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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Visiting the Dog Park: Tips for a Possitive Experience

Now that the weather is getting nicer here in the north Ashley and I are beginning to make visits to the nearby dog parks. Even though we live in the country and Ashley has a lot of room for running and exploring, I feel that going to the dog parks helps keep her social skills well tuned. Over the years I have learned a few things that have made our visits to the dog park fun for both Ashley and myself. Here are some tips for making your visit to the dog park a positive experience for both dog and owner.

1. Make sure you have your dog's vaccinations up to date. Your dog will meet a lot of new dogs and you need to make sure it is protected. Besides Rabies and Distemper vaccines your dog should also get Bordetella vaccine to protect it from  Kennel Cough. Kennel Cough is a respiratory disease that can be easily spread. You should also make sure that your dog is spayed or neutered.

2. Before you take your dog into a dog park, spend a few minutes watching the other dogs and how they are playing and interacting with others. If the dogs seem to be too rough in their play or are intimidating other dogs, come back some other time.

3. Be careful entering a dog park gate. Other dogs tend to crowd around to greet arriving dog. This jostling and crowding can be quite intimidating to many dogs and may result in a skirmish, or worse. Dog parks should have a safe entrance and exit for the park with double gates. If other dogs run to meet Ashley we usually spend a little time between gates so that she can say "hi" through the entrance gate. That way I can also get an idea about how she is feeling about her greeters before entering the park.

4. Supervise your dog. This is not the time for you to be distracted talking with other owners or burying yourself in a book. You must be monitoring your dog’s activities to be sure she isn’t being badly and other dogs are not behaving badly toward her.

5. Have a good understanding of typical dog behavior. When dogs get together they tend to size each other up, do a little sniffing to find out about their new potential friend, and may have to spend a moment determining status. Understanding dog communication is important.  Ashley is not generally a dominant dog but she will often send a message to younger dogs who may be a little too forward. Remember that mounting behavior is a way that dogs establish status or dominance. While it can be a bit embarrassing for owners, dogs need to understand their rank or status when they are in a group. 

6. Take your dog off leash.  If you’ve done the recommended training, checked out the safety and design of the park, and observed the other dogs before entering, you’ve done what you can to give your dog a fun and safe experience. Leashes interfere with the natural body language of the dog, dogs can get tangled up in them and dogs who become stressed by constant pulling against a leash can act in undesirable ways. Besides, most
parks require that your dog be off-leash.

7. Save treats (and toys) for later. There’s just too much potential for dogs to engage in guarding or stealing behavior that can lead to aggression and fights.

8. Stay as long as your dog is enjoying the experience. There have been times that our trip to the park was cut short because Ashley was stressed from some of the activities of other dogs or owners. Although she is a very social dog she doesn't have a lot of patience with other dogs who have poor manners. She isn't a "go with the flow" type of dog so if things around her seem unpredictable she gets nervous making the trip less fun for her and me.

9. Please, pick up after your dog. This is important for maintaining a good relationship with the other human visitors at the park. Most parks provide bags but I always bring my own just in case.

10. Have realistic expectations about your dog’s suitability for going to a dog park. If she isn’t polite or friendly with others, get help to change his behavior before you take him to a dog park. Dog parks are not a place to rehabilitate fearful or aggressive dogs or those that just don’t know how to play well with others.

Understand, also, your dog's breed and the tendencies that come with it. Ashley is an Australian Shepherd so she has a strong need to herd anything that is running. This has caused some problems at parks as she has tried herding the other dogs as they make their laps around the park.  Because of this, we do a little refresher of the come, wait, and stay commands before entering the park.

It's important to understand that by taking your dog to a dog park, you are accepting a degree of risk that your dog may be injured or may injure another dog.  You and your dog will meet a wide range of dogs with varying degrees of training and dog owners who may not understand dog behavior. We have seen both dogs and owner behaving badly during some visits. Although Ashley and I have had a couple of bad experiences at dog parks, rather than keeping us from future visits I've chosen to use them as learning experiences.  Most often, she loves her visits to parks and the opportunity to meet new people and dogs. It's also fun for me to watch her enjoy her experience at the park. Keep these tips in mind and you and your dog will also have a rewarding and enjoyable dog park experience.

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