An off-leash dog park may seem like the perfect place to exercise and socialize with your dog. But what happens when you can’t get your dog to leave the dog park? Or worse, your dog approaches a dog that doesn’t want to interact?
This training tips guide will prepare you for dog park dangers and ensure your dog’s continued safety long after you enter the park gate.
Table of Contents
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Dog Park Dangers
Distracted Dog Owners & Dog Attacks
While we will cover training that can help you better manage your dog in a public dog park, keep in mind that you do not have ultimate control over the other dogs and people there.
Many people don’t watch their dogs closely at the dog park, and even when they do watch closely, they may not read dogs’ body language correctly. Or they believe that bringing their ill-socialized dog to the dog park will properly socialize it (it won’t).
In 2022, SniffSpot published the results of a survey where 10-20% (depending on their geographical location, a dog has up to a 1 in 5 chance of being attacked at a dog park!) of the respondents reported that their dogs were attacked at a public dog park.
Disease and Parasite Exposure
Diseases can spread quickly at dog parks. Some dog parks require vaccination records to gain access, reducing the chance of exposing your dog to diseases. However, the American Veterinary Association reported on a study conducted by Oklahoma State University and Idexx that found parasites in canine fecal matter in approximately 85% of dog parks around the country.
Many common health issues found at dog parks, such as highly contagious giardia, DO NOT have preventative medicines.
Precautions You Can Take to Keep Your Pup Safe from Dog Park Dangers
1. Time Your Visit to Avoid a Busy Park
The timing of your dog park visit is essential. Many of my friends will go early in the morning when there aren’t as many people visiting the park. Drive past your local dog park to see when it tends to get busy and avoid these rush hours, especially before you get to know the regulars at the park.
2. Ask Your Dog to "Come"
Calling your dog away from distractions (strange dogs that might not want to interact or piles of poop on the ground) is another safeguard.
3. Keep Your Dog's Vaccines Up-to-date
And last but not least, make sure your dogs are up-to-date on their vaccines or have been titered, to be sure they have protection from things like parvo, parainfluenza, etc. Your vet can recommend the best preventative actions to take to keep your pet healthy while exposed to other animals.
How Pre-Park Training Could Save Your Dog's Life Off-Leash: A Trainer's Example
One of my training clients and her family were visiting a dog park that they frequented. Someone leaving the dog park forgot to completely close the gates to the entrance. One of her dogs immediately ran off to the parking lot.
In response, my client put her second dog in a sit-stay and ran off to get her first dog. She called back her better-trained second dog and closed the gates before any other dogs escaped. Imagine if there had been a car speeding through the parking lot—the first dog could have been injured or killed when it escaped!
So, inspired by this fur-raising experience at the dog park, we will cover how to train your dog on these two key cues.
Distractions at the Dog Park and the Role of Proofing
If your dog already knows these cues, ensure its response is distraction-proof!
Dog parks are full of distractions like dogs, people, and toys. Will your dog call away from these things? Would it stay if it saw other dogs playing?
Proofing behavior is where training often lacks. Students say to me, “They do this at home!” And I assure them I believe them. Training behavior initially happens at home. Then you take it to class (or on the road) to proof it.
Dogs are keen discriminators. If a particular behavior works at home, they won’t assume it will work in other environments.
They are also opportunists. We see this often when training our dogs to come when called. While in the house, they may come to you most of the time. But when they are outside, we may be calling them away from a great scent. Then we call them to come, and if they do, the fun ends. Which choice seems more fun?
At the dog park, many people only call their dogs to leash them up to leave. Ending the fun by leashing up can be perceived as a punishment by some dogs, so they stop responding to the cue.
The most important part of proofing is to make it fun when calling the dog back to us wherever we are!
Tips on Training for the Dog Park (or Anywhere with Distractions)
For some reason, people seem to equate “Stay” with distance. Many people have told me that their dog refuses to stay, and when I ask them to show me what they‘re doing, they put their dog in a down or a sit and immediately move away. The dog, not sure of what stay means, follows their human.
Stay mainly indicates duration. So, to build a solid successful stay, we have to teach it in this order:
The 3 D’s of “Stay”
- This simply means standing in front of the dog and building the time of the stay in very small increments.
- Start small and build up. At first, I might just move my arm.
- Then I might jump.
- If the dog breaks the position, I know that I have gone too far and I reduce the distraction next time. A distraction can also be a change of environment.
- After your dog remains still through the first two steps, you can start to add space between you.
This order remains the same no matter what position you are adding to a stay.
Teaching the Stay Cue
Step 1: Start in an Easy Position
Put your dog in the position of your choice--one your dog knows well (usually "sit")
Step 2: Briefly Hold the "Stop" Gesture
For a brief time, place your hand in the dog's face, like a traffic cop asking for a stop.
Step 3: Drop Hand into a Neutral Position
Quickly return to a neutral position. Many newbies want to keep their hand in the dog's face, but the dog will become dependent on that hand position, making additional distance impossible.
Step 4: When Satisfied, Mark and Treat
Continue to stand before your dog, building duration. When the dog follows the cue without breaking, mark the dog with either clicker or "yes", and follow up with a training treat.
Step 5: Repeat the 3 D's
Start with Duration, move to Distraction next, finally add in Distance, and keep repeating in this order!
Coming When Called (Recall)
Recall is probably the most essential exercise your dog will ever learn. And your first step isn’t getting your dog to come to you–it’s conditioning the word “come” (or whatever you choose as your cue).
Teaching the Recall Cue
Step 1: Give Cue, Start Moving Backwards from Dog
Standing in front of your dog, give the cue (for example, say "come") you want to condition and start moving backward. As soon as your dog takes any steps toward you, mark (with a clicker or “yes”) and give them a high-value treat.
Step 2: Say Recall Word 1 Time a Few Feet Away
When your dog is just a few feet away, call out the recall word once. When the dog starts to move forward, mark and treat. If your dog is successful, begin to increase the distance.
Step 3: Call Your Dog From out of Sight
Call to your dog from out of sight. When it reaches you, have a party with praise and treats.
Step 4: Repeat Steps and remember the Rules to Success
Repeat all three steps OUTSIDE in your yard once you've mastered INSIDE the house, making the exercise easier for your dog if they break from the behavior.
Then it’s time to take the show on the road! Take your dog on a long leash line to different parks when there is low traffic. As your dog is successful, you can start to go when it is busier.
How to Start Training Sessions at the Dog Park
Once you have proofed these two behaviors (stay and recall/come) away from home, you’ll want to have a training session at the dog park.
But don’t enter the gates just yet! Have a training session outside of the park first. This will give you a good feel for if your dog can respond to its cues with the level of distraction found at the park.
This will also let you see how your dog responds when they see all the other dogs. Does your dog look scared or overwhelmed? This environment may be too much for them. Or you may need additional training sessions outside of the park until they appear more confident.
Once you enter the park, be sure to ask for these behaviors randomly, so your dog doesn’t only hear them when it is time to go. Ask for a stay, then release them to play. Call them to you, treat them, and let them play.
With time and patience, you’ll have effective training tools to help you maintain control at the dog park and everywhere else!