My recent experience with a dog park began with a Borzoi I rehomed from an employee. Arturo and I began walking together daily. Soon it became apparent that we were physically an odd couple, not exactly matched. The Borzoi is a tall, slender breed, built for running. I am none of these. I was walking as fast as I could, with the dog floating beside me, not even breaking into a trot. Arturo, being the mature gentleman, was gracious enough not to make an issue of this. He didn’t pull on the leash or drag me around the neighborhood. But he would occasionally look over at me as if to say, “Is this all you’ve got?”
Determined to give my dog some decent exercise, I attempted jogging. “Attempt” is the operative word. What I came up with was a new exercise mode that I called “jobbling.” Think of hobbling and jogging together. Did I say that I was 73 years young and a bit thick in the thigh? Within two weeks, my career as a senior athlete was terminated by acutely swollen knees, and the doctor’s admonition, “You are not suited for this.” My jobbling days were ended.
Heading For The Dog Park
The next logical step for Arturo was the dog park; he needed to run without me. I visited several local parks before deciding on which one was for us. Following are some factors I considered:
- Choosing A Dog Park
I sought out a dog park that met the following criteria:
- Large space to accommodate group play as well as fetch games
- Separate large and small dog areas
- Convenient and safe entry/exit
- Human comforts (shade and seating)
- Clear rules and regulations
- Reliable mix of dogs and people
- The Character Of A Dog Park
This is determined by the personalities of both the people and the dogs who frequent the space. At our park, the character seems different from morning to evening. The morning crowd seems more laid-back and more attentive to the dogs; the evening crowd is more edgy. My friend, Nancy Bain, owner of Willow, a Shar-Pei mix, offers an explanation.
- “I think some of these afternoon dogs have been cooped up all day and have a more desperate energy about them,” Bain says. “Also, the evening people here don’t seem to be as engaged with their pets and are less likely to prevent altercations.”
- The situation may be different at other dog parks. What is important is to find a park and a time that works for you and your dog. One bad day does not make a bad park; it could just be that the mix was not great on a given day. I have been known to exit a park because the energy didn’t feel right for us. There have been other times when I have observed the activity in the park from outside and decided not to enter the park. I rarely go on weekends because of the greater likelihood of unreliable dogs or people.
- Are There Dogs That Don’t Belong At The Dog Park?
Certain types of dogs don’t do well at a dog park. I asked Mike Deathe, owner of K.I.S.S. Dog Training in Shawnee, Kansas, about this.
- “Dogs that don’t do well with other dogs don’t belong in the dog park,” Deathe says. “Fearful dogs also can present problems at the park, as they will often misinterpret the intentions of other dogs. If you know your dog has aggressive tendencies, you should not be at the dog park.”
- Size Considerations
Most community dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs. This is mostly for the safety of the smaller dogs. Large dogs and breeds with a strong prey drive can mistake small dogs as prey and not as fellow canines. Generally speaking, small, shorted-legged and toy dogs are more comfortable among themselves. There are always exceptions. A lot depends on the confidence level of the individual small dog. I have known Dachshunds, small terriers, and even Maltese who preferred to hang out with the big dogs. At our park, there are also a few individual medium-sized to large dogs who are happiest in the small dog section. My best advice is to start in the area appropriate for your dog’s size.
Key Behaviors For You And Your Dog At The Dog Park
Once you are at the dog park, there are several things you’ll need to take into consideration.
Recall is the most important behavior for your dog. Although training is not required of dogs at a dog park, it is important that your dog comes to you when called. It is your responsibility to maintain some control of your dog while he is off leash at the park. The recall is your invisible leash. Not only will you want to call your dog when play energy in a pair or group of dogs seems to be getting ready to boil over, you also want to be able to collect your dog when it’s time to go home. Playing “catch me if you can” at the dog park might be great fun for the dog, but not so much for the owner, especially if you have an appointment. Been there/done that; missed the cable guy!
Tips for obtaining a reliable recall:
- Always use an upbeat, friendly and energetic voice, even if you’re angry.
- Never punish or shame your dog when he/she comes when called.
- Always offer a payoff for coming to you. Food, a toy, tossing a ball, a hug or praise can all work. Use all of these.
- Practice calling your dog when there is no distraction. Don’t wait for the Big Event.
Paying attention is the most important behavior for the dog owner. Without exception, my dog park friends, as well as dog training expert Mike Deathe, agree that paying attention to your dog is paramount. The responsible pet owner stays tuned in to their dog(s) at the park. Owners who check in to the park and check out by burying themselves in their smart phones or other activities leave things open for dog mischief or worse. Dogs will be dogs, and it is up to the humans in the park to provide some guidance and oversight. Key to this is the importance of knowing your dog. No dog is perfect, and the more you observe your dog at free play, the better you can identify when trouble is brewing. Trouble may be an overflow of energy that gets out of hand, your dog getting bossy or a particular situation, such as rough group play, that your dog does not handle well. When you know your dog and are paying attention, you can interrupt situations that might cause problems.
Can I take treats to the dog park? There are reasons that some dog park rules forbid food in the park, including for dogs. Food can upset the apple cart. Dogs will focus on food instead of anything else. Some dogs become very competitive or possessive about food. While it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of treats tucked away for your own dog, especially to reward coming when called, open displays of food are discouraged. Giving treats to other folks’ dogs is often not appreciated by their owners, as that makes you become the center of focus.
Friendship and community — an unexpected return. I began visiting the dog park for the sake of my dog. What I did not expect was that the human aspect of the dog park had its own value for me. I’ve made good friends and shared in a wealth of information, not all dog-related. People of all types and backgrounds can be found at the dog park, sharing a common bond of loving their dogs.