Obedience training is not just for dogs
What kind of ‘dog person’ are you; on-lead or off? It’s a question you may have to ask yourself if you’re taking your pooch for a walk in Darebin Parklands, in Melbourne’s North East. The parklands offer a beautiful designated off-lead area for dogs but for a stroll in the rest of the park, dog walkers need to keep their dogs on the lead.
However, not all do so and in an ever-growing city, competition for space and open parkland means overlapping uses and behaviours can cause conflict when it comes to dogs running free (or running into a cyclist).
Lena Jungbluth, a BehaviourWorks researcher, has recently completed a project to better understand why dog walkers do or don’t stick to the leashing rules. The project aimed to help park management design the most appropriate intervention to reduce the number of dogs off the lead in the designated on-lead area in the parklands.
Interviews were conducted with dog walkers to find out what behavioural influences were at play here.
Dog walkers were interviewed in the on-lead area of the parklands at peak dog-walking times; weekdays in the evenings and weekends in the mornings.
Lena reports that while most dog walkers were helpful and genuinely keen to help, tensions exist between perceived positive and negative outcomes of keeping “Fido” on or off the lead. While many realise keeping their dogs leashed is beneficial for other park users and wildlife, they also want their dogs to exercise, play and explore.
If the off-lead area provides all the required freedom for dogs without impacting on others, what’s going on with dog walkers who let their dogs off the lead in the on-lead area?
While many different beliefs were reported, two that were shared frequently by this group were that they believe their dogs didn’t get enough exercise and that their own dog can be trusted and simply does not pose a risk off the lead.
So, like most behaviour change challenges, it’s complicated.Lena also collected some formative insights about whether dog walkers who let their dogs off the lead in on-lead areas did so without thinking (like a habit). This didn’t appear to be the case (they typically “scoped the situation” before letting their dog off the lead), suggesting there is an opportunity to intervene on-site to influence their decision-making.
A range of possible interventions were identified, based on what Lena learned from the dog walkers themselves. Examples include persuading dog owners of the value of protecting other visitors and flora and fauna of the parklands, social norming messages, training the dogs not to pull on the lead, incentives like dog treats for those doing the right thing, targeted education about impacts of dogs on wildlife and coercion through increased patrols or fines.
With more people moving into the area, there is also the opportunity to provide new residents at this “teachable moment” (i.e., moving house) with critical information about dog walking areas in the vicinity to encourage appropriate dog walking habits that reduce potential conflict among park users.
Lena also provided some formative insights (based on research carried out in other public spaces) how changes to the physical environment (e.g., through the use of different colour schemes) can provide important short-cut visual cues to tell park users what is appropriate in particular areas. This new data gives the interested parties a starting point to discuss which course of action to take.
As any dog walker will tell you, obedience training takes time and patience, especially when it comes to humans.