Off-leash dog parks are a great way to exercise your dog. They can be used for dogs to socialize and play in a fun environment. But the fun can get cut short by an incident between one or more dogs (and their humans). Even the most well-behaved, trained, and socialized dogs can get into a conflict if the circumstances are right.
I have been in a few situations with my own dogs where I wonder what could have been done differently to prevent a conflict. I tend to avoid off-leash areas when they are crowded as my dogs like to have space when interacting with other dogs. My one dog loves her ball so much that it can be used as a distraction to get her away from an uncomfortable situation. Knowing your dog and which situations they are comfortable with, can go a long way with having a pleasant experience at the park.
If all dogs were properly socialized and had excellent recall, we could theoretically assume no issues would arise at the off-leash parks. In reality, every situation is different and needs to be approached in an individual way. Also, not every dog will do well in an off-leash environment. Know your dog – if the dog park is too overwhelming for your dog or you continue to have problems, there are plenty of parks in the city that are on-leash only.
In my opinion, the most important skill your dog should have prior to going to an off-leash park is good recall. This skill is usually part of basic obedience and puppy classes. It takes work to ensure that your dog will continue to have recall when distracted, but if you are patient and stick to basic recall training, you can ensure your dog will come back to you (this is important if he or she gets into a dangerous situation, but also to call your friendly dog back if he or she is approaching a more timid dog that needs space).
Below are a few of the most common situations you may find yourself in at the park and some tips on how avoid conflict.
-If your dog is still learning proper recall and socialization, consider going to the park with a leash on the first few times. Once you see how they interact with other dogs and recall improves, then try without a leash.
-Try not to let your dog steal other dogs’ toys. Also, if your dog loves to fetch but doesn’t like to share his toy, try to do this in an area of the park where there aren’t other dogs. Avoid throwing a toy at the moment another dog is approaching.
-Avoid standing around and forming large groups at the entrances to the park. Many dogs become overwhelmed when 10 dogs run up to them at once. Dr Sophia Yin’s website has excellent graphics depicting anxious or nervous dogs if you are new to dog behaviour.
-If you notice your dog playing too roughly with another dog, especially the smaller ones, please guide them to another area of the park and find dogs of equal size for play. Rough play can be fun, but both dogs need to be on the same page for it to work. Big dogs don’t always know how strong they can be!
–Know your dog. If he or she is overly anxious, fearful or showing signs of aggression, consider sticking to on-leash areas with controlled interactions until your dog becomes more comfortable around others. It is important to remember that not every dog will be a right fit for the off-leash park and you are being a responsible pet owner by not taking them. Other activities you could enjoy with your dog instead include agility, flyball, barn-hunt, obedience trials, schutzhund, etc.
-If you find yourself and your dog in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation – Keep Your Cool. Yelling and screaming at your dog or other people around you is not going to help. This will raise tension and your dog may behave worse than before. Try to diffuse the situation by getting your dog’s attention and removing them from the situation. Ask the other owners in a respectful way to also remove their dog from the area and find a different area of the park to play.
-Finally, THE most important thing at the off-leash park is to PAY ATTENTION and NEVER leave your dog unattended. Be aware of where your dog is at all times and stay close. Great recall doesn’t work if your dog can’t hear you.
I also want to touch on a couple health concerns at the off-leash park.
-Sudden increases in temperature in the spring can lead to heat stroke. It takes your dog’s body time to adjust to increases in temperature, and heat stroke is very common even in moderate spring temperatures when dogs are being very active. Know the signs of heat stroke (heavy panting/breathing, sudden collapse, lethargy, shaking) and keep your dog well-hydrated. Give them breaks from high bursts of activity and allow them time to cool off in the shade.
-Please clean up your doggie’s doo! No one likes to step on a big poo when walking around the park, and feces transmits disease and parasites.
So, with basic recall mastered and a good reward or distraction in hand (food or toy), now you can head to the park. Bring plenty of water for you and your dog. Always pay attention and keep in mind some of the common situations I’ve discussed along with which behaviours to watch out for, and hopefully your time at the dog park can be fun and safe!
Dr. Sophia Yin’s website has an excellent article devoted to this topic if you are looking for more information.