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Dog Parks: Fun and Games
Professional Dog Trainer, Author
Peggy Moran,
Safe Travel & Play
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Two English Setters running in a dog parkWhen distracted by work, busy people may have difficulty finding time to allow their dogs to express their true canine selves freely and without inhibition. It's not that they don't want to allow their dogs to be dogs; time, circumstances, and physical limitations simply prevent it from happening on a daily basis. In addition, people enjoy watching their dogs play with other dogs. For these reasons, dog parks are popping up in communities nationwide. Some actually are designated specifically for dogs, and others are claimed informally by groups of pet owners who show up in the same place and let their pets play together. Once the initial ice is broken (dogs get familiar with one another and owners relax knowing everyone is going to get along), most owner/dog pairs are thoroughly hooked.

Where, oh where, has the dog park gone?

Steve Dale, syndicated columnist, host of "Pet Central" on WGN Radio in Chicago and author of 'DogGone Chicago,' a guidebook for pet owners seeking dog-friendly places, offers this advice to people trying to locate dog parks in their own vicinities:

'Since every community is different, start by finding out about dog laws and ordinances. Don't just call and take the person's word for it who answers the phone; ask to have the ordinance faxed or mailed so you can read it yourself. People interested in finding dog-friendly locations should start by looking in their local bookstore or library; I know of many books like my own which are available in quite a few major cities.

Dale also recommends talking to those 'in the know': keep an eye out for groups of owners romping with their dogs, and talk to people at pet stores and the vet's office. Above all, be sure it's legal before taking your pet off its leash.

An eye witness account

My friend and a student in several of my training classes, Jennine is a self-proclaimed dog park addict. She and her two Cairn Terriers, Elmo, a 4-year-old male, and Ginger, a 6-year-old female, are regulars at a Hinsdale, Ill., park that has 'gone to the dogs.' This particular park is a huge, fenced public property owned by the local park district. The park rules state that in order to play off lead, dogs must be vaccinated, obedient, reliable to come when commanded, and be nonaggressive. These requirements, however, are not evaluated or proven before dogs can play there. The rules put an owner in a position of liability only after an incident occurs, but they don't prevent problems.

Jennine says, 'Seeing dogs interacting with other dogs is great, and we owners all feel the same way - we love our pets. We can share information about an array of dog-related topics. People share pictures they take, showing off their own pets like proud parents and giving prints to owners of the other dogs they've photographed.'

'Working people enjoy seeing their dogs together, hanging out and getting worn out,' she continues. 'It helps relieve the guilt from having so many unnatural expectations and requirements of them and for the time we leave them home by themselves. My dogs get so tired, I don't feel bad when I have to run errands after having been gone working all week. I know the dogs aren't waiting anxiously for me; they are sleeping!'

Obedience and safety a must

Although the dogs at Jennine's dog park tend to get along, incidents have occurred that gave the owners pause. During one recent visit to the dog park, Jennine encountered several near disasters, and one actual tragedy occurred. All could have been prevented if more care and precautionary measures had been taken by the owners who frequent this public area.

The first trouble occurred when Elmo suddenly fixated on something approaching from a great distance away. Luckily, Jennine was observing her dogs, noticed a sudden change in Elmo's demeanor and called both her pets to her. She was glad she had been to dog school with them; despite his being the biggest little dog in the pack, Elmo is reliably obedient to off-lead commands.

As Jennine leashed her dogs, the object holding Elmo's attention drew closer. It proved to be a Clydesdale horse pulling a carriage. This was a first; the park, although open to dogs, didn't normally allow horses. (Jennine later learned the horsedrawn carriage was part of a special event being held there that day.)

One only can imagine the terror the horse felt as it was rushed by the startled pack of canines. Luckily for the horse, the dogs weren't assertive after their initial surprise. But the situation obviously was a close call - the carriage was loaded with adults and young children. The horse's training and the driver's handling skills kept the horse calm and the situation under control. During the incident many of the owners, however, discovered their dogs' training was not as reliable as it needed to be. I hope some of them were inspired by the situation to brush up a bit on the 'Come' command.

The second problem occurred on the same day when a Jack Russell Terrier discovered one of the things terriers love best: a tunnel. This particular tunnel actually was a culvert with running water heading out of the park and into a dangerously rapid run-off drain. Luckily, a person heard the owner's terrified screams and managed to pluck the little dog from the water as the current carried it past. After that incident, the opening to the culvert was covered with sturdy wire mesh so no other dogs would follow in the little JRT's pawsteps. It was only through mishap, however, that the danger was even discovered.

The final and most tragic occurrence - and a major contributing factor in the proposed closing of this particular park to off-lead dogs - was when the owner of two large dogs opened his car door in the parking lot and allowed his pets to jump out unleashed. Although the park is fenced, the driveways in and out of the parking lot are not. One of the dogs ran into the street and was hit by a car. The dog was injured but not killed; however, one of the passengers in the car sustained serious injury because of the dog owner's negligence.

Get ready to park it

If your dog seems to be begging, 'Take me out to the dog park!', there are some things to consider before answering, 'OK, let's go!'

You should be aware of two health concerns before heading off to play: illness and injury. Illness prevention starts with protecting your dog from communicable diseases by following a vaccination schedule as prescribed by your veterinarian. Young puppies and dogs that recently have been ill are at greater risk for communicable disease. These dogs should be kept away from dog-populated areas until they have recovered from their illness.

Parasites are another cause for concern in canine-to-canine and outdoor interactions. Parasites, both internal and external, feed upon dogs and are detrimental to their health. Human infection can occur when contact is made with an infected dog or its feces. Picking up immediately after dogs eliminate helps reduce the risks of the parasites spreading. Control programs should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Besides the usual concerns about fleas, ticks, and worms, beware of stagnant water. Although it may be a magnet to playing dogs, it could contain dangerous parasites that can invade your dog's digestive tract and make it very sick. Have a sample of water tested by the health department, or err on the side of caution and find a new place to play.

Dr. Smith walking a Golden RetrieverInjury can happen at any time, especially when dogs are engaging in rough-and-tumble play together. But owners can reduce the risk greatly by taking preventive steps:

  • Walk or run the dog on its leash for a few minutes as a warm-up before turning it loose to 'go all out' with other dogs.
  • Keep the dog at a healthy, lean weight to reduce strain on its heart and joints.
  • Don't allow the dog to play with noticeably aggressive dogs.
  • Never let the dog play in unsecured or unsafe areas.
  • Protect your pet from the elements - overheating, hypothermia, and frostbite all can be avoided by not taking dogs to the park when weather conditions are extreme.

Doggie manners put to the test

Park Dos and Don'ts
  DOs
 €  Make sure your dog is wearing ID; this can be either a tag or information on its collar. Another option is microchipping - implanting a scannable microchip carrying your dog's information into the skin of the neck scruff.
 €  Keep dogs on-lead until inside a safely enclosed area; check the fences to ensure they are secure enough to contain your dog.
 €  Bring water from home and a bowl or a sport bottle for your dog to drink from.
 €  Replace training collars (choke or pinch collars) with identifying buckle collars before letting dogs loose to play; training collars can get caught in the teeth of other dogs, with dire consequences.
 €  Know the rules and the hours of the park, and make sure dogs are allowed to play there; call your city or village hall for information.
 €  Bring 'duty' bags, and clean up after your dog.
 €  Ask others to pick up after their dogs so they don't ruin it for you.
 €  Be aware of dangers such as plastic bags, and be observant enough to know when to intervene.
 €  Bring a cellular phone if you have one - just in case an accident happens or you have so much fun you decide to stay longer and need to phone home.
 €  Bring towels for cleanup and to cover seats; dogs can get very dirty!
 €  Bring a camera; you'll be sorry if you don't when you see all of the cute things your dog does!
 €  Wear sturdy, flat shoes to help you keep your balance when the weather, terrain, or jumping dogs make conditions rough. Bring a spare pair for the drive home for those times when your shoes get muddy or wet - or when you accidentally step in something someone should have picked up!
 €  Expect to share toys or more likely lose them to the group.
 €  Bend your knees to avoid hyperextension if you anticipate a playing dog accidentally slamming into you.
 €  Be prepared when you call your dog for more than one to respond!
  DON'Ts
 €  Don't be abusive - if your dog is out of control, enroll in a training class before you try public participation.
 €  Don't bring your dog if it has been sick in the last 48 hours. When in doubt, visit your veterinarian!
 €  Don't feed other people's dogs; you don't know if their owners allow it, and your treats might upset another dog's diet or digestion.
 €  Don't feed your dog before riding in the car, but be sure to increase feeding proportionate to exercise when you get home.
 €  Don't be shocked to see canines eat feces or grass, throw up and roll in smelly stuff - dogs will be dogs.
 €  Don't go too far if it's really cold; the walk back can be a big drag if you have to carry your dog.
 €  Don't wear white clothes!
 €  Don't bring a freshly groomed dog because it won't come home that way.

Protecting your pooch encompasses behavioral matters, too. A properly trained and socialized dog will be less likely to aggravate other park-goers, both canine and human. Manners are important; bringing a dog that behaves offensively will not make you or your pet a welcome sight at the park.

Dog-to-dog interactions must follow some rules of etiquette. Inexperienced dogs and young puppies can be overwhelmed, terrified, or traumatized by suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a canine melee. Get your puppy and dog used to the park gradually.

Whenever a new dog joins an established play group, natural canine behavior will create similar scenes in parks across the country. Dogs will be dogs. Initially, there is an increase in activity and noise. Eventually, with mounting, wrestling, possession claiming, posturing, and vocalizing, ranking orders are adjusted to make room for the newcomer. Some canines enter this group as lowly underdogs, and others come in like leaders of the pack, moving up fast in rank.

Aggression problems in such large groups certainly could occur, but for the most part people seem to know their dogs are socialized well enough to get along before deciding to bring them. When a new person occasionally does appear with an overtly aggressive dog, many of the other owners in the group are quick to suggest strongly that the person not allow the dogs to mingle.

There always is the risk that two or more dogs will engage in a serious, possibly injury-causing fight. If you have the slightest suspicion your dog has a propensity to be aggressive toward other dogs, you should not allow it to place other pets at risk.

Special steps must be taken if a dog is behaving defensively, running to its owner for protection or behaving in a defensively aggressive manner. Be careful not to pick the dog up unless it is the only recourse and the dog truly is in danger. A panicked pet picked up by its owner may bite accidentally. Try to avoid these situations by making sure your pet is fully prepared for the dog park experience and that the other dogs there are friendly.

Obedience training is not just a virtue, it is a must for any dog which an owner intends to allow off-leash. Rather than tossing your dog into an unfamiliar group to 'work it out,' enroll in a training class to get help if you are concerned about its social behavior. If you are not positive your dog would stop on command, come when called and behave respectfully with people and other dogs, go directly to school (dog school!) and hold off on the park until you are accomplished graduates. It will be worth the wait and will protect your dog as well as the others you encounter.

Once at the park, spend five or 10 minutes reinforcing obedience training with your dog on a leash. Stay removed enough from the group that you can get it to settle and pay attention. This helps prevent your pet from becoming overbearing and dragging you to the play area. Rewarding compliance with free time is a great way to reinforce obedience training while reminding the dog life can't be all play!

Understanding dog fun

Some owners need to brush up on dog behavior before it's OK to head to the park. If you don't know the difference between rough play/wrestling and real dog fighting, spend some time observing dogs playing together in a group before including your own. Size up the 'competition,' and observe from a distance how the dogs interact before allowing your dog to join in. Unprepared owners have been known to panic the first time they see their pets on the bottom of a dog pile. Panicked over-reaction to normal dog play can cause both dog and human tempers to flare quickly. If you are not ready to step back and let your dog 'be a dog,' don't bring it into an off-lead group situation.

Likewise, be prepared to see your dog mount or be mounted; this can cause the less animal-oriented owner great embarrassment or annoyance but is a perfectly natural mode of canine interaction. Dogs may mount one another for amorous reasons, regardless of gender, especially during adolescence (anywhere from 4 months to 2 years of age), regardless of sex or being neutered. Most of the time mounting behavior occurs between adult dogs to establish dominance; a dog that assumes the mounting posture is informing the 'underdog' clearly that it is subordinate in rank. When the mounted dog tolerates the other's behavior it is yielding to the dominating dog's higher rank. This is a very ritualized mode of canine interaction that helps dogs to establish ranking order without violence. Obviously, if your dog is an intact female, be sure to not bring her during a heat cycle.

Indeed, dog parks can provide pets with many benefits: improved health from exercise, improved behavior from having an active, positive outlet for energy and improved socialization from learning how to interact appropriately with a variety of dogs and people. And it's a great way for people who love dogs to spend time with their own 'breed' - other dog lovers!

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