Dog parks can be a ton of fun for dogs and their people. Not every dog is going to like them, but they can be extremely advantageous for dogs that are highly dog-social. Even dogs that simply tolerate being around other dogs can benefit from the exercise and mental stimulation that dog parks provide.
One of my favorite things about them is watching all the dogs run around uninhibited. Leashes are a huge reason why dogs get so frustrated when they see other dogs and it’s truly amazing to see the difference in dogs when that barrier is removed from the equation. The first time you bring your dog, you may feel a bit nervous. You may be wondering if your dog will come back to you. You may be wondering if all the dogs there are going to be nice to your dog. Generally speaking, dogs are safe and you're likely to have a good experience. However, there are a couple things you can do to get the most out of your visit.
1. Keep moving
When V was young and we went to the dog park daily, I found that walking around a lot kept him attentive to me. He often wondered where I was, and for him, that kept him close by. The larger the dog park, the easier it will be for you and your dog to make big laps around the perimeter. This provides a constantly-changing environment for your dog, which adds to the novelty and mental stimulation of the whole experience. Even if your dog park is on the small side, try to keep moving.
Another advantage of walking in giant circles around the park and inviting your dog to join is that he or she will get a lot of quick visits with dogs. If it’s the right match, you may see a huge play session ensue. If your dog is content with just a quick hello, this gives him the opportunity to keep it short and sweet as well.
2. Watch closely
It’s definitely our duty to watch the interactions closely. Are both dogs enjoying it? Is your dog bothering another dog? Is another dog bothering your dog? So many things can happen and without watching closely, your dog may be rehearsing bad habits or developing negative associations with other dogs or the dog park in general.
Dogs are always communicating with one another. It’s actually quite fun to watch this play out. If you watch closely when two dogs are meeting for the first time, you'll see lots of subtle signs of communication. One dog might say, “I mean no harm.” Another might signal, “you’re coming on a bit strong!” Often dogs will do subtle behaviors that are really avoidance-based – small look-aways or even complete head turns to avoid any sort of eye contact. After the initial sniffs happen you may even see some shake-offs. As my mentor Jean Donaldson says, “it’s like real life animal planet!”
When your dog is interacting with other dogs, watch closely to see if the other dogs look overwhelmed. These are those subtle avoidance cues I mentioned above. If so, the best thing to do is call your dog away. Also, if another dog is overwhelming your dog, calling him to you is another way to stop the interaction.
3. Practice getting your dog to come to you
There is nothing more valuable than the ability to get your dog to come to you. Whether this is at your home or at the dog park, it’s importance can't be overstated. When I was at the dog park with V, we practiced recalls all the time. Whether we were playing fetch with a ball or I was calling him and rewarding with food, it was happening often. It was always rewarded too. This is very important. The last thing you want your dog to think is that you only call him when it’s time to leave. If a dog doesn’t want to leave, good luck catching him. But if you spend a decent amount of time there and you’re calling and rewarding often, your dog isn’t going to think twice about coming to you when it is time to go.
Another great thing is being able to call your dog away from interactions as mentioned above. If you notice your dog is starting to bother another dog or isn't enjoying an interaction with another dog, call him away, reward him and keep on moving.
Dog parks can provide invaluable physical and mental stimulation for dogs. Thinking back to when V was young, he had very few "bad behaviors." Part of that was due to training, but a huge part was because I made sure his needs were met. Running, swimming and playing fetch happened nearly every day at the dog park. And when we couldn't make it, some sort of version of it happened at home. Younger dogs have needs that really have to be met to keep everyone happy. As stated above, an awesome way to make your dog happy is to bring him to a dog park. You'll most likely end up seeing him have a ton of fun and if you're anything like me, this will make you happy. This will also result in less problem behaviors at home so it's truly a win-win for all involved.