Fun and peril at the dog park (in 13 easy steps!)
Many professional dog trainers balk at the idea of taking a dog to a dog park to play. At Downstay, we share some of their reservations, but also believe that most fun and life-enriching activities involve some measure of risk. Also, depending on where you life, the dog park might be the only place where Fido can run around off-leash or socialize with other dogs.
For people who know what they're doing--usually--this post is about how to manage other people and their dogs to keep the dog park experience fun for your dog. Some dogs just aren't cut out for the dog park, but we're not going into that in detail here. We’re assuming that your dog is appropriate for the dog park: vaccinated, over 10 pounds, not in heat, and has already established excellent doggy and human social skills. Aggression of any kind is not okay for the dog park. If you start saying “he’s fine as long as…” or “I don’t know how he is around...” then no. No dog park for you.
1) Educate yourself about what normal dog play looks like. Make some flash cards if you need to--this is important. Some play looks ferocious but is totally inhibited and fun for all. Sometimes one dog is playing and the other dog is overwhelmed or frightened, which means the game needs to end. Some play can escalate to a fight if there’s an injury or too many dogs involved. There are whole books on this subject--there’s no way we can cover it all here.
2) Keep your eyes on your dog. I mean, duh. But people tend to get bored and attention tends to wander. Eyes on dog. It’s your job to make sure your pup is having a nice time and isn’t being a jerk to anyone, dog or human.
3) Bring a whistle. If you see an inappropriate interaction, a couple of toots should distract the pups enough to ease the tension. If there’s a full-on fight, your way of protecting your dog is to blow your whistle loud enough to shatter everyone’s eardrums. It’s hard not to get physically involved or start yelling, but don’t do either of those things because the idea is to distract, not add to the chaos. Also, it will hopefully attract the attention of the other dog owner, who is probably distracted and not watching their dog. Remember that 3 toots in a row is a distress signal for hikers and other outdoorsy people in the know, so keep your whistles rare and in sets of 1-2 blasts.
4) If you feel uneasy, it’s time to take a break or leave, even if you just got there. You can’t hide your internal state from a dog--that’s why they can be trained to alert to seizures and low blood sugar. If you’re a hot mess at the dog park, it may not be right for you even if your dog seems to be having fun.
5) Don’t stay too long. Even high energy dogs that love to play, play, play get tired and cranky after an hour or two. Keep it fun for everyone and always leave wanting more.
6) Bring water. Play is hard work. Keep everyone hydrated.
7) Beware the coming and going. There’s something about doorways and gates that make some dogs act like twerps.
8) Leash off before you open the gate to enter. If you’re worried your dog will bolt, well, he’s telling you he doesn’t want to be there, chump. Think you need to “introduce” the dogs on lead first? No you don’t. We still love you, but that’s a terrible idea.
9) Be patient when you’re rounding up Fido to leave. See this previous post about managing that potentially tricky situation. While we're at it, don’t restrict your dog’s movement by grabbing his collar at any time at the dog park, except to safely leash him up. If you have to manhandle your dog, he needs more training before he should come to the dog park.
10) Don’t let your dog trap or overwhelm another dog, and don’t let other dogs trap or overwhelm your dog. Trapped dogs lead to all kinds of problems. If a dog is hanging out under an object, like a bench or table, he’s using that object to create a safe space. If your dog is the one jamming his head under the bench to check out what’s going on under there, intervene by calling your dog away. If your dog is the one hiding and being crowded, use your body to create more space. Don’t get aggressive, just claim the space with your body.
11) Don't bring food in, and leave immediately if somebody else is handing out food. Tons of otherwise charming dogs (and also people, ahem) can get competative when there's tasty food being distributed. In a very well-known puppy how-to book, the authors suggest tossing a handful of treats down in the event of a tense dog interaction. NO. It won't work, and it will potentially make things worse. Just don't. Having treats in your pocket is okay, but keep them tucked away until you're outside the gate.
12) Ignore or humor the ignorant things people are going to say to you. Be nice, but don’t take anything to heart. They say those things to us too. The fact that you’re reading this is an indication that you actually do know more than they do, so keep on keepin' on.
13) If there is a bite, even if your dog isn’t involved, fun time is over. Collect your dog--carry him if you have to--and secure him safely in your car or with someone you trust. After your dog is under control, you can return to the scene to offer assistance. If your dog is involved, let the person know that you would like to exchange contact information so you can get a copy of their dog’s rabies vaccination record. Don’t be a jerk about it even if the other owner is acting as inappropriately as their dog. You knew this might happen and now you have to deal.
Tell us about your awesome/traumatic dog park experiences in the comments! What tips or tricks do you use?