What to know
What should you know about dog behavior before visiting an off-leash park?
Off leash areas have proven to be successful in many communities around the country, but a large part of the reason is a user group (owners) who use common sense and who understand their dog and general dog behavior. If you are educated about dog socialization patterns and personalities before entering the park, your experience will be much safer and more enjoyable.
Here are some good books on the subject of dog-dog communication you might enjoy:
- On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas
- The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson
- Reading the Dog’s Mind: Learning to Train from the Dog’s Point of View, by John Holmes and Mary Holmes
- Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior, by Roger Abrantes, et al.
- Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, by John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller
Dog Behavior Tips
But even if you don’t rush out to read a book, here are some things to know about your own dog before you bring it to the off-leash area:
Is your dog very friendly but seems to meet quite often with dogs that are aggressive towards him/her? It’s possible you have an aggressively-friendly dog. This rather new concept is discussed in two articles here. These articles might also be useful for those who encounter very friendly dogs with which your own dogs are not particularly responsive.
Was your dog properly socialized with other dogs and strangers during its critical age first 3-6 months? If your dog did not have a chance to play, roughhouse, and interact with other dogs during that period, it might not be a natural group communicator at the park. You might want to start with your dog in the Training Yard close to the entrance. Once you assess their comfort level and decide to let them into the larger park, keep them within 10 feet of you (but not on leash, which can add to a dog’s anxiety and lead to miscommunication) and keep a close eye on them.
Don’t assume because your dog has always been friendly with everyone that means they are ideally socialized. It takes practice, and if a dog didn’t learn those skills as a puppy, learning them as adult is possible, but will take extra effort and attention on your part. Teaching socialization skills is one of the best uses for an off-leash area as long as your dog has not demonstrated aggressive behavior in the past.
Has your dog ever bitten a child, a stranger, or another dog (where skin was broken or the dog clearly intended to do serious damage? This does not include roughhousing with other dogs where dogs use a soft-bite to wrestle, but both dogs finish with happy expressions. If you have to answer “yes” to this, your dog should not be brought to an off-leash area under any condition. You might feel that they was justified — taunted by a child, scared by the stranger, or scared by the other dog — but a dog that has shown it will bite to resolve a problem has already shown it might do so again if it’s in stressful situation surrounded by strangers and strange dogs.
Consider taking advantage of the park earlier for your next dog, get them involved in puppy socialization classes, and take her to the Main Yard in the Park when she’s old enough. If you think your dog fits this situation but that they might be an exception, please contact K9COLA and we’ll help you assess their behavior. None of us like to believe our dog has an aggressive side, but it’s not fair for you to take chances with other people’s dogs or family members because you are being unrealistic about your dog.
Does your dog always come back to you when you call it? If you say “usually” or “sometimes,” you’d better start out in the Training Yard before venturing into the Main Park. You’d be surprised how the dog that’s 99% reliable at home becomes only 10% reliable when they discover the fun of an off-leash area and all the other dogs! In a park as large as ours, you won’t want to spend your day walking down your dog, nor will you want to leave them loose so others have to control them for you because you aren’t within a reasonable distance of them.
Once you’re confident your dog will come when called in the Training Yard, even with other dogs passing by, you can try the Main Park. Once there, call them back to you every so often, and praise and reward them before they are too distracted. Keep them within 20 feet or so at all times until you’re sure they are doing well and paying attention to you. Do not automatically reach for your leash and say you’ll just keep the dog on-leash while in the Park. This seems like a natural solution, and while using leashes is not forbidden in an off-leash area, they are strongly discouraged because they change the communication dynamics between dogs. If you insist on using a leash, please read the Turid Rugaas book on calming signals mentioned above, as it will allow you to see problems as they develop. When your dog’s on a leash, they are usually forced to approach other dogs face-on; a dog’s natural approach style is an arc curving away from another dog. A leash also keeps your dog from avoiding an encounter with a more assertive dog if that would be their natural inclination. Both of these examples show why a leashed dog can actually instigate a negative dog-dog encounter even if you have never seen your dog do anything to the other dog.