Keeping Your Dog Safe at the Dog Park
How to ensure your dog has only good experiences at the dog park.
Dog parks have gotten a bad rap in the past few years, thanks in large part to articles written and statements made by training and behavior professionals. That’s unfortunate, because, while there are, indeed, problems with some dog parks, a well-run facility can be a lifesaver for some dogs.
These days, most dog park administrators understand the need for rules that purport to regulate, at least to some degree, the behavior of the canines and humans who avail themselves of the dog park privilege. Problems arise when there’s no one in attendance to monitor the action and enforce the rules. Some parks run well on a peer-pressure basis, but this format often acts only to evict an offender after a problem arises – sometimes a serious one – rather than screening users in advance to prevent problems.
The majority of official dog parks are municipally owned and operated. I am always delighted to see communities recognize that dog owners and their canine family members are as deserving of a slice of the local park pie as are soccer players and Little League teams. However, very few municipally run dog parks provide adequate supervision. They put up the fence, post signs with rules, and keep the grass watered and mowed, and that’s it. When problems arise, animal control is called, and the issue may or may not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
The ideal model for a successful dog park is a privately owned or very well-supervised municipal facility where dogs are screened before being accepted and owners are issued membership cards that they swipe to gain entry through a locked gate. The park should have at least one attendant on duty during park-use hours, to intercede, hopefully before a problem behavior becomes serious, but if not, at least to manage the situation after something occurs.
Half the problems (or should I say at least half the problems) at many dog parks stem from human behavior rather than dog behavior. When you take your dog to a park your primary responsibility is to keep your eyeballs on her and intercede if/when things are getting dicey.
There can be a fine line between two dogs happily playing body-slam and chew-face, and the moment one decides he’s had enough and things escalate to real snapping and snarling. If you and your dog-owner friend are drinking wine and chatting with your backs to the action, you’ll miss the early warning signs that trouble is brewing, and lose the opportunity to intervene before things turn ugly. Oops, too late! Now there’s a full-blown dogfight, and you’ve lost your dog park privileges. Turn in your membership card!
Rule-ignoring is also a problem. See that 85-pound Shepherd in the small-dog area? That’s a tragedy waiting to happen. The owner who is blithely feeding her dog pieces of chicken while her toddler tried to hug the pretty doggies, even though the sign says “no treats in the off-leash area” and “no children under 8”? Another disaster in the making. Maybe two or three.
Well-run parks have paid staff whose job it is, among other things, to make sure dogs and humans play by the rules. Parks that aren’t staffed are likely to have a much higher rate of unfortunate incidents than those that do, thanks in large part to those oblivious owners who think that rules only apply to others. If you plan to play in the park with your dog, be sure you’re not one of them.
Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have a well-run dog park in your community. How to do you if your dog is a good dog park candidate? For starters, she must already play well with others. A dog park is for socializing, not for socialization. It’s a terrific place for a dog who already understands how to read and respond appropriately to the body language of other dogs. It’s a great place for a dog who enjoys the company of other dogs and likes to engage in appropriate play. It’s not the right place for a dog who is socially challenged. The undersocialized dog needs to learn those skills elsewhere, and may never be comfortable with rowdy play styles of unknown stranger dogs in a dog park setting.
If your dog is undersocialized, she needs to learn her canine social skills in a more controlled environment than a dog park. Pair her with one appropriate dog, who will tolerate her social ineptness. If yours is a little shy, a calm, stable adult dog can help her learn that other dogs are okay, maybe even fun to be around. If yours is a Rowdy Roberta who never learned when to back off, a more energetic playmate is in order, but one who will politely, firmly, and without taking offense, tell your dog when enough is enough. In time, you hope, she will learn to self-inhibit her over-excited play, and be ready for group action. Or not. Some dogs are never good candidates for dog park membership.
It’s perfectly normal for some dogs to eschew group play even from an early age. Others start out in life happy to play with all comers, but as they mature, decide they’d rather have a small circle of intimate play partners rather than interact with the canine hoi polloi found at most dog parks. Dogs who love to romp with any and all takers for their entire lives are the exception rather than the rule in the canine world – really not all that different from humans in that respect, when you think about it.
If you have any doubts about your dog’s suitability for dog-park-play, get an outside opinion. Ask a competent dog behavior and training professional or a very dog-knowledgeable friend to evaluate your dog’s social skills before taking the park plunge and risking an incident that could put your dog and others at risk of harm. It could be a costly mistake if your dog attacks another and you end up paying vet bills and dancing to the often-onerous demands of your local dangerous dog ordinance.
If you do think your dog is a good park candidate, be sure you’re making an honest assessment. It’s easy to be blinded by your love for your canine pal. Unless he has a history of playing well with lots of dogs in a wide variety of situations, approach your dog park experience with caution. Make his first visit to the park at a low-usage time, perhaps accompanied by that dog-knowledgeable friend who can help you interpret his behavior around other dogs and assist with intervention should things not go according to plan. You cannot be too careful. And remember that dogs don’t have to go to dog parks.
Here are some things to look for:
-Space and fencing. The best parks are several acres or more, and are enclosed by a sturdy, well-maintained fence that’s at least six feet high, perhaps with an anti-climb device on the top, and preferably buried in the ground at the bottom. If the area is too small for the number of dogs, there is a greater risk of canine conflict; the more space there is, the easier it is for a dog to avoid dogs that make her uncomfortable. And, of course, good fencing prevents escapes.
Another vital escape-protection and safety measure is an “airlock” system of gates, where dogs and their humans enter the park into a small enclosed space with another gate to the actual park run area. The owner removes the dog’s leash in this airlock, checks to be sure the gate behind her is latched, and then opens the gate into the park. This prevents dogs from slipping out when a new dog enters the park, and also avoids the “one dog on-leash being mauled by a pack of loose dogs” scenario that can give rise to aggression and fear-causing incidents.
There should be at least two separately fenced areas in the park, clearly designated for large and small dogs, and owners should respect the designations. Even better: four or more separate areas clearly defined by size and play-style, so dogs who enjoy a good game of “chase me” aren’t being tackled by body-slammers.
-Maintenance. Upkeep of the facility is another important consideration. Scrutinize the conditions of the park. Is the grass mowed and nurtured, or is the park a muddy mess with overgrown weeds? There are some parks that are kept in a more natural state – especially parks that are larger and include woods and meadows and real hiking trails, but the entrance and social area should still be well maintained. If there’s equipment for dogs to play on, it should also be kept up – painted, no splintered or rotten wood, and no exposed nails.
-Rules. All good dog parks have rules. They should be clearly posted in plain view and obeyed. The best parks have someone in attendance to monitor rule compliance as well as user comfort and safety. Some assign their human users a numbered armband that they are required to wear when using the park so if there is an incident of some kind the culprit can be easily identified. Read the rules to be sure you are willing and able to comply with them before taking your dog to the park.
-Ambience. Visit the park at several different times of day without your dog. You’ll see usage patterns – low, high, and moderate-use times throughout the day. You may also see specific groups of dogs who tend to come at fairly fixed times. With this information you can make deliberate decisions about when you want to bring your dog (high or low usage) and which groups of dogs might be the best match for her (and which dog owners you might most like to hang out with – it’s a social outing for you, too!).
If everything looks positive after your fair and careful assessment of the park and your dog, you’re in luck! Now it’s time to go to the park with your dog. Pick a low usage time at first, even if you’re convinced she will have a blast with the group of six-to-eight dogs that normally gathers at 6 pm.
Do this a few times, at least, until she’s clearly delighted to be there. This will give her a chance to explore and get comfortable with the environment without being mobbed and overwhelmed. Her introduction to the 6 pm group will go much more smoothly if she’s not distracted and wondering where the heck she is. The positive association she gets from being and playing there without being stressed by a pack of dogs will help her through any stress that may arise as a result of being greeted by multiple dogs.
When you’re ready for 6 pm, stop by at that time, again without your dog, and let the group know you’ll soon be a newbie in their group. Tell them about your dog, to help ease any concerns they may have about an addition to the 6 pm club.
When you do bring your dog, get there early, assuming there’s less dog traffic while everyone is still at work. Let her run and work off some energy while you’re waiting for the others to arrive. This way she gets to meet and greet them one-at-a-time instead of in a bunch. This is likely to make introductions go more smoothly.
For appropriate dogs, the opportunity to run, play, and socialize with other dogs can be a real blessing to canines and their humans. I still have fond memories from when I was working at the Marin Humane Society (Novato, California) 15-plus years ago of the “dog-pack hikes” that staff would take with their dogs at the nearby off-leash open space areas. We all would return from that lunchtime hike in the hills, dogs tired and humans more relaxed, much better able to deal with the stressors of shelter work.
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog training classes and courses for trainers. Pat is also author of many books on positive training, including her newest, Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance at a First-Class Life.
Pay Attention to Your Dog’s Behavior and Body Language
National Dog Bite Prevent Week
The Trainer's Role
by Laura Roach, CPDT-KA
National Dog Bite Prevention Week is May 19-25 and it is our duty, as trainers, to help educate our clients on how their families should safely interact with their favorite four-legged family members. More than 4.5 million people each year are bitten by dogs and 50% of dog bites are to children 12 and under. The majority of dog bites could have been prevented through education.
So What are the Facts?
· More than 4.5 million people each year are bitten by dogs
· Children are most often affected and, when bitten, are more seriously injured
· More than 800,000 people receive medical attention for dog bites each year, and over half of them are children
· Most dog bites to children happen during normal, everyday activities with their dogs, and while interacting with familiar dogs
We need to teach both adults and children how to properly interact with dogs, both familiar and unfamiliar. As dogs have become man's best friend, our trust in them has skyrocketed, but the truth remains that they still have undesirable behaviors that are innate and can be triggered by their human counterparts.
Here are some simple tips to give children when talking to them about interacting with dogs, including their own dog.
· When a dog is busy, leave her alone. Don't try to take her food, toys or bones.
· Never wake a dog up who is sleeping.
· Don't kiss, hug or pick up your dog.
· Never poke, kick, or slap a dog.
· Don't pull on their ears, tails or fur and don't mess with their feet.
· Never approach a dog you don't know.
· If a dog approaches you that you don't know, stand still. Keep your hands at your side and don't look at the dog.
· Always stay calm around dogs. Don't yell, shout or run.
· If you see a dog you want to pet, ask their human for permission first.
Adults never think their own dog would bite, but put in the right circumstance, any dog can. Educate parents on the do's and don'ts they should teach their kids. Also, recommend the following:
· Spay or neuter your pet
· Don't allow your dog to roam loose
· Don't chain your dog up, especially if people can access your yard
· Supervision is the key! Always monitor your dog when she is around your children or other people. Especially if your dog is around children 12 and under.
· Properly socialize your dog
We can all do our part in helping to lower the instances of dog bites through educating our clients.
Yorkie Passes AKC Community Canine Test in Grand Central
By Mary Burch, AKC CGC Director
It's usually not a good sign when a police officer is holding your dog.
The dog in the photo is Chowsie, a Yorkshire Terrier owned by Liz Donovan
of New York City.
Chowsie didn't get pulled over for speeding, although he was one fast little dog.
And he didn't get arrested for breaking any rules. As a matter of fact, his behavior
So perfect that recently, he passed the AKC Community Canine (advanced CGC)
test in Grand Central Terminal, NYC.
So in this photo,the news was good — Chowsie was getting some serious
from a Grand Central K9 officer.
"What amazed me the most," said CGC Director, Mary Burch, who tested
Chowsie, "was the incredible confidence of this little dog. He was unflappable
and happy to be there. He should be a poster child for toy breeds everywhere.
He strutted through one of the busiest locations in the world like he owned the place."
When asked if she had any tips for training a breed that so many people carry everywhere
in a purse, Liz Donovan said, "I've been working on his behavior for his whole life.
He's 7 years old; he got his CGC when he was 1 year old. We trained at Petsmart through CGC
. But I work every single day on maintaining his skills at home and in the neighborhood."
Donovan didn't take all the credit. She was quick to acknowledge Chowsie's breeder.
"Carolyn Nestor, the breeder, gave me a dog with the best natural temperament and
she worked so hard to socialize him in the first 12 weeks of his life, so I had a well-behaved,
confident puppy to start with."
So BRAVO, Chowsie, CGCA! And just remember, “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.”