In 1979 Berkeley formed what is considered to be the first fenced dog park in the country. Today those parks are everywhere and reported as growing faster than any other type of park in the United States. They can be a great source of physical and, yes, mental exercise for dogs as well as a time for socialization and play. They are not, however, without problems.
Some people come to the park to socialize with one another or work and play on their cell phones, but not to watch their dogs. Others can never accept that their dog may cause a problem or don’t belong off-leash with others. Clearly, all those people need some training.
Check out the park before going in. Are dogs running out of control or playing too roughly? Does it look like things could escalate into a fight? A few of the dogs in the park may have any one of a variety of issues. Figure out who their owners are, and if you can’t, don’t go in because that means those people are not watching or controlling their dogs.
The first thing to consider is whether or not your dog should be in an off-leash area with other dogs. If your dog plays too roughly or is sometimes a bully that hounds and intimidates other dogs, then you have some work to do first. Likewise, if your dog is shy or fearful, those issues can become worse if your dog has to interact with a bully, and keep in mind that some fearful dogs become aggressive dogs. Some issues are easy to overcome with basic dog training or a bit of behavioral work. A serious aggression issue, however, means that dog doesn’t belong running off-leash with others.
Set up your dog’s park experiences for success. Get basic training down first and make sure “Come” is on automatic in all situations. Recall becomes harder when your dog is engaged off-leash with others. So, practice calling your dog in increasingly difficult situations. You need to have your dog under voice control for its and others’ safety. Work with a trainer or educate yourself on how to overcome minor behavioral issues first.
If your dog is fearful or shy, arrange private play dates. Allow your dog to meet and greet calm and friendly dogs with their owner’s permission, and the set-up is even better if the other owner understands that your dog is fearful. Keep those meetings down to a second or two at first. The moment you see that your dog might become concerned, move on. Don’t panic. Don’t communicate your own concerns to your dog. Just be upbeat and friendly to the dog and its owner and move on. The goal is for your dog to find every meeting pleasant.
On the other hand, if your dog is likely to become wild, somewhat aggressive, or is a bully, you need to work on those issues with a trainer before going to a dog park.
I recently adopted an undernourished, 10-pound “Schnoodle” puppy. He’s friendly, fearless, hyper-energetic, and really wants to romp with big dogs. When playing, he leaps on dogs, wrestles, teases them to chase him, but doesn’t get aggressive. He definitely started out his life with me not paying the slightest attention when a dog said, “Enough.”
During our first two dog park experiences, some large dogs got really rough with him when he didn’t stop. Two were basically bullies and one became aggressive. That dog shouldn’t have been in the park, but all three owners should have been controlling their dog under control.
However, I can’t change the behavior of an ever-changing group of dogs and people at a park. What I can do is work on my own dog’s behavior.
First I set up some play dates with a friend and her two totally non-aggressive collies. One is totally patient. The other collie less so. But I knew neither one would hurt my little guy. I tired him out beforehand with play to dampen his energy. During those visits, he began to understand what size difference could mean to his well-being and to acknowledge dog body language when a dog didn’t want any more play.
In the meantime, I took him for long walks to give him needed exercise and tire him out. Those outings were another training opportunity. I used the same basic concept as with shy dogs, but handled the situation completely differently. As other dogs and owners approached, I explained his playful and harmless, although sometimes obnoxious, behavior and what I was trying to do. I asked if a meet and greet was appropriate and made my own assessment of their dog’s demeanor. He had at least a brief greeting that I would let go on until the other dog was becoming slightly annoyed. I allowed my puppy to be mildly told off without putting him or the other dog in harm’s way. I thanked the person and moved on before either dog became seriously testy. No matter what happened, I appeared calm – acting classes long ago helped – friendly, and in charge.
His behavior has changed dramatically. We now go to a park for small dogs and everyone has a good time. After carefully checking the action inside, we’ve even made some short forays into parks for all sizes. Frankly, most of the time we still just walk past and go to the park for small dogs instead.
The bottom line is that we all have a responsibility for keeping our dog parks safe for our own dog and others. We can think our dog is the cutest and friendliest – as I certainly do – but if that dog can be the source of a problem, we still need to first resolve behavior issue that could cause a difficult situation. We need to do some training, find a different way to exercise that dog in the meantime, and certainly leave a park immediately when we see the potential for a problem to occur. Many dog behavior issues are easy to resolve with a bit of training and patience. And everyone, please watch your dog when at a park and be proactive.
Sasha Futran is a dog trainer in Berkeley. She sees people for private training and behavior modification consultations in the East Bay when she isn’t involved in trying to help save radio station KPFA from extinction. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Main article photo by: Photo by istock/studio-laska