Seattle is blessed with lots of Dog Parks, which can be wonderful places for your dog to get physical and mental exercise. While adult dogs donâ€™t need as much free play with other dogs as you might think, a little here and there is a great idea and exercise is essential. Unfortunately, your dog can also pick up bad habits at the dog park, like fear, aggression, rough play, and ignoring you. Some professional dog trainers refer to dog parks as “a guarantee of future employment,” because so many behavioral problems start at the park.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help prevent these problems. In fact, you can use the joys of the park to your advantage, and practice all sorts of good behaviors while walking through the park. If your dog already has these problems, stop going to the park and consult a professional dog trainer.
When trainers recommend socialization for puppies or dogs, they donâ€™t just mean exposure to other dogs. You probably wouldnâ€™t let a 5 month old human child play roughly with a group of ten year olds, so why put your dog at risk? Puppies under the age of 6 months should not be in the dog park, especially at peak times. Proper socialization is positive, controlled exposure. If you are ever unsure of an encounter in the park, move along, while the experience is still positive to your dog.
My most basic recommendations: AVOID PACKS, KEEP MOVING, DONâ€™T MIX ON-LEASH WITH OFF-LEASH, DONâ€™T BRING YOUNG CHILDREN INTO THE PARK, and BE CAREFUL WITH TOYS.
If you have any young children, you should probably leave them at home. Many dogs are not socialized around children and you are putting your child at risk. This is not the way to get Timmy used to dogs! Your dog may also feel the need to protect young Timmy. For many dogs, it’s best to leave the treats at home, too, so your dog doesnâ€™t feel the need to protect those, either.
Here’s the way I recommend that you make your way through the park.
Step 0: Visit the park without your dog to see if the park is right for you and your dog. Practice calling your dog before you go to the park, so you know he will come when called. Bring Spray Shield to break up big fights, if you’re the helping sort or your dog tends to get picked on.
Step 1: Get from the car to the park on leash. Why on
- Keep your dog safe from cars.
- Keep your dog from harassing or attacking other peopleâ€™s dogs. Mixing leashed and unleashed dogs can be dangerous!
- Practice not pulling, using the park as the reward.
Step 2: Unleash your dog as soon as you get into the park; if possible, while you are still between the two gates.
- Ask for a sit, using taking off the leash as the reward. If you donâ€™t think she will sit, donâ€™t ask. Work on it at home first.
- Dogs on leash can be aggressive to off-leash dogs, or even other on-leash dogs. Help your dog to not develop this problem by taking off the leash and not letting her get harassed while sheâ€™s on leash at the park. If she already has this problem, contact a professional trainer.
Step 3: Grab some bags, or better yet, bring your own from home. The first thing your dog will probably want to do is eliminate in the park.
Step 4: Keep moving. Donâ€™t stand around in the field, waiting for your dog to get harassed, unless there are only one or two other dogs there. Yes, only one or two, in a giant field. You are her guardian and protector. Use that human brain to protect her from known dangers.
- In groups of 3 or more (sometimes even 2), dogs will pack up and harass one of the dogs in
the group. If your dog is spending all of his time running, instead of alternating with play-bowing and chasing the other dog, he is probably not playing. One way to check whether your dog is playing or being harassed is to call him over (or rescue him from the other dog) and wait a few seconds. Let go and see where your dog goes. If he heads back to the other dog, and the other dog also heads toward yours, life is good. They both want to play. Otherwise, one of them was not playing and itâ€™s time to move on. If youâ€™re unsure, move on!
- Some dogs at the park are not good playmates for your dog, even if you like their human and want to chat. There are bullies and there are dogs with different play styles. If you keep moving, your dog has a chance to sniff politely and move on. If you just stand there, he has nowhere to go. If your dog seems to like the other dog, and the feeling is mutual, by all means stay and let them play. Make sure it IS play, alternating roles, where one dog chases and the other is chased. You might consider setting up a play date with your dogâ€™s new friend.
- Constant boxing play is not a great sign, for most breeds. If that starts to happen (up on hind legs for more than a few times), move on before it escalates. It may be fine 9 times out of 10, but that tenth time is whatâ€™s going to cost you a lot of money: paying for injuries to your dog or the other dog, fixing the behavioral problems your dog has picked up, or all three!
- If you see a huge pack of dogs coming down the trail, you might want to take your dog off to the side, or even turn around and head the other direction. This depends on his personality, and how he deals with other dogs. To be safe, you should avoid the pack by calmly turning around and heading back the way you came or moving to the side while you walk past the other dogs.
Step 5: Play and train with your dog. Youâ€™re there to have fun with your dog, so enjoy the time you have together.
- The dog park is not a great place to teach new cues, but if your dog has already worked around distractions, you can use the park as a place to practice even more. If your dog is fairly good at understanding the sit and stay cues, ask her to sit and stay, move as far off as she will be successful at, then release her and ask her to come, while you take off running. Your dog will love it.
- You can play fetch, but be careful. Donâ€™t set your dog up to chase a ball into a group of other dogs. This will only encourage him to growl at other dogs over his toy. Only play fetch when there are no dogs in the immediate vicinity and at most two other dogs around.
- Ask him to sit or lie down or anything else that he knows how to do (in this highly distracting environment) before you throw the toy. The park is a great place to practice your training. When only a few dogs around, I like to ask my dog to sit and stay, walk a ways down the path, then release him and throw the ball behind him. That helps make his stay steady.
- If your dogâ€™s idea of a good time is stealing othersâ€™ toys, be careful! That sort of thing is going to get him in a fight. If he is harassing another dog, just move on! It might also help to practice a cue like â€śLeave itâ€ť at home, gradually building it up to the high-stakes stuff at the dog park.
- Throughout the time at the park, call your dog to you occasionally and tell her what a genius she is. If you have a toy, thatâ€™s a great time to bring it out. If you practice calling your dog five times while youâ€™re at the park, she wonâ€™t be so unwilling to come at the end, when itâ€™s time to go home. You might even go back to the gate, call her, and then pull out a toy and play fetch again. Be sure there are not a bunch of dogs around you when you try this, or youâ€™ll be setting her up to get mugged by the other dogs.
Step 6: If at all possible, you might want to avoid hosing your dog off at the end of the time at the park, unless she enjoys it. At the very least, donâ€™t actually call her to you for this, or youâ€™ll be punishing her for coming when called!
Step 7: Clip his leash on near the gate (or between the two gates if the park has an “airlock” and take him back to the car on leash. In the car, he should be crated or in a safety harness. Be sure the harness can actually hold his weight, which will range from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds in an accident. Most of the harnesses sold in pet stores hold only a few hundred pounds, so choose yours wisely.
Check the Seattle Parks and Recreation list of Seattle dog parks. For other off-leash opportunities and evaluations of each park, check out the Explorer Dog website. The best alternative to the dog park is to have a few select playmates for your dog. If you need help finding some playmates, post an ad in our Dog Play Classifieds.
No guarantee is stated or implied in this article and if you follow any of the advice in it, you do so at your own risk. If you ever feel that you, your dog, or others are at risk because of your dog, please seek the services of a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. Written by Grisha Stewart, Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle