Tips for Safe Dog Interaction at the Park
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Col. Tom Kelly, (USA, RET) Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Specialist, owner of Contented Canines in Columbia, SC.
As a dog trainer I am generally not a fan of dog parks because they are often not a safe or comfortable place for many dogs. I rarely take my own dogs because I realize that the typical dog park model -- bringing together unfamiliar , over aroused dogs and owners with very different levels of engagement and canine understanding-- is a recipe for high stress for dogs and a risk for both dogs and their humans.
If you do decide to use a dog park despite the inherent risks, there are ways to reduce the stress, mitigate risk and keep your dog safer. First educate yourself to be able to read dog communication and to understand appropriate dog to dog greeting and play. Encouraging all the human members to talk and work together to keep all the dogs interacting appropriately is critical to keeping everyone safer.
One of the highest risk moments at the dog park is whenever a new dog enters the park. Whatever the energy dynamic before the new dog arrives, it will immediately spike as the dogs inside the park immediately react to the "outsider" and the new dog is gang interrogated at the gate. The new dog will often arrive to the park over-aroused and depending on their relative comfort meeting unfamiliar dogs may be overwhelmed or thrown into a "fight or flight" response to the mad rush of the dogs in the park to assess the new comer.
Making calm the "ticket" for your dog to enter the park will reduce risk. Draining your dog's physical and mental energy BEFORE bringing them to the dog park can reduce their level of arousal. Changing your dog’s understanding of going to the dog park from excitement to calm can help. To do this requires the you (humans) to start from the moment you touch the leash in the home, and continues as you leave your house, get in the car, get out of the car, walk (get dragged?) to the dog park entrance and while you wait in the entry area before opening the inside gate to the park. Avoid creating arousal at each step (" Com'on Spot!, do you want to go the park, lets go to the park!” etc etc) and instead SLOW down and ask your dog for calm to earn the leash, calm to go out the door, calm to get in the car and calm at every point on the way into the dog park. Waiting for calm will slow down your movement to the park for a few days, but as soon as your dog believes that calm at each step gets them what they want, it will go quicker and quicker.
When a new dog arrives, the humans inside the park with their dogs can help by moving their dogs well away from the entrance gate. Having a practiced recall under high distraction, being able to redirect your dogs attention onto you or even physically restraining your dog by their collar or with a leash until the new dog is able to enter the park unmolested will reduce the risk to everyone by reducing the pack rush to the gate. Allow the new dog time to enter, sniff, check the environment and even then, slowly release dogs in sequence so that they can greet the newcomer individually or in small groups away from the choke point at the gate.
All the owners can help by continually walking around the dog park instead of standing still or sitting. The humans' movement will help keep all the dogs moving and checking for their humans and less likely to fixate on any one dog.
Finally, know your dog and know that there are days and times that your best choice is not to go the dog park. Once at the park, be ready to leave whenever your dog is showing over-arousal or discomfort or when other dogs are not being polite or their owner's attentive.