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Safety at the Dog Park

November 25, 2015 | Tips and Training

Steps in Safety

It may surprise you to learn that many dog trainers and veterinarians don’t like dog parks. How could they be against something as fantastic as dogs getting to play off leash with their buddies? Well, dog trainers and veterinarians are asked to repair the damage when the wrong dogs play in the wrong way at the wrong place.

Let’s look at how you and your dog can enjoy the fun and avoid the damage.

First, assess your dog
Is he happy to engage with strangers, or is he a dog that takes his time making friends with new dogs and new people? Maybe he’s a little bit fearful? Maybe he is older and doesn’t enjoy rough and tumble play? Maybe he is smaller and does not like being slammed into and wrestled with? Dogs with those personality traits certainly can enjoy dog play, but probably not in the potentially intense environment of a dog park.

Think about age and developmental stage.
Generally, young puppies do not belong at the dog park. The dog park is not a good place to socialize a puppy. Far too many big, pushy adolescent and adult dogs will come flying the puppy’s way. The puppy may be overwhelmed and horrified and learn to be defensive. Puppies who start at the dog park too early, before they have the skills and the size to cope with it, often become dogs who bully other dogs.

Puppy socialization should occur in a controlled setting supervised by somebody like a competent dog trainer, who can help the puppies learn that balance between owner focus and dog focus, between play and impulse control.

Adolescent and young adult dogs who have had good socialization as youngsters, have completed their vaccines, are neutered or spayed, are on adequate parasite control, and who have had enough training to respond to cues at a distance may be ready to begin at the dog park.

Often as dogs enter social maturity (between about 2 and 4 years of age) they are less eager to engage with new dogs. They generally continue to enjoy their friends, and will play cheerfully with them, though perhaps for shorter and less intense session than when they were adolescents or young adults.

Generally it is not appropriate for seniors to be in the hurley-burley of a dog park. If your park has a separate small dogs/ seniors area, then your older dog may really enjoy continuing lifetime rituals, getting an outing, some exercise and some enrichment.

Be in Control

To prevent or intervene in any misadventures at the park you need off-leash control. Your dog should be able to: Come when called away from distraction; “Leave It” at a distance (to prevent/interrupt resource guarding and picking up icky stuff); and do a distant Sit or Down (in cases where calling him back to you might run him into the midst of trouble).

Plan the first visit
Schedule your first dog park visit at a time when the park is relatively quiet and empty. Have your young dog attend with a group of his dog friends – – dogs he already knows and plays well with. Once the young dog is able to demonstrate control in that setting – he can be called away from the group of dogs to run back to his owner and lie down on cue — he may be ready to meet some unknown dogs at the dog park.

Observation and Intervention
The human end of the leash needs to be an excellent student of dog body language. Watch, and watch and watch — play can turn to tension, and then to aggression, quite quickly. Characteristics of good play are bounciness and mutuality (taking turns). Look for the dogs responding to one another: one inviting and the other responding; or one dog giving a “cut-off” signal and the other responding by decreasing the intensity of play, or doing a calming signal like moving off and sniffing.

If you spot the earliest signs — loss of bounciness, increase of tension, threatening posture, anxiousness — you may be able to intervene BEFORE a fight occurs by using your “leave it”, “Come”, or a distant “Down”.

Stay connected. Don’t just allow your dog to (emotionally/behaviorally) disconnect from you and run wild while you’re on your cell phone! Watch him. Watch the patterns of play and activity. Call him to you frequently, and reward with play, perhaps with a tug toy that you have reserved for just this time.

Note – if you play fetch, other dogs may horn in, and/or your dog may head off with the ball — but tug takes two. It is a great game to reinforce good behaviors at the park. You may need to do a bit of teaching so your dog can play by the rules, releasing when told and not getting over-aroused.

Interrupting play by calling, playing/praising then releasing your dog back to his friends will help to keep the arousal level under control and will help your dog believe that coming to you is fun. (Note – If you call just once when it is time to go home, many dogs will associate “Come” with your spoiling their fun, and will stop coming to you.) A well-rehearsed “Come” puts you in a much safer position should you need to call your dog away from a fight or other problematic situation!

Always scan the dog park before entering. If you go at a regular time and place you will get to know to the people and dogs who are problems. The best game plan is to just leave the park when they’re there. If you have a very large park you may be able to call your dog with you to the far end of the park and play with him quietly without attracting the attention of the bad guys. However, bullies tend to follow and harass.

Notice – some of the ‘bad guy’ dogs are good guys and sweethearts when they’re at home! They are just not good at playing at the dog park. They may be intolerant of strangers. They may have poor impulse control. They may be resource guarders, or they may have some combination of the above. But the end result is that they target, bully and injure other dogs. Every dog park has them.

Little Guys
Never take a small dog to the big dog park. Even if your little guy plays happily with large friends at home, it is dangerous for him to do so at the park. Little dogs can be hurt by large dogs running them over, but, worse than that, it is possible for nice, dog-friendly, big dogs to treat fast-moving little dogs as if they were prey – a phenomenon referred to as “predatory drift”. Note This is not dog-dog aggression – it is more dangerous that that. The big dog who has had this perceptual shift may grab the tiny, and shake it by the neck, as he might with a “meal” that is about to get away. This can be deadly, quickly. Again, I emphasize, even sweet friendly big dogs who live with a small dog at home may demonstrate this behavior in a high arousal, high speed environment. Many dog parks have a small dogs’ play area. If you have a little gut – Take advantage of this reserved area. If your park doesn’t have one, this may be a time to lobby your local authority.

The end of the tail
Do your homework so your dog can stay safe and have fun at the dog park.

Not all dogs want to be or can be dog park dogs, but, if you have the right dog: physically and behaviorally robust, social, confident, and responsive to your cues; and you are the right owner: social, calm, observant and cheerfully controlling, you and your dog can have a great time at the dog park!

By Penelope Milne, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KSA Executive Trainer for the Animal Keeper/Pet Suites