Dog Park DOs and DON’Ts

My goal with this blog is to educate owners about dog behavior and training but I also want to give you guys some ideas of cool places in San Antonio to visit with your pup. One huge reason we get dogs is for companionship inside and outside the home, so it’s good to have an array of options for adventures. One category of destinations you’ll see pop up often are dog parks.

Dog parks are a great option for folks who live in cities, where backyards tend to be scarce. They are a great way to get your dog socialized while doing some socializing of your own. People love to chat – especially about their dogs! 98% of my dog park conversations revolve around the dogs. Dog parks create a great outlet for both physical and mental stimulation but they may not always be the safest. I have often seen people encouraging rude doggy behavior, forcing dogs who don’t wish to be there to stay, or simply not paying attention. I’m not going to lie, I have been guilty of a few of these things too! So please read on and share with a friend or two.


Here are some DOs

Research the park before: Not all dog parks are created equal. Look for parks that have a separate area for big and small dogs. Lots of space is important also. If there is a potentially dangerous situation, you’ll want to be able to get some distance from the craziness. I also like parks that have trees for shade and structures for play. Those are great features by themselves, but more importantly those obstacles are great at slowing chaotic “puppy zoomies” which can quickly escalate out of control. Double-gated entrances are also a good idea. Know if there are water stations available, and if not, take your own water and bowl. Try to figure out when peak visiting hours are. Avoid the park when the biggest crowds are out. This can lead to overstimulation and dangerous situations.

Start the adventure the moment you leave the house: Going out for a play adventure is a HUGE life reward! Every moment leading up to entering the dog park can have a big impact on how the actual park date will go. Instead of letting your dog push his way past you to get out the front door and into the car, ask your dog to sit before exiting the house and before jumping into the back seat. Instead of allowing your dog to pull you like a maniac on the walk to the park, reward him for walking well on the leash. You don’t want to start off your adventure on a chaotic “I’m too excited to listen to my human” note. Teach your pup how to calm his brain enough to focus on you during times of excitement.

Observe before entering: Take a look around and observe the dogs and people. Is it packed? Are there dogs that are causing problems? If there are a few red flags, opt for a walk down the trails instead. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Use the double-gated entrance to your advantage: When you enter the pen, take your dog off leash and observe his behavior. Does he look excited to go in? Is he trying to escape? Is he already too aroused to enter calmly? These are all very important factors to take into consideration. Try to get your pup to do a few obedience behaviors before entering. This will not only refocus his attention but it will also force him to say “please” for this super fun reward he’s about to receive. Make sure there isn’t a herd of dogs waiting for you to enter the park. Can you imagine walking into a room where everyone is trying to simultaneously give you a hug and shake your hand? This is what it’s like for your dog when he has to clear a path through a gang of dogs. Talk about overwhelming! If a group congregates despite your best efforts, wait in the pen until the crowd thins.

Walk around: Using movement and distance will be a key factor in your visit to the dog park, especially when you first enter. This will help “turn down the volume” on the very stimulating experience of walking into the park. Keep walking until you feel the energy of the other dogs dissipate – when they stop being so interested in you and your pooch and turn their attention elsewhere. I recommend you keep moving, but you can slow the pace a bit and let your dog wander more. Try not to become stationary in one area for too long and PLEASE don’t park your butt on a picnic table or along the fence. You should be up and monitoring your dog’s interactions with other dogs. Be available to give feedback on the situation. If you find a friend or a friendly stranger to converse with, do so while still keeping a vigilant eye on your canines.

Pick up after your pet: This is another reason to be very aware of your dog and his activities. It’s just your civic duty as a dog owner. It’s important to keep the park clean because it lowers the chance of spreading diseases. Not to mention, would you want your dog to accidentally step in poop and track it everywhere (including your car) because some owner was too lazy or wasn’t paying attention? Even if it was an accident, it’s of little consolation when you’re steam cleaning your back seat. Don’t be one of “them” – be the dog park guest you wish everyone else was.

Practice basic obedience: Periodically, ask your pup to do something. Practice sits and comes often. If the only time you call your dog to you is to leash him up and take him home, guess what? He ain’t going to be coming to you very often. Doing so only teaches your dog that when you call him, his fun ends. Why would he ever want to go to you for that!? Calling your dog to you and asking for a sit is also a good way of keeping your dog from getting overly aroused. The park is a very stimulating environment and it’s very easy for dogs to get too amped up, leading to overly rough play and squabbles. Asking for frequent check-ins keeps your dog’s arousal level from escalating, while reinforcing (and let’s be honest, showing off) his good manners. So simply call your pup, ask for a sit and then let him resume his adventures. Please don’t reward with treats – getting to go back to play is all the reward he needs!

Redirect any inappropriate or bullying behavior: If your dog is overwhelming another dog or vice versa, don’t be afraid to step into the situation to help the little guy out (whoever it is). But please do this carefully! I recommend giving some sort of verbal warning. “Excuse me” or “that’s enough” or “hey there” are some of my favorites. The other dog may not know what these words mean, but often times just asserting your presence will be enough of a distraction to de-escalate the encounter. If that doesn’t do the trick, try stepping in between the dogs. But once again, use caution! You never know how another dog may react to this motion, but I think it’s safer than reaching for the dog’s face or collar. Once you have diffused the situation, try to get some space from that dog and maybe try a reintroduction later.

Know your dog and his quirks: No one knows your dog better than you do. So PLEASE! If your dog has a history of being aggressive, scared, or overly excitable, reconsider taking him to the dog park for your safety, your dog’s safety and the safety of everyone else.

Respect your dog’s wishes: If your dog looks like he doesn’t want to go in, don’t go in. If your dog looks like he’s not having fun anymore, leave. Another thing to consider is the possibility that your dog has outgrown the park. I like to compare this to our social situations. In high school, we liked to go to the movies and bowling allies. In college, our idea of fun might have evolved to drinking, parties and beer pong. Now as an adult, I’d rather ditch the party scene and hang out at a wine bar or on the couch. Your dog’s idea of fun can mature and change also. Maybe your dog would rather sip on some merlot than do keg stands with the youngsters. In that case, spend some time at a restaurant with a dog-friendly patio where your pup can sit quietly with his best friend – you!

For a list of dog-friendly restaurants, visit: http://www.bringfido.com/restaurant/city/san_antonio_tx_us/

Remove any training collars: Choke, prong and shock collars are not a good idea in the park. In fact, they’re downright dangerous. Dogs play with their teeth and by wrestling. These tools cause aversive sensations – in other words, pain, anywhere on the scale from mild to severe. One wrong move can lead to someone getting hurt very badly. You don’t want your dog to get choked, poked or shocked while playing with other dogs. This can lead to a negative association with other dogs and what goes on during play.

Treat every visit like a brand new experience: A park is a very fluid and ever-changing environment. Just because one day was excellent and without incident doesn’t mean the next time will be the same. The dogs are going to be different, as well as the people, the weather, the smells, the sounds, etc. Also, your dog is a living being. He’s not a robot designed to act the same in every situation. Dogs can be grumpy occasionally, just like people. Each day at the park is a brand new opportunity to hit you with brand new experiences, good and bad, so don’t let your guard down.


 

Now let’s talk about some DON’Ts:

Abandon your dog for a book or your phone: You wouldn’t take your kid to the playground and completely ignore him so why would you do that to your dog? This is the time to step up and be a leader for your dog. Walk around with him. Help him through tricky greetings. Provide feedback when he’s polite or not so polite to another dog. Practice those comes and sits!

Take a sick or under-vaccinated dog to the park: Puppies who have not received all their shots should not go to the park. And I don’t mean when they’ve had all their shots that they can get up to that moment. I mean they should have every booster (sometimes three or four sets) AND their rabies vaccinations before they step into a park or any other high-traffic area. You could be putting your puppy at major risk for contracting serious (and possibly fatal) diseases if he’s not fully vaccinated before taking him to a public park. Don’t get me wrong, puppies definitely need socialization and play time, so get it SAFELY with other dogs you know (like those belonging to friends or family) or take your pup somewhere that specializes in puppy school and socialization. Your veterinarian can tell you when it is safe for your puppy to go to the dog park. But remember that adult dogs can get sick too. Not only is it a bad idea to take your dog to the park when he’s sick because he could infect another dog but also because YOUR DOG DOESN’T FEEL WELL. When I’m sick, I’m grumpy. No one wants to deal with other people when they’re sick, so don’t make your dog. It’s another one of your civic duties as a dog owner.

Allow your dog to be a bully: If he’s overwhelming someone or bothering another dog, redirect his attention. He needs to learn to respect other dogs’ boundaries. It’s only polite.

Enter with the leash on: Use the area in between the double gates at the entrance to take the leash off. Sometimes I let Sully drag the leash for a little bit but be careful with this. The leash may get caught on something or another dog may think it’s a fun toy. Dog trainers have different opinions on this subject but I think the leash can lead to more trouble than good. This is why it’s very important to have your dog and his state of mind under control before entering. If your dog has a history of bolting through the doors and acting like a fool, you should work on more training (like coming when called) in less stimulating environments. Going to the park is a privilege, not a right, so make your dog work for it.

Punish for growling or snapping: If your dog growls or snaps at another dog and it is warranted (i.e. the other dog was being rude or pushy) DO NOT get mad at your dog. Ideally, you should step in before the situation escalates to this point, but sometimes a dog will only listen to another dog. When your dog growls or snaps in that instance, he is asking for space and telling the other dog that he won’t tolerate his rudeness. If you punish your dog for these warnings, you are taking away his voice. If he learns he shouldn’t ask for space, the next time he gets pushed past his limit he may do something worse than growl.

Bring your dog’s favorite toy: This is a recipe for disaster. Your dog may feel comfortable sharing the toy at his house with one or two of his friends but may feel differently at a park with a group of dogs he doesn’t know.

Allow children to run in the park: The dog park can be fun for the entire family. But when a kid runs around screaming in the park, imagine what that might look like to a dog. Maybe a giant, juicy squirrel begging to be hunted down? Lots of dogs have strong chase instincts and prey drives. Another thing to keep in mind is that not all dogs are raised with kids or understand kids’ erratic behaviors. Sully falls into this category. To him, kids are scary. So unless you want your kid to get bitten in the butt, don’t allow them to run in the park.

All in all, parks are a great way for your dog to let loose and have some fun. But as with everything else, taking your dog to the dog park comes with responsibilities. The more you follow these guidelines, the greater the chance that every trip to the park is going to be a good one. So be careful, have fun and be your dog’s leader in that crazy canine world!


This post is crammed full of great information, but make sure to check back in next week! As a follow up to these dog park guidelines, I will be discussing what constitutes appropriate play and what polite greetings look like. This additional information will help make every dog park visit the safest (and most fun!) it can be!

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