Play Parks and Dog Forests

Once, on a warm spring day, I suggested to my friend that I take her kid to the play park. It was lovely weather and my friend was sick. The kid had recently become very difficult, a reaction to the divorce.

Picture it: a childless woman in her late twenties with a 4 year old in a playpark. I kept her entertained with see-saws and swings and helping onto climbing frames. We played some hide and seek in the woods around the equipment. We had a good time. Until the little one was in the mood to push in the line for the climbing frame.

The kid she wanted to push in front of was about 2 years old. If she pushed him out of the way, it would hurt him. I tried using my words but she was not in a listening mood. I tried to explain how important looking out for each other is. I tried going over the concept of ‘turns’ again. Nothing. So, I held her back. She screamed bloody murder, cursed my name, cursed my family. And then once the boy had made it up to the top, I let her go and she forgot all about her anger and asked me sweetly to help her up.

I looked around for adult moral support. The park is lovely but not very busy even at peak times. The only other adult was the dad of the 2 year old and he avoided my eye contact like one avoids staring at the sun. I was doing something wrong. Was it my accent? Was it the way I was hands on? Should I have let them work it out for themselves, even if his kid inevitably came off the worse? There was no way of knowing because he refused to acknowledge my existence.

I put her on the swings and sat on a bench. Other kids came to play, their adults sat on benches too. Nowhere near me. Not making eye contact. Not looking my way at all. Not interacting with their kids either. Just letting them get on with it.

Ahh, the Danish way, making kids more independent. Allowing them to discover their own limits, negotiate their own boundaries. Not for me, but that is not really for me to judge for others. Not for me to judge either, this bubble around Danish adults making friendly informal temporary contact between others impossible.

Fast forward four years and I have a puppy now. She is 6 months old and in some ways has a better sense of propriety around turn taking and interacting with her dog peers than that small child back then. She knows when to back off and when to play and she respects the limits of smaller and younger dogs. This isn’t something we have taught her, particularly, she figured it out in her litter. We reinforce, of course, at home but dog body language is not even our second language and we mimic imperfectly. We take her to the dog forest so she can play with other dogs and run around in a stimulating environment.

Our dog is a scaredy pants and if a bigger dog, no matter how friendly, interacts with her, she squeals and lies on her back. She does this for about 15 minutes, gains confidence and then plays nicely with them. I can see the other dogs are playing nicely: body language, facial expressions, vocalisations all add up to “Hello little dog, let’s play fight, ok?” But she’s crying out like she is being killed until she gets used to them which is a little disconcerting for anyone that does not know her. The owners call their dogs off. “He’s not usually like this! Would you like me to tell him to stop? Messi GET DOWN”

They interact with their dogs and teach them right from wrong, not just about play fighting but all types of play. They ask how old our dog is, tell us about their dog and interpret the body language of all the participants. No one sits on a bench and ignores their dog at any point. Only once has my accent been interpreted as a cloak of invisibility. The dog park is intensely social for the humans as they trade dog tips and stories.

Dogs are not trusted to work out their limits for themselves and the humans feel no problem with telling them off when they step out of line.

What happened to Danish society that the adults feel like giving structure or boundaries to their children is inappropriate when they understand that their pets need gentle reinforcement of how to play nicely? Where do they imagine their children are learning these skills if not explicitly from adults? Why is chatting to other parents in the park verboten but to other dog owners de rigeur? It makes no sense to this outsider.

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