16 May 2010
(Dog) Parks and Recreation
Cinderella (above) and I have pretty much been addicted to the off leash dog parks in my area. In fact, I didn't even realize how many there were in close proximity to where I live. Off leash dog parks seem to be getting more and more common throughout the US. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the majority of dogs kept as pets in this country are city dogs, or suburban dogs at best. It is rarer and rarer for a dog to go to a home where he has ample space to run without a leash. For this reason, it seems that a little bit of guilt tends to motivate owners to take their dogs to off leash parks; guilt that their dogs are often cooped up in the house or crated most of the day while they work. In this regard, off leash parks are a dream come true for dogs and owners alike.
Attractions at dog parks vary. If your dog has a particular interest, chances are you can find a park that accommodates. Some have agility equipment set up, some offer fenced in wooded trails, some have access to water either by a beach, pool or lake.
Of course, where there are few boundaries, there is also potential for chaos. But as long as you follow a few simple rules, dog parks are fun and relatively stress free, even if you don't bring your dog! (Ok...maybe that's just me).
For starters, females in season or dogs that are not up to date on their vaccines are definite no-no's at dog parks. The same goes for dogs that have ever shown aggressive tendencies toward people or other dogs. Walking into a dog park with an unpredictable dog is asking for a lawsuit.
Most vets will administer the bordetella (or kennel cough) vaccine if you let them know that you plan on taking your dog to public places that other dogs frequent. But it may also depend on your area. The topic of vaccines has become somewhat controversial in the animal world lately, so be sure and run it by your vet to get their opinion.
Some parks have different rules than others. It's always wise to check the website of the specific park before you go, so you don't make a wasted effort. A good website for finding off-leash parks in your area:
Dog Fun Directory
Know your dog
An off leash park is not the place to experiment with your dog's temperament and behavior around other dogs. If your dog doesn't get out of your yard or neighborhood often, don't throw him into a situation where you're not sure how he'll react. Start by walking your dog in more public places, or taking him/her to some kind of supervised play group held by a training facility. A play group will have a trainer on staff who will be there to monitor behavior and break up any fights should they start, whereas at a dog park, you're on your own. Know what type of behavior is normal for your dog and get a sense for whether or not he would be comfortable and safe for others at an off leash park. It's also helpful if you feel confident that you can control your dog. A reliable recall and a trusting relationship goes a long way when it comes to letting your dog off his leash.
Know Dog Behavior
Dogs have their own language. Learn the difference between a dog that is saying "please leave me alone" and one that is aggressive/dominant. It is not unusual or unacceptable for a dog to snap at another dog to tell them to leave him alone. However, a dog that is actively seeking out confrontation is another story. Generally you can tell the difference by reading body language. A dog that just wants to be left alone will usually have his tail down or in a neutral position and may snap and bark, but quickly retreat. If your dog does this, don't scold him. Most likely the offending dog is the one who needs to learn proper manners. However, a dog that reacts this way every time he meets a new dog, regardless of the other dog's politeness, may be overly nervous and insecure and not a good candidate for off leash parks.
Watch For Bullies
A problem you will run into often at off leash parks are dogs that are being bullies with no one to hold them accountable. But it's equally important to recognize aggressive behavior in your own dog as it is in others. Many owners mistake dominance for playfulness. Be observant. If a dog your dog is playing with begins to appear fearful with tail tucked between legs, snapping, or crying, it's time to re-direct your dog's attention. Don't be the one with the bully dog! Likewise, watch for other dogs that may try to heckle your own and stop it before it escalates. The most effective way to stop a behavior from getting out of control is to simply re-direct the attention of one or both of the dogs. Don't contribute to an intense situation by screaming or yelling.
Monitor Group Play
Surprisingly enough, fights rarely break out at dog parks. But there certainly are horror stories of smaller, more timid dogs getting injured or even killed by a group of more aggressive dogs. If your dog is nervous, he may be a target for getting ganged up on. So it's important that owners keep their dogs from grouping together and trying to intimidate others.
It might sound silly but walking confidently, not over-babying your dog, and generally being happy will greatly impact the way your dog behaves at an off leash park. If you're nervous, your dog will be too. If your dog is very afraid the first time at a park, don't give up just yet. Most dogs are anxious at first and calm down with time. Others may need to come back to the same park several times before they begin to feel comfortable, but even very shy dogs can surprise you and break out of their shell if you're willing to practice some patience. Even better, most dog parks have a "shy dog" or "small dog" area for those that are new or less outgoing than the majority.
Remember, you're the leader. Focus on being the cool and collected role model your dog needs!
- Treats, in case you need to re-direct a behavior or entice your dog back to you if he doesn't come when called (but I have yet to see a dog that doesn't keep check with its owner!)
- Extra bags! Most dogs eliminate themselves more than once at an off leash park!
- Water, especially if you plan to stay for a while
- Toys. Toys can actually be a source of stress for a dog in a group environment. Dogs that have their own toys at dog parks will be more likely to become possessive and unsociable. There are exceptions to this rule however. If your dog is a focused retriever for instance, a ball or frisbee can be a great thing to bring to an off leash park. Just keep in mind that other dogs may take your dog's ball, so you may want to bring extras!
Lastly, as demonstrated by the first picture in this post, expect your dog to be a bit messy after a trip to the park. It's not a bad idea to bring towels for the car ride and plan on bathing your dog when you get home!
The benefits to the dog parks far outweigh the potential hazards for me. The socialization aspect alone has been great for my dogs. It's also excellent for burning off excess energy. Cinderella is always more content being in the house after spending a couple hours at an off leash park. She gets twice as much exercise there than she does on a walk with me. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit selfish in taking her to the dog park. Truthfully, I'm not sure who enjoys going to them more; me or her.
(All photos taken by Tory Cobrea)