Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH
With a new dog park in town and a second opening soon, I thought this would be a good time to talk about some dog park etiquette. I have found that often people think that at a dog park dogs can be dogs and the finer points of manners are less important. This could not be further from the truth. When you are enclosing lots of dogs in the same space you are increasing the excitement level, which can lead to trouble if you aren’t paying attention.
The great thing about dog parks is that dogs can get together to socialize, run, play, and not have owners worrying about them forming a pack and running away to live off the land. When the dusk is falling you can still have your dog running off leash without worry. When you’ve had a long day on your feet and you just aren’t up for walking; hanging out while they run is a relief.
If you have a single dog or one active and one quiet dog, meeting up with dog friends is often just the thing to tire them out. I’m lucky (though I’m not positive that is the correct adjective) to have two dogs with high, high (really high) energy levels. For this reason, when I walk they run ten times what I walk and tire each other out. Dog friends make our work easier. For all of these reasons, I am a big proponent of dog parks.
There is a “but” coming. Dog parks are absolutely not an alternative to training your dog. Sure, they can’t run away within a fence, but recall and manners are still very important. Often people use dog parks to socialize their puppies, and this is NOT appropriate. If puppies encounter large groups of dogs before they are self aware, they will be scared and their socialization will be set back. If you are meeting one friend with a dog in the park, that is wonderful. If you drop your puppy or nervous dog into a group of ten barking running beasts, not wonderful. Puppies should mostly play with gentle dogs or puppies of their own age group. I liken these peak times at dog parks to frat parties. Sure they are fun when you are confident, social and aware of your own boundaries. But taking a four year old to one will definitely not help their socialization with peers. If you are a little bit insecure, being surrounded by a lot of loud and rowdy people will not put you at ease.
I will talk about a few things that make dog parks safe and fun.
Your dog should listen when you call it or ask it to do something. The only way to get dogs very good at doing something when they are distracted is repetition. I can very easily talk on the phone while getting dressed. This is because I get dressed so often that I don’t need to think about it. Your dog needs to be so familiar with a command that they do it without thinking. Then when they are very stimulated or inclined not to pay attention and you ask them to “sit,” they will do it before they think about the reasons not to. And trust me, there are a lot of reasons not to.
Dogs need to be socialized slowly, which is especially important when they are young or in a new home. As dogs meet others, they learn what play works and what play makes others upset. Puppies are more in the run, jump and punch category, but get very overwhelmed easily. They fall over often, and if another dog was involved it can feel more like a push. Puppies should start out with one gentle, understanding playmate, and slowly work up as their self confidence increases.
Some dogs like others more and some dogs are less social. This is the hardest concept for many people, but I ask you to put yourselves in their place. Kids don’t like everyone in their classes. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to behave nicely, but it does mean that you won’t force play dates on them. I know you have been invited to a wedding where you beg the universe not to be seated with that one person.
There are dogs that my dogs are drawn to and love immediately, and others that they don’t get along with. Often I don’t understand it, but I do try and respect it. One of my dogs and one of my mom’s dogs do not like each other. They have an uneasy truce where they can walk together and be in the same house if needed, but turning them loose in a park and expecting them to play would be like throwing you together with that one work friend that you really don’t enjoy (I speak for others, all my workers are A+.) Let your dogs set their own boundaries, and teach them to respect and play nicely but also that it’s OK to avoid. In that same vein, if a dog is trying to avoid yours, please help them. Call your dog off so they aren’t harassing a dog who is intimidated, even if your dog is being nice.
I will continue this topic next week, focusing on health topics and what it is important to do before you join up at the park.