As we start thawing out from a cold and very wet winter, it’s likely that you will want to get back to the fun outdoor activities that you enjoy with your dog!  Here are some hints and tips for getting back to the dog park and some alternative activities for your dog.

Generally speaking, I do not recommend using traditional dog parks as a frequent source of social interaction or physical exercise.  They might seem like a great idea to allow dogs to run off-leash and burn off energy, but they are high risk environments for a variety of problems.

Dog park play can quickly turn from positive play experiences to a massive dog fight in a drop of a hat. Something as seemingly minor as a new dog entering, or a dog leaving, or a special stick can change the dynamics drastically. In my experiences, many of the owners in the park do not supervise their dogs well and even if they are supervising, they lack the control needed to call their dog away from menacing behaviors (whether being menaced or doing the menacing) and don’t understand dog body language enough to see the precursors to danger. These two pieces are really problematic together because menacing dogs can’t be called away (or menaced dogs can’t be called away) and that menacing can turn into a scuffle, which can turn into a full-blown fight as more dogs join in since their owners don’t have great verbal control.  If the fight can’t be broken up verbally (and most park-goers do not carry fight stopping aids like air horns or spray shield), owners can put themselves at risk putting their bodies into the melee to separate dogs. All around, this is just not good.

Another concern I have is the play at dog parks can be more on the line of drunken frat party level of intensity and those aren’t always the type of social skills I want my dog to learn. I want my dog to learn more appropriate play skills (think more game night revelry with friends) and really, not all dogs like that type of high intensity play. Dogs can become less and less tolerant of frat party dog park shenanigans as they age and that is completely normal. However, as a result, they can become snarky or the fun-police and can cause scuffles and conflict (even if as a young dog they loved the party).

There are some lovely alternatives to dog parks that can allow for and encourage safer socialization opportunities as weather improves. 

*Hiking adventures with your dog and their doggie friends—using a long-line if it is legally required or if your dog has a solid recall and the park allows for it, off-leash.  Sniffing, casual socializing with doggie friends, mutual exploration with other dogs, and running around in nature provide great mental, physical, and social enrichment.

*Sniffy walks with your dog are lovely, less physically demanding (on the person), options as well! Take your pup (and maybe some doggie friends) to a grassy field, a park, a novel environment, or an area where you are able to walk using a long line (or off-leash if you are legally permitted) and let your dog sniff and explore. Follow them as they follow their nose on an adventure. These long sniffy walks can tire dogs out beautifully because of the power of sniffing but are not overly demanding of the human!

*Play dates with your dog and their doggie friends in other areas. You can rent and/or reserve play yards at Animal Friends, can utilize a friend or neighbor’s fenced in yard, and some other off-leash areas can actually be rented or reserved (you just have to check with the controlling organization or community to see if your park is one of them).  Getting together with dogs your dog already likes and feels comfortable with to run and play with is a great option.

Dog Park Etiquette and Safety Tips

So, if dog parks are an important part of your dog’s mental, physical, and social enrichment plan, that’s okay!  They aren’t all horrible and you can do things to help reduce the risks and keep them as a positive experience for your dog. *These don’t include obvious responsible dog owner things like picking up poop, bringing water, following all park rules, and not allowing your dog to destroy property.

*Find your dog’s friends and arrange meetups at set times or follow a regular schedule. When you are going to the park and meeting up with a predictable group of dogs who your dog gets to know over time, you are reducing the risk of problems developing.

*Go during off-hours when the park is less busy. Off-hours are great options for having smaller groups of dogs, being able to read the dynamics of the group better, and you have a better chance of being familiar with the dogs and people. Find the times where you might even have the park to yourself to run your dog with a ball.

*Watch the dynamics for a few minutes before entering the park with your dog. You know your dog and you know how they like to play. Watch the current park group and decide whether your pup will enjoy that play style, is there bullying going on between dogs that you want to stay out of, is the intensity of the play making you uncomfortable, or do you see known trouble makers in the group? If you don’t like the play or don’t feel comfortable, just leave.

*Learn canine body language so you can assess your dog’s enjoyment of the park, can tell when other dogs might be communicating conflict or potential conflict, can see things developing before they actually happen, and can interrupt and change things without incident.

*Don’t be afraid to leave before you planned or avoid entering in the first place. It’s better to be safe and trust your gut by leaving early than to end up with a dog who gets injured or who injures others.

*Train your dog to be able to reliably perform a few basic skills in that very challenging environment. Practice with your dog on a long-line (not in the dog park) recalling (come when called) them while outside the park or at other distracting environment and pay them generously every time they come back to you. Just because they can sit, leave it, or come while at home or in their yard, doesn’t mean they can do it in the more distracting environment.

*Carry at least 1 safety tool that you can utilize in an emergency situation, like if a dog fight breaks out. My two go-to suggestions are a small air horn (a boat horn) or Spray Shield (a citronella spray) that can be used ONLY in an emergency situation if a dog fight happens that isn’t broken up easily.

*If your dog has issues with dogs, don’t go to the dog park to try and fix them. If your dog has a history of scuffles, or being a fun-police, or targeting specific dogs at the park to harass, stop going to the park. If you want to improve those behaviors, contact a certified professional dog trainer to help assess what can be done to help your dog. But remember, it’s normal for dogs to become less tolerant of dogs and the shenanigans at the dog park as they get older and that’s okay! Dogs don’t need to go to the dog park to live rich and fulfilling lives.

*If your dog is involved in a scuffle or fight, always exchange accurate contact information and check the condition of all the dogs. If any dogs are injured get the necessary vet care and contact the other owner(s) for proof of vaccinations. Even if your dog is physically fine and didn’t start the fight, you should leave the park and let them decompress from the scary incident with a calm sniffy walk.

Article by Tena Parker CDBC, CPDT-KA – Success Just Clicks Dog Training