in a dog run (left) and a mother and her two children playing with a Shiba Inu dog (Photos: Getty Images)
A dog running freely in a dog run (left) and a mother and her two children playing with a Shiba Inu dog (Photos: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — With a population of around 114,000 dogs in Singapore in 2023, it's not uncommon to see these furry companions getting their walk time on the streets, or running free in one of the several dog parks or dog runs around the island.

While a dog run or dog park can be a haven for these canines to roam free, it might not be as stress-free an experience for the owners, who often have to keep an eye out not just for their own pets, but also the other four-legged and two-legged visitors in the same space.

A Yahoo Southeast Asia reader, Hannah, shared about a recent incident involving her one-year-old mixed breed and a young girl at a dog run.

Her dog was peeing in a corner, when a child, being watched by parents who were at the dog run without a dog, started running towards it.

At this point, Hannah told the girl's father that the child going closer was not a good idea, as her rescue dog was sensitive to being approached while peeing. According to Hannah, the father made a "sort of acknowledging noise" but said nothing.

After peeing, her dog looked up and saw the girl running towards it, and then started to chase the girl. This caused the girl to turn back towards her father and start crying.

Before Hannah could distract her dog and call it back, it barked at them, which caused the girl to cry even more, and resulted in Hannah apologising afterwards.

This was not the only incident Hannah has experienced at dog runs in Singapore. In other instances, she has noticed older kids running while shouting and screaming around the dog run.

Dogs playing in a park (Photo: Getty Images)
Dogs playing in a park (Photo: Getty Images)

Aside from children, some dog owners have also expressed concerns over other dogs at dog runs.

Fiona Foo, from HOPE Dog Rescue, told Yahoo that at least 10 dog owners have stopped going to dog runs recently because of other canines.

"Very often, dog owners can be selfish or ignorant, or can't read their dog's body language. Their dogs may be fierce, aggressive, or have resource guarding issues like playing fetch or ball, and may attack another dog while playing," Foo said.

On her visit to dog runs, she has also seen dogs show their teeth. However, the owners would claim their dog is friendly, Foo said. Other less vigilant dog owners may also socialise with their fellow humans at the dog runs, and forget to watch their dogs.

"While you can get friendly dogs, you can also get very boisterous ones that charge towards a less confident dog, causing reactivity in that dog," said Li Bing, co-founder & chairman of animal welfare group Chained Dog Awareness.

"Generally we are not for dogs going to the dog park. It’s precisely a safety issue, not so much about kids, but likely dog fights that make dog parks not an ideal meeting place for dogs," Lee said.

Dog running towards young woman while playing fetch at a dog run (Photo: Getty Images)
Dog running towards young woman while playing fetch at a dog run (Photo: Getty Images)

How to train dogs to socialise at dog parks and dog runs

According to dog trainer and behaviour specialist Fraser Noble, appropriate socialisation can be helpful for dogs. This can be done by "gradual exposure to external stimulus with a positive outcome" through the use of one of three primary reinforcers, food, play, or affection.

"Exposure doesn't necessarily mean that the dog is going to see that stimulus as a positive. Without proper exposure, cortisol rises in the brain of the dog, rather than endorphins," Noble said.

"An example would be to take your dog and stand 25 to 30 metres away from a person or child. Every time your dog looks towards the person or child, give your dog affection, a toy to play with, or a treat," he said.

As you allow your dog to gradually get closer, it will start to understand exposure and see the person or child as a positive, he added. Noble, who has three dogs and a 3-year-old daughter, is also aware that children can be unpredictable.

"It's unrealistic to think that a dog would be exposed and assume it is safe. Humans are the ones with greater cognitive ability. As such, we need to be mindful of what's going on."

At a dog run, he recommends dog owners to find children that are calm and able to be around dogs.

"Allow your dog to go up to sniff the child, and then call your dog away and reward it. Build it up to the point where children can run up to your dog and it is okay with it. The same can be applied to bicycles, trucks, or joggers."

A fearful dog (left) and a dog in defensive stance (Photos: Getty Images)
A fearful dog (left) and a dog in defensive stance (Photos: Getty Images)

Owners can also help their dogs disengage in situations, said Noble.

If a dog is unable to disengage from a child because it is scared, more socialisation, desensitisation and counter conditioning needs to be done. Desensitisation is to help a dog desensitise from particular stimuli, while counter conditioning is to create a positive outcome to exposure, said Noble.

"We need to make sure that the dog is doing something because it has been taught to do so. If your dog makes an incorrect decision, it can then realise that when you say 'leave it' or 'come', what you are saying is for its best benefit. It will then disengage and come back to you."

"What you really want is a dog you can communicate with, and have it behave in an appropriate manner," he said.

Meanwhile, dog trainer June Lim thinks owners should know how to read their dogs' body language and interactions with people. This can help them judge whether their dogs are good around people or children.

"Owners can be proactive in managing their dogs. If you notice a group of kids coming, and know your dog is not good around children, leash up your dog for a few minutes to avoid accidents from happening or your dog from being aroused," she said.

If the children are overwhelming for your dog, it would be better to leave the dog park, she added.

Separately, Lim pointed out that dog runs can be intimidating for new dogs. She has noticed dogs dashing towards and gathering around a new dog at the entrance of dog runs.

To prevent this, she suggests dog owners stop their dog from dashing towards a new dog, and let it warm up to the new environment before approaching other dogs.

Furthermore, Lim thinks smaller group settings allow for better dog management.

Families without dogs discouraged from bringing kids to dog runs and dog parks

Still, both Noble and Lim advise against families without dogs from bringing their children to dog runs.

"They're hoping that the children can have fun with the dogs. I think that is quite dangerous," said Lim.

"A dog park is not a playground for children. It's actually unfair for parents, especially if they don't have a dog, to take their kids to the dog park. The space is supposed to be a safe space for dogs to interact," said Noble.

A girl playing with a Shiba Inu dog in the park (Photo: Getty Images)
A girl playing with a Shiba Inu dog in the park (Photo: Getty Images)

For parents intending to bring their kids to a dog run, Noble suggests educating their children on how to behave appropriately around dogs. Kids should avoid getting overly excited, patting, or running up to dogs without asking, he said.

If I saw you in the street and ran up to you, grabbed you and picked you up for a hug, would that be appropriate behaviour? No. So why do we think dogs are going to think any different?Dog trainer and behavioural specialist Fraser Noble

"Children have got to understand that they shouldn't be the ones to approach the dog. Only once the owner has said it's okay, should the child approach the dog," he said.

What signs you should look out for in dogs at a dog park or dog run

Children should only be approaching dogs that are comfortable to interact, said Noble. Signs of negative body language from a dog include barking, standing hair or hackles on it's back or the end of its tail, shallow brief rapid wags from a high tail, or a tucked tail.

"(These signs would mean the dog) is either overly excited, over aroused or nervous, and thus not suitable for child interaction," Noble said.

Additionally, Lim shared other telltale signs of stress in dogs, including a whale eye - where it shows the white part of its eyes - ears sticking to back, shivering, or panting.

For parents who bring kids to a dog run, Lim recommends supervising their child's interaction with dogs proactively, and discourages those who have no experience with dogs from bringing their kids to these places.

She has seen instances of children chasing or being chased by unleashed dogs at dog runs, and advises that kids should avoid running towards dogs, screaming or any sudden movements.

Children should also not approach dogs that are resting, eating, drinking water or playing, as it may trigger their guard response over resources like food and toys.

"Children may be experienced in handling their own dogs, but it doesn't mean all dogs behave in the same manner. We should always encourage children to respect space," Lim said.

To address these issues, Lim proposes creating separate areas within dog runs, one for families with dogs but no children, and another for dogs and children to interact.

One example is the dog run at Bishan Park, which has two areas of different sizes, said Lim.

"There are some dogs that are not good around children, but they should not be deprived from going to dog runs," Lim said. "I think it is worthwhile to have both groups of people, the owners and parents to be respectful of each other's space. That's how we can actually coexist and use the dog run effectively."

Posters or banners can also be put up to educate the public on how to read the body language of dogs to prevent mishaps, added Lim.

Screen grab of Bishan Park dog run on Google Street View (Photo: Google)
Screen grab of Bishan Park dog run on Google Street View (Photo: Google)

Additionally, Lim wanted to debunk the myth of stretching out your hands for a dog to sniff.

"Dogs have a very good sense of smell. They can sniff you from a distance. By putting out your hands, a dog may perceive you are reaching out, and can get startled and become very defensive."

"By standing still like a tree, the dog can approach at its own comfort. Every dog's comfortable distance is different. Some can come as close as one metre, and others prefer to stay five metres away."

Lim added that some dogs may find eye contact intimidating or threatening.

When assessing a dog's comfort level with interaction, Lim suggested a 'consent test', in which one can gently pat the dog for two seconds before letting go.

"If the dog walks away, respect the dog and let it move on. If it nudges you or shows body language for more attention, you can pat it for another two seconds. Don't overstretch the threshold."

Additionally, a dog lying down with its belly up may not necessarily want to be approached, patted, or rubbed on the belly. It could be an indicator to keep your distance, said Lim.

For Hannah, dog runs are still a "great place for dogs to socialise, exercise and burn off excess energy", but she said more consideration, patience and understanding would go a long way to keep dog runs safe for everyone.

"While I appreciate that parents may have good intentions in exposing their kids to dogs, I think they need to know that dog runs are not petting zoos. They themselves should know how to behave around dogs, and (they) should also teach their kids beforehand how to behave," said Hannah.

"It's really inviting unnecessary trouble, and if anything negative happens it is usually the dog, the one without a voice, who gets blamed," Hannah said.

Overhead view of dog rolling on back belly up on green grass (Photo: Getty Images)
Overhead view of dog rolling on back belly up on green grass (Photo: Getty Images)

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