Dog parks are a popular destination for many dog owners, even those who have large yards in which to play at home. These parks allow dogs to romp, off-leash, in a fenced environment. For many owners, it is also a place to meet and connect with other dog lovers. To keep your dog safe, follow these simple rules and remain alert for signs of danger.
Have a solid recall (come when called). This will assure that you are able to call your dog out of danger if needed. If you don’t have a solid recall, consider other alternatives to off-leash parks, such as training classes, or smaller play groups, where you can safely practice your dog’s recall before letting him play off-leash with dogs you don’t know well.
Observe the humans. If people are chatting with backs turned to the dogs, stay away. While it’s perfectly fine to chat with other dog owners, it’s more important to watch the dogs as they interact. Stand facing your dog, and talk to people at your side. If the other owners are watching their dogs, it’s a safe bet that they are looking out for their welfare.
Observe the dogs. Look out for dogs that challenge others, stand over or mount others or bully others. If you see such a dog, you might consider leaving rather than risking your dog’s involvement in a scuffle. Keep in mind, also, that many dog owners do not understand dog body language, so they may not even be aware that their dog is being a bully or an impolite brat. Rather than argue with the owner who insists that his or her dog is “friendly”, it is often better to just leave the park if you are uncomfortable with the interactions between your dog and another. Your top priority is to respect your dog’s needs, so if he doesn’t appear to be enjoying the time, you should honor that.
Consider alternatives. Remember that, like people, every dog should not be expected to get along with every other dog. Have you gotten along with every single person you’ve ever met? Have you never had an argument? Personalities can clash and, in a park full of strangers, this likelihood increases. To avoid this, try meeting at a local park with friends whose dogs are known to get along with yours. Or if you still prefer the dog park, go at times when there are fewer dogs. I recommend groups of 8 or fewer, ideally. (Although doggy day cares have larger groups, they are typically managed by more experienced professionals, and for the most part, these dogs have gotten to know each other much better.)
Dog sports are another great option. A wide variety of sports are available including Agility, Flyball, Rally Obedience, Canine Freestyle (dancing), Dock Diving, Tracking, Herding, Disc Dogs (Frisbee) and many others. Dog sports encourage better relationships between you and your dog, allow your dog to play off-leash in a more controlled and fun environment, and teach dogs that playing with you is more fun than playing with other dogs – an invaluable lesson in case you need emergency obedience some day.