Okay, you’ve done all your prep work, and you and your pooch are all set to head out to your local dog park.
There are several city sanctioned parks in San Jose, large and small, and many, many clandestine off-leash areas too. (I’ll mention these latter ones in a future article, so, stay tuned.) Try several parks out to find one that is convenient and the most friendly to your dog.
If this is going to be your first visit to a particular dog park , I recommend taking the following steps before entering. If you are a regular, carry through on the ideas armed with your experience.
For a first visit, consider going mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when most parks are the least used. If you drive there, leave your buddy in the car while you scope the layout and activity of the park. If you walked, keep a little distance between you and the park fence so any dogs inside won’t won’t be aware that your dog is there yet.
Before even entering the park – Look around.
Are the dogs in the park are big? Friendly? Aggressive? Is it full of young puppies? Are they wandering around sniffing, or engaging in wild rough play*? And a biggie: Are their humans companions actively watching them ( or are they “checked out,” busy chatting with each other with little or no attention given to what their dogs are doing)? You want to find friendly dogs who are not out of control, and human guardians who are aware of their dog’s actions and ready to take charge if necessary.
In short, does the scene seem inviting, or potentially dangerous? If it doesn’t feel right to you, come back at a different day and time and try again or try another park .You want your dogs first experience in the park to be a pleasant one.
San Jose’s own, Stacy’s Wag-n-Train has a list of > South Bay and regional Dog Parks to try out.
Getting into the Park – “the Gate”
Many city ‘legal’ dog parks provide a double gate system to prevent loose dogs from running out into the street. While that is a great idea for keeping dogs contained, the gate area can also be a spot of high tension.
Before even entering the park or staging area, scan the park for dogs you know mean trouble for your dog ( from your own past experience of a particular dog and owner, or from a dog’s style of activity). If you see one, wait until he leaves, or you leave and return at a later time. If you tend to see troublesome dogs on a regular basis on particular days and/or hours, make a mental note to select a different day/time for you and your pal. He’s here to enjoy his outing – not to have to defend himself.
Okay, so now you have determined that only friendly dogs/owners are in the park today and decide this is a good time to go in.
Good Gate Etiquette
Wait your Turn. If there are other folks with dogs already in the area between the outer and inner gate, wait and let them get through. Too many dogs in that small confined space automatically sets up potential trouble. This applies for single or dual gate setups.
Remove your leash in the ‘staging area’ before going into the main park. Often the dogs in the park will crowd around the gate as soon as they see a new dog coming in, and this can cause a lot of intense behavior. Dogs are always eager to see who the ‘new guy’ is and may become overly excited which may incite unwanted behavior. Removing the leash before opening the inner gate gives you the chance to do it without the other dogs crowding around you and your dog. Being off-leash before the hordes squeeze in, gives your dog a little flexibility and less tension(literally). A dog on a leash has less control of his reactions to intruders (friendly or not) and he knows it –and guess what – so do the other dogs.
Note: Unless you have compelling reasons to do so, it is best to not keep your dog leashed when surrounded by un-leashed dogs. It put him at a disadvantage the other dogs will sense. Mainly – they will sense your strong feelings of protectiveness which will draw them right to you and your constrained dog. Not a good situation. Let your dog learn to ‘stand on his own four paws’ – with you (calmly) there with him for support. On the same note, do not pick-up and cradle your dog in your arms if approached by other dogs, – it brings the same, or worse, undesired response.
Once your dog is off-leash ( and feels more in control) open the gate as wide as it will go so that your dog has an option of directions to choose, and step through first (Yeah-yeah, I know, if you are able to before that furry blur of yours zooms past your legs- but try to anyway). This is more for first time and/or nervous dogs and is intended to make some space for your dog to come in and minimize the others dogs crowding around him. It also shows him you have confidence for his safety. Think of yourself as lineman, running interference for your quarterback.
Stacy says, “I usually walk out into the open part, away from the gate, as soon as possible, and call my dog to come join me. I feel that this gives my dog a chance to “save face” while moving past all the greeters at the gate.”
Okay. So now you’re in. You can relax now- right?
Yes and No.
Once you’re in the park, you still need to keep an eye on your dog, and also remain mindful of the other dogs.
One way to maintain control is to practice recalls (calling him back to you). Once your buddy is past the initial excitement of saying ‘hey’ to all his four-footed buddies, sort of looking around as if to say,”What’s next?” call for him to come to you. Be ready to give him a huge reward (lots of praise and several small super-yummy treats). This reinforces your bond, rewards him for his quick response – and reminds him you are there to protect him, if necessary.
NOTE: Be careful to not give out treats to other dogs, or even to your own while other dogs are right there – you don’t want to start possession aggression.
Once you have rewarded him, let him go play.
Repeat this several times before you call him to you to leave, and as you leave the park, give him another reward – so he doesn’t associate you calling him with all of the fun ending.
Next in the series: Staying alert in the dog park. How do you relate to others?
* Rough Play will be defined in the next installment as will the “Dog-Fight-Pull’ method of rescuing your dog from acts of aggression.
Other Series Articles:
Part One: Love your well-behaved dog by being the well-behaved companion
Part Two: Love your well-behaved dog: Know your dog
Part Three :Love your well-behaved dog by preparing for your outing at the dog park.
For a Quick-link list for the entire series, please go to: Preparing your dog (and you) for the dog park.
Woof for Now
Wrapping my arms around all things Dog
With a special wag-o-the tail to Stacy of Stacy’s Wag-n-Train for providing the basis for this behavior series. If you have dog behavioral needs, or just want guidance in being a conscientious dog companion, please email Stacy for her excellent personal services.