Calgarians love their dog parks and we are lucky to have lots of them in the city. No question that time at the dog park can provide your pup with unadulterated joy, lots of exercise and a chance to romp unencumbered by leashes with their doggie friends. As a trainer, I have mixed feelings about off-leash parks. Following are my ‘Top 10’ recommendations for a fun time at the dog park.
1. Different dogs have different play styles. We all know the dog that likes to body slam, or the one that will play fetch for hours and some dogs are just happy to enjoy a stroll in the park with you and barely acknowledge other dogs. Different play styles are normal. Dogs with similar play styles will have a blast, but if your dog prefers a stroll and the other dog wants to wrestle, it is not going to be a fun experience. Watch the interactions between dogs. When they take a break, if both dogs go back into play, it is usually okay. However, if one dog wants to get away, it is an indicator that the other dog is not his ideal playmate.
2. Often many of the dogs visiting the off-leash park are under-exercised adolescence dogs. Just like some teenagers they can be a bit obnoxious and in your face. This is fine if they find a playmate that has the same objective, but not all dogs appreciate this type of interaction. If this is your dog, make sure to watch them. If they are getting over the top, move on. Good dog play is when dogs take a break on their own. They self-regulate. This is very important. Normal dog play looks like play, play, play, stop, play, play, stop and so on. If they won’t take breaks on their own, they can become over aroused and this can quickly lead to disagreements. If you see arousal levels escalating, enforce a break by calling them to you.
3. Learn to read canine body language and watch for the subtle shifts. Happy and relaxed dogs have a loose body and a relaxed demeanor. Highly focused or over-aroused dogs will show tension in their bodies. If your dog goes from loose and wiggly to showing tension, it is time for a break.
4. Where possible small dogs should visit off-leash parks where there is a separate play area for them. A large dog playing in the rough and tumble way some large dogs do can result in an injury to a small dog. No small dog area? Lots of training venues have small dog playgroups. For a small fee, your small dog can play with other small dogs in a safe and controlled area. This may be a better option for your dog.
5. Keep moving around the park. The dog park is not a social group for you. It is a chance to exercise your dog. Don’t hang around the entrance to the park. When you arrive at the park, try to enter when the gateway is clear and then move quickly away. Walk the perimeter to keep your dog moving. Entrances and exits points are high arousal areas. Don’t linger there.
6. Treats in a dog park are iffy. You might want to reward your dog, but treats can change the dynamic between dogs. My recommendation is not to take food into the park or if you do, use low-value treats like kibble.
7. Your dog loves to fetch? You are guaranteed to find other dogs there that do as well. Don’t get bent out of shape if another dog steals your dog’s ball. Take a few balls with you and share the fun.
8. Off-leash parks are no place for puppies, even after being vaccinated. People often think that dog parks are great places to socialize their dogs and in theory, they are correct. The problem though is that off-leash parks are open admission. Anyone can show up. You cannot control the other dogs. If your puppy has a bad experience it can stay with them for the rest of their life. My recommendation is your puppy should be a minimum age of six months and maybe older depending on how strong temperamentally they are.
9. An off-leash park is just that, off leash. It is unfair to keep your dog on leash. It puts them at a significant disadvantage with the other off-leash dogs. You remove their ability to leave a situation that they find uncomfortable. If they feel trapped, then they are more likely to show aggressive traits to make the other dog go away. This is a great way to create a reactive dog. If you need to keep your dog on leash because you are afraid they won’t come back when called, then your dog isn’t ready for the dog park. Spend the time training your dog’s recall. It may just save their life one day. All dogs need to be under owner control when in off-leash parks and this means being able to recall your dog to you when needed.
10. Visit the dog park for a good time, not a long time. We often stay too long at the park and just like tired children, tired dogs are less tolerant. Plan to visit for no longer than 30 minutes, maybe less. Watch your dog. When you see the subtle shifts in body language they indicate they have had enough, it is time to go home.
The off-leash park is a wonderland for our dogs and if used responsibly, they are a great way to exercise our dogs. But they are not for all dogs. If your dog is having fun and is playing well with other dogs then the dog park may be for you. I always go early in the day to my local park. My dogs get the chance to run and greet a few other dogs and they have fun. But don’t be surprised if your dog outgrows the park. Just like us, the night club scene may have been fun at one point in our lives but a night in with good food, wine, and close friends suits me better now. Know your dog. Not all dogs are enamoured with the dog park. If your dog would prefer to spend quality time with you and go for a long walk instead, then respect that. Your dog will thank you for it.
An extract of 'Fun Times at the Dog Park' was published in Calgary Dog Life.