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The mistakes people make at the dog park that put their pet at risk

Done right, the dog park can be a great way to exercise and socialize your pup. Done wrong, it can be a recipe for disaster.
Beneful Dream Dog Park Unveil Event
Keep a close eye on dogs playing: After an extended period, there's an opportunity for one of them to miss social cues and things can start to escalate.Skip Bolen / Getty Images for Beneful file

If you've got spring fever and are itching to get out and play, you're not alone. Pups across America have a winter's worth of energy they're ready to unleash, so their people are headed to off-leash dog parks in droves. But not so fast before you join them.

“In a lot of trainer circles we call it Fight Park,” Louisville dog trainer Tyler Ohlmann told NBC News BETTER. “What happens is you get these dogs pent-up in the house driving their owner nuts and owner says, 'let them run it off,' and it becomes a powder keg. It only takes one wrong ball or treat or dog and the whole thing blows up.”

Ohlmann trained our big dog Cash, and following his advice, we don't take Cash to dog parks because at “most off leash dog parks you find a lot of ill-behaved dogs,” he said. I don't want to put my pup in a risky situation, and luckily we have other outlets for Cash's exuberance.

Not everyone is that lucky, though. So if you absolutely have to get Fido to an enclosed area, Mary Simon of Outdoor Dog Adventures in Louisville has some tips.

First, you're on the right track getting your pup active. “Having a well-exercised dog is super important for their well-being and can cut down on behavioral issues,” said Simon. “However a dog park is not a place to sit there and not pay attention — it's a place to be actively engaged.”

Done right, she said, “It can be a place to increase your bond with your dog,” where the dog learns when he's with his owner he's having a good time. But since so many people just let their dog fend for themselves while they congregate with the other owners, Simon went on, a dog park can also be a place “where the dog sees so much value in playing with dogs it weakens your bond and they don't want to leave when you want to leave.” And this can wreak havoc on any obedience work you're doing. So, tip number one?

Go means go

“You've got to be able to leash up your dog when you go,” she said. “I think the mistake people make is they [only] call the dog when something aversive is going to happen. [The dog is] like, 'why would I do this? I'm having a great time!'”

It's not just for when it's time to leave. You also have to “be able to call your dog away from a questionable interaction if things are starting to escalate,” she said. So the recall command (“come!”) is something to work on outside the park. And when you're at the park, don't wait until it's time to leave to call your dog, she explained. “Recall once in a while and give lots of praise because you can't bring treats. That way they learn [being called] isn't always something bad.”

No treats for you!

And did you catch that about the treat? At some parks they're prohibited, and for good cause, said Simon. “Treats are going to make dogs mob around you and any dog who has any resource guarding issues or just loves treats is likely to possibly to show some aggression to another dog, and it's going to make things unpleasant for you.” So leave those Milk Bones at home.

What's your back-up plan?

Other dog park good practices include keeping your dog leashed until you get to the gate, said Simon — don't let them just run ahead. You want to watch the park for a while when you get there, she said, and get the vibe of the dogs in there. “Is it a good time? If you want to test the waters a bit, work the dog outside the park with a leash,” she said.

When you do go in, keep a close eye on things. The gates where dogs cluster are “a hot spot for fights,” she said. “The people in there should be keeping their dogs away,” she said, but often they're not. (If that's you, help your fellow dog parents out, and call your pup away when a new friend comes through the gate.)

Any time two dogs are playing for an extended period, there's an opportunity for one of them to miss social cues and things start to escalate.

Keep it moving

If you make it through that gauntlet, your work's only just begun. It's not social hour now. “You want to keep moving, be walking,” said Simon. “Any time two dogs are playing for an extended period, there's an opportunity for one of them to miss social cues and things start to escalate .. [or] one can get tired of playing with the other.” So walk around with your dog, “let them play with others but then move along,” she said. This is where a strong obedience foundation is key, because “you have to have a super good recall.”

“Also monitor things like chasing,” said Simon. “Is it reciprocal? That's good play. But if a large group of dogs is chasing [one dog] that's not good.” If trouble starts to brew, “try to get the other owners' attention and make some noises to draw the dogs away.” Are you sensing a theme yet? That strong recall comes into play again here.

Know where — and when — to go

Before you ever even go to the park, you can set everyone up for a better experience. Choose your park wisely by reading up beforehand. “The more strict the membership requirements are, the better,” said Simon. Look for parks that have a small gated area around the entrance, to help prevent escapes. And bigger is better. “A smaller dog park with more dogs in it may be more likely to generate conflict if dogs don’t feel they can get away from other dogs,” she said.

Going during less popular times is also smart. On “a beautiful day after a bunch of terrible weather and everyone is there and dogs have pent up energy, that's when fights happen,” she said. Finally, the dog park isn't a substitute for exercise. “Don't have your dog be super under-exercised when they go in,” said Simon. “Consider taking a walk first to let off steam.”

Passing on the park?

Sound like a lot of work? There are options other than dog parks. If you're looking for social experiences for your pooch, consider a good doggie daycare, said Ohlmann. Find one with smart dog people who can facilitate socialization, he said. “You can't do that with a bunch of owners who throw their dogs in there and hope it works out.”

If you know that a tired dog is a good dog, training is another outlet. Cash was never so tired as after a mentally strenuous class or training session. Enroll your pup in obedience training, and bonus, you meet new friends you can feel confident are going to control their dog – which is more than you can say in dog parks.


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