5 Strategies for Success at the Dog Park
Many owners wonder whether or not they should be taking their dogs to a dog park. Many owners swear by them, and many trainers discourage them, but what’s the truth? Like many things, it depends.
What are some of the risks of dog parks?
Contagious bad manners, bullying, escalating play, fights, bites, and owners who think their dog can do no wrong. Many fear (and sometimes correctly) that their dog might pick up bad manners or become defensive/aggressive with other dogs after a negative encounter.
What are the benefits?
Social practice, dog play, legal off-leash time. While a short list compared to the risks, these benefits are meaningful for many dogs (and owners), so we shouldn’t discount them.
Some dogs don’t need social practice, aren’t naturally interested in social play, and have plenty of off-leash time. Others have low exercise requirements due to breed or unique reasons. So there are exceptions, but that doesn’t mean that socialization opportunities, spontaneous play, and time to run and explore off-leash aren’t generally part of what makes a good life for a dog.
So, how do we manage the risks so they don’t overwhelm the benefits?
- Prevent Damage
- Recall Strategically
- Supervise and use your judgment.
- Advocate for your dog.
- Be equipped to provide feedback.
Damage Prevention: Only bring a dog with legitimate aggression into an off-leash dog park once the bite potential and reactivity issues have been resolved. A Chill Out Dog Trainer will work with you to reduce these risks. We build a baseline for non-reactive behavior, often onboard a muzzle for dogs with bite histories or cause damage concerns, and ensure the dog is familiar with cease-and-desist feedback before beginning socialization or any work inside the dog park.
Strategic Recall: The ability to call your dog and have him come to you quickly and directly works wonders for keeping him out of harm’s way (or causing trouble himself). Any time your dog is engaging with other dogs who are playing a little too rough, call him back. Any time your dog is joining the welcome wagon at the entry gate (a high-conflict zone at every dog park), call him back. Any time your dog is approaching a dog who’s been having aggressive interactions with other dogs, call him back. If your dog’s recall is reliable, many problems can be entirely avoided. Practicing with a trainer can prepare your dog for high distraction recall.
Supervise and Judge: Even with excellent recall and a good temperament, your dog could still find himself in a less-than-ideal situation if you aren’t supervising. Always watch your dog when you’re at the dog park. Don’t get sucked too deep into a conversation, don’t start scrolling on your phone or checking emails, and certainly don’t read a book. Now that you’re paying attention to the “action,” trust your gut. If you don’t like your dog’s, or another’s behavior, you should intervene (call him, give him feedback, or advocate for him). Stay aware so you can intervene and guide situations to a good outcome as needed; otherwise, enjoy watching your dog play and interact.
If the dog park energy is chaotic, it’s best to skip it or leave early. Think lots of scuffles, or an obvious trouble-maker, super-hard rough-and-tumble play where one or more dogs start to get fearful or defensive. There will be factors outside your control at the dog park (it isn’t a laboratory, but the real world), but you can choose to hold off going in or leave anytime.
Advocate: If your dog is in a bad interaction where another dog, or dogs, are engaging with him with less than good manners, high pressure, bullying, etc., it’s your job to help. Often, simply calling your dog back to you will end this since the other dog will likely lose interest as yours trots away, but if it persists, you should work to interrupt the other dog’s behavior. Typically a calm but firm “ah-ah” and positioning yourself between the dogs will do the trick. A trainer can also equip you with tools that help stop over-interest, such as a Pet Convincer air tool.
E-Collar Feedback: Suppose your dog is the “over-interested” party, playing too rough or choosing to ignore your recall command. In that case, it’s essential to interrupt the misbehavior and get your dog back to thinking about good manners and behavior. This is why we always recommend having a quality e-collar system equipped whenever you do any off-leash activity, dog park included. With a quick e-collar button tap, your dog receives timely, valuable feedback that can correct any misbehavior. This is particularly important when working with a dog who struggles with aggression, rough play, or lousy recall.
These five strategies will transform your dog park experience from dicey and stressful to the good time it’s supposed to be. A Chill Out Dog Trainer can help you become a master at all five of these strategies so you can confidently attend the dog park and enjoy watching your favorite pooch dog it up!