Are off-leash dog parks and dog runs good for your dog? Learn how to pick a dog park and use it safely.
Be Cautious When You Bring Your Adult Dog to a Dog Park
Dog parks and dog runs present similar problems for adult dogs, except that a confident, behaviorally healthy adult dog should be better able to take the occasional difficult encounter in stride. Still, go at uncrowded times and check out the party carefully before you go in. Watch for tension, posturing, ganging up, and if you see them or other undesirable behavior, come back later.
If you have a small dog, stick to areas designated for them. Large dogs can easily intimidate or hurt smaller dogs without even trying. And sometimes, play tips over into predatory behavior, as if the large dog stops recognizing the smaller animal as a dog. I haven’t found any solid information about the prevalence of such “predatory drift,” but the potential for tragedy is obvious.
Should You Bring Toys and Treats to the Dog Park?
Because many dogs guard toys and treats, it’s generally best to leave these at home. I say that with a wince, though--in urban areas, the dog park may be the only place available for a game of fetch. If you do bring a toy, be careful and sensitive. If your dog will argue over his ball, then don’t bring his ball. On the other hand, even a dog who just delivers polite warnings to pushy dogs, such as a brief freeze or a lip curl, may eventually meet a dog who escalates in response. Most dog squabbles do little or no injury, but be aware of the risk.
[[AdMiddle]If your dog doesn’t pick fights but tends to pester dogs who have toys, teach him a rock-solid “Leave it” or come-when-called, and use it. And if yours is the dog who steps up the argument when another dog warns him away, he shouldn’t visit the dog park at all.
Don’t Go to Dog Parks If Your Dog Has Behavior Problems
My neighborhood in Brooklyn has an email list to which someone just posted in dismay following the third time the same dog jumped her dog during off-leash hours at the local park. Years ago, I repeatedly brought a problem dog to off-leash hours because whenever we had an uneventful visit I told myself that really, he was okay. Somehow it was harder to remember the many occasions when he picked a fight. Don’t be like my long-ago self! Your dog’s behavior won’t improve if you keep putting him in situations he can’t handle, and it’s unfair to subject other dogs to his problems.
The reverse is also true. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, dumping her into the deep end of the dog run isn’t going to help her feel better about them, any more than dumping me into a vat full of cockroaches would make me feel all cheerful about shiny skittering oval ugh. Spare her; hire a behavior specialist to help you ease her fears.
Does Your Dog Need to Play with Other Dogs?
Fear and aggression aside, somehow many of us have gotten this idea that all normal dogs enjoy meeting and greeting and playing in dog parks. It’s not true, any more than it’s true that all socially healthy people enjoy big loud parties where they know hardly anybody. Sure, many puppies and adolescents happily play with any willing dog. But most socially mature dogs play less with other dogs, and even seem less eager to interact with them.
An adult dog who has a few dog buddies and who politely greets new dogs but then minds her own business has no particular social need for the dog park. If it’s your only off-leash option, fine. But if you have other choices, consider them. She’ll have at least as much fun taking a long off-leash hike with some canine and human friends, or just playing fetch or tug with you in the backyard.
As for dogs who respond aggressively to other dogs, appropriate behavior modification may be able to help him make some dog friends, but unscripted off-leash encounters with random dogs are probably off the table forever. So what? A dog can live happily with no dog friends at all, provided he has human company and enough physical exercise and mental stimulation. You might be pleasantly surprised to find how deep the bond between you and your dog can grow when you play and train with her during the time you might otherwise have spent picking lice off your fellow primates.
I welcome your comments and questions–email firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can talk to me on Facebook, where, amazingly enough, I’m The Dog Trainer. Dogalini is me on Twitter. That’s it for this week – thanks for reading, and now go play with your dog!
Bennett, Robin, and Susan Briggs. Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun. (C&R Publishing, 2008).
Smith, Cheryl. Visiting the Dog Park: Having Fun, Staying Safe (Dogwise, 2007).
Cheryl Smith’s handy one-page “Dog Park Tips” – well worth printing out, laminating, and posting at the entrance to any dog park or dog run!