Advice from a Professional Dog Trainer
Guidelines For Staying Safe At The Dog Park
Dogs were built to roam and, more than anything, love running around free. Dog parks, therefore, can be a great way to grant your lovable furball some much-desired freedom where they can blow off some steam.
It's important to stick to some basic rules, however, to make sure that going to a dog park remains a positive experience for both you and your dog. Here are some tips to keep both you and Fido safe and happy:
1) First, establish a good Recall and Collar Grab with your dog.
It's a good idea to train a dog in the following behaviors before taking them to a dog park:
• RECALL (How to train a dog to come when called): Recall training is easily done by creating positive associations with your dog's name, and then training them to come to you when called. Simply stay stationary and say your dog's name, and when they look at you, give them a treat. Proceed to moving away from your dog and calling their name. When they catch up, reward! Do this multiple times throughout the day, sometimes catching your dog off guard by calling from another room, and rewarding them lavishly when they come to you.
• THE COLLAR GRAB: Sometimes a dog will come when called, but as they notice you are about to put them on a leash, they run away. This is easily counter-conditioned by adding a collar grab as one of the steps in recall training. Simply grab a dog's collar as you give them a reward so they get used to having their collar grabbed when they come to you.
Take the following rules for safe engagement into account:
Keep an eye on your dog. It's important to moderate your dog's interactions to ensure play remains safe and that dogs are mutually interested in each other.
Keep small dogs in the small dog area if they get overwhelmed by bigger dogs. Some small dogs like French Bulldogs often prefer to play with bigger dogs, so this up to owner discretion.
Keep moving. If you keep moving around in the dog park, it will prompt your dog to periodically check your position and follow you, and a dog that is keeping an eye on their human is more likely to stay out of trouble, too.
Know how to break up a dogfight if one should occur. The best way is to remain calm (ask screamers to be quiet) and get people working as a team to grab the fighting dogs by the hindquarters, and then lift their back legs off the ground. Once the legs are lifted, pull the dogs apart, stepping backward in a curve so that if a dog tries to redirect their fury back at the handler, they won't be able to reach them.
Bring poop bags and pick up after your dog.
Bring a portable water bowl for your dog - water bowls at dog parks carry the risk of communicable illnesses such as giardia.
Don't bring your dog to the dog park if they are sick.
Don't bring your puppy if they are less than 4 months of age or if they haven't had all of their rounds of shots.
Don't bring an unneutered male to the dog park - it may result in fights! Don't bring a female in heat as it will definitely cause a stir and may result in fights (and a lot of unwanted mounting).
Don't bring food or treats to the dog park. Dogs may end up following a person with food on their person around like the pied piper and it could cause fights as dogs vie to get a treat.
Toys like balls should only be surfaced at your discretion. If toys result in dogs fighting over who gets to play with the toy, it's best not to bring them to the dog park (or only break out a toy when no other dogs are around).
Mobbing: Don't let your dog crowd new dogs entering the dog park. It's best to keep your dog away from the entrance of the dog park once you arrive to prevent them from crowding and overwhelming newcomers.
Don't let your dog mount other dogs. Intervene quickly and body-block your dog by stepping in between your dog and the object of its affection to let your dog know they should stop. Repeat as many times as necessary until your dog gets the message (maybe even taking your dog outside the park to calm down, and then coming back in to give them another chance to do something else). The other dog parent will appreciate this greatly!
Don't let your dog gang up on other dogs! Bullying behaviors like two dogs choosing to pick on easy targets such as a younger or aging dog should be stopped. Usually, dogs with a frustrated prey drive will do something like this, so if this is your dog, they need more mental stimulation!
Don't let play with other dogs get too rough or one-sided. See below for details.
3) Familiarize yourself with the dynamics of positive dog play and what dog body language means.
Learn to identify signs of stress & intervene
Play between dogs can take on different forms depending on the breed and temperament of a dog. Active breed or high energy dogs like to play a variety of games that simulate hunting or herding behaviors. This can include "take down" maneuvers like grabbing another dog by the scruff of the neck, bumping into each other with body slams to knock each other off-balance, and nipping at the feet or hindquarters of another dog.
To a certain extent this is normal and natural, but if play gets too rough or one-sided, it's best to intervene and calm the dogs down. One-sided behaviors to look out for are:
A dog pinning another dog down so that it can't get up.
A dog chasing and nipping at another dog that does not want to play or be chased (usually that dog will be fleeing from the other dog with their tail between their legs and may also try to hide behind its dog parent or under a park picnic table).
A bigger dog overwhelming a smaller dog or puppy that can't match their play style or energy level.
Competitive behaviors like one dog resting their head on the neck and shoulder area of another dog. This is a "I'm sizing you up" maneuver whereby one dog is judging whether they could take the other on. This should be stopped immediately and the dogs should be separated to avoid the challenge from escalating.
"Three's A Crowd" behaviors like sideline barking. Sometimes, a dog will get really excited when two other dogs are playing and bark like crazy at them like they want in on the action. Unless all three dogs are taking turns playing with each other, it's best to discourage this behavior as it can lead to over-arousal and dog fights breaking out.
4) Consider whether or not your dog actually likes the dog park.
If your dog only sticks by you and prefers not to socialize, the dog park may not be for you.
Sometimes, dogs prefer the company of humans or would enjoy going for a long walk or a hike rather than going to the dog park. If you notice your dog does not interact much with the other dogs at the park, preferring instead to remain near you, there's a good chance they are not enjoying the dog park as much as you would like. If this sounds like your dog, honor what their behavior is telling you and think about taking them somewhere else for some special outdoor time.
Los Angeles dog trainer Alexandra Bassett is the owner and lead trainer at Dog Savvy Los Angeles, a dog & puppy training company that specializes in positive dog training and solving problem dog behavior like dog separation anxiety, leash reactivity, and aggression. She is certified as Knowledge Assessed by the Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) and is available for online dog training sessions via Skype.