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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guidelines for First Time Dog Park Visits

Dog Park Visits are Great Times to
Play with "The Gang"

Dog Parks have become all the rage throughout the United States. Particularly for those of us in urban or suburban areas where there are precious few places a dog can get a good romp off-leash. It's good for them to be able to socialize with other dogs and run unencumbered by restraints--fences, walls, leashes; they need to be free to run occasionally.

The reality is that this freedom comes with a risk and a price. Even dog parks have fences, placed to protect their visitors from running into the street or disappearing altogether. The difference is that the park is a larger area for running, and the opportunity to socialize with other dogs is available. This is a necessary component to their lifestyle, as dogs in the wild are historically social pack animals.

When I arrive at the dog park, my dogs now know where we are going, well before we pull into the parking lot. Their excitement is palpable, with their heavier breathing, whining to get out of the car, and growing activity level in the back of the car. When I get out, I wait until everyone is calmly waiting in the car. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, but it is safer this way and they get the message: "You don't get to go to the park until you calm down."

When I open the door to leash everyone up, I have 3 eager faces looking out. The calmest dog is leashed and allowed to hop out first. That's his reward for controlling his excitement. And so it goes with the other two.

Tanner and Me at the West Orange Dog Park 

Walking to the gate should be an exercise of discipline. If it takes 30 minutes to get to the gate, they will remember that next time and manage their excitement better. When your dog(s) shows signs of excitement, have him sit until he calms down. Then proceed. Using this procedure will soon teach your pup that he doesn't get to go inside until he can exhibit proper manners. You should be leading him inside, not the other way around. If Fido is pulling you, you're letting him be in charge. That attitude will eventually trickle into everything else that involves your dog. You don't want that. So make sure he knows you are in charge.

At the gate, have your dog sit and calm himself, before entering. If your dog has never been to a dog park, keep the leash on for a while and gauge his readiness for friendly behavior. Your dog should be willing to allow others to sniff his backside. This is a friendly hello, which should be accepted with no concern. Likewise, your dog should be interested in exchanging hellos with others. One of my dog park acquaintances calls this "exchanging business cards"! Another calls it "shaking hands". You get the point. It is the good doggie manners way to greet and be greeted.

When Fido is accepting hellos and giving them without any signs of anxiety, fear or agression, you can consider removing the leash. Stay close and watch his body language. It is your job to stop any escalation of aggressive or dominant behavior BEFORE it gets out of hand. This means correcting your dog, and in more significant cases, can mean your dog needs to submit. Down, lay, stay...until you give permission. Permission is granted when your dog's body language and behavior is completely relaxed and he is paying no attention to other dogs around him. Then he is ready to get up and practice some more. Some dogs need lots of this practice before they are ready to shake hands with others nicely.

Most dogs have few, if any, problems with social interaction of this basic sort. It is usually the anxious, fearful, or shy dogs that may exhibit trouble with socialization. Often leadership is lacking and this brings on the problems. 

A few tips on what NOT to bring to a dog park, for all you first timers:
  1. Never bring food into the dog park. You could create problems, as other dogs will smell it on you.
  2. Bring in toys at your own risk. Some dogs may steal your toy, others may destroy it.
  3. Keep in mind that the dog park is also for socialization. Encourage this activity and use the toys for those days when the park is meagerly populated.
  4. Poop bags and water for your dog may be needed if you are not visiting a park that provides these. It is essential that you keep an eye on your pups and pick up after them immediately. This will keep everyone cleaner and healthier.
  5. Leave your stilletos at home. Dress for the occasion. Many dogs like to jump up and put their paws on visitors, so plan on getting a few paw print hellos.
  6. Handbags, beverages and other things you need to hold or keep track of may become problematic. If you set them down, they're likely to get picked up by a playful pup who sees them as fair game.
Finally, What do you take to the dog park with you? Not much, but there are a few aids that can make the first trip go smoother.
  • If your dog is large and you need help getting him in and out of the car, a ramp is helpful.
  • Boots couldn't hurt, as you might step in something a bit messy, if you don't keep an eye out. My favorite dog park boots are on sale at Amazon right now, so I've included them in the link below. They clean up really easy and are amazingly comfortable.
  • If you have more than one dog, a leash coupler makes things a bit easier. You'll only have one handle to deal with for every two dogs. I have 3 dogs, so I'm speaking from experience.
  • If you go at a time when there aren't likely to be many visitors, like daytime during the week, you might want to bring a ball, Frisbee or "chucker" ( a ball throwing tool for those of us who throw like girls).
  • Make sure there is a towel in the car for cleaning up dirty paws.
  • If you're going to an off-leash area that doesn't have dog park amenities like poop bags and water fountains, then consider this in your preparation.

I hope these tips will help you venture into the world of dog park fun. It is good for your dog and you'll enjoy the people you meet there. I'll be back soon with info on how to locate a dog park near you.


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