You pile in the car and your dog excitedly leans out the window—he just knows it’s time for the park! While the dog park can be a great opportunity to socialize and run around, it can also be a disaster. How can you make sure your trip to the dog park is a success? We talked to California trainer Beverly Ulbrich for her best tips before, during, and after your visit.
Is My Dog a Good Fit for an Off-Leash Park?
Before you can even think about heading to an off-leash park, you need to make sure your dog will be safe in that environment. Well-trained, socialized dogs with no resource-guarding issues are ideal candidates for an off-leash experience.
Trainer Tip #1: See how your dog behaves on leash.
“If they are overreactive to dogs on leash, you’ll have to do some work to make sure they’re safe off leash,” Ulbrich says.
Barking, pulling, whining, and lunging are all inappropriate ways to respond when your dog sees another dog on leash. He must be non-reactive and calm when he sees or is approached by another dog.
“When dogs meet, there should be no intensity or jumping on each other, just calm sniffing,” Ulbrich adds.
Trainer Tip #2: Introduce your dog to other dogs on leash first.
“If they’re introduced on leash, you’re right there and and you can step in if the other dog comes up too aggressively,” Ulbrich says.
This will allow your dog to see you are in control and hopefully, he’ll turn to you at the dog park instead of trying to resolve issues himself.
“It’s important to show you dog you are making the introduction so he is not left to a make a decision on his own,” Ulbrich explains. “You also do not want to put him in harm’s way in case the other dog is reactive or aggressive.”
Before the Park: Preparation is Key
It should be no surprise proper training is the single most important thing to have mastered before heading to the park.
An untrained dog at an off-leash dog park can run into trouble. These might include challenging behaviors like aggressive sniffing, humping, and toy stealing that will inevitably end up in fights. The scariest bad behavior of all is a dog who bolts off leash.
“Dogs who aren’t trained properly tend to get excited to be let off the leash, and once the leash drops, the dog takes off like a rocket,” Ulbrich says. “That’s a bad way to allow your dog to react when you take him off leash—you are inadvertently teaching him that bolting is okay.”
Besides the obvious danger of running into the street or parking lot, your dog could scare other dogs or people with his fast approach and high energy.
So how do you cope with an excited dog at the park?
Trainer Tip #3: Practice letting your dog off leash at home first.
“When you take off the leash, your dog should be sitting nicely and be calm,” Ulbrich says. “Your dog should stay and not move until you say it’s okay.”
Once you have sit/stays mastered, you can move outside.
Trainer Tip #4: Take your dog to a fenced-in area that isn’t necessarily a dog park.
“Go to a place where there’s a fence and they can be off leash, so they can get used to it,” Ulbrich suggests. “It can be a playground or a tennis court—but make sure your dog has already gone to the bathroom first.”
Trainer Tip #5: Make sure your dog is 100% reliable before advancing to unfenced parks.
“People call The Pooch Coach training and say, ‘My dog needs off-leash recall at the park,’ but in the home, they can’t even do simple commands like sit,” Ulbrich explains. “You’re asking for college-level calculus when your dog hasn’t even learned to add or subtract yet.”
For fenced-in parks, 50% recall reliability is probably sufficient enough, but for off-leash parks without a fence, you need 100% reliability to keep your dog safe. Get there with practice at home first, which is a calmer environment than outside.
Do’s and Don’ts While at the Park
When you get to the park, don’t let your dog run wild. Make sure you’re following the rules so your dog and every dog can enjoy the park.
Trainer Tip #6: Stay off your phone and pay attention.
“You do this for the same reason you watch your kids at the park—to make sure they have good manners and they’re not torturing or annoying another dog,” Ulbrich explains. “And to make sure they’re not getting bullied by another dog. You need to intervene if that’s the case before a fight breaks out.”
And let’s not forget, you need to pick up your dog’s poop, too!
Trainer Tip #7: Practice commands.
“If you never practice commands, don’t be surprised if your dog looks at you puzzled with no clue what you’re asking for,” Ulbrich says.
This is especially important with recall commands like “come” and commands like “leave it.” Your dog may run into wild animals—like coyotes, gophers, or rats—and you don’t want your dog near those animals, dead or alive.
Trainer Tip #8: Make sure your dog isn’t resource guarding.
“Toys and treats can make some dogs get aggressive or possessive,” Ulbrich explains. “If you want to bring a ball, make sure your dog is playing fair and won’t start a fight. Make sure your dog doesn’t try to steal other dogs’ toys, either. Your dog must understand he has to share.”
Good commands to master here are “leave it” or “off” so your dog knows when to back away.
After the Park
When playtime is over and it’s time to head home, you’ll want to:
Trainer Tip #9: Give rewards and praise before you leash up and leave.
“In your dog’s mind, you are punishing him for obeying a command by immediately leaving the park,” Ulbrich explains. “When they come, make sure they get a nice reward and a delay so they don’t feel punished for coming when called.”
Trainer Tip #10: Manage your dog’s water intake.
“Make sure your dog gets hydrated, but watch their water intake so they don’t over drink,” Ulbrich says. “Some dogs hover around the water bowl and compete over the water, so be aware of that as well.”
Trainer Tip #11: Make sure your dog has other opportunities to exercise.
“Taking your dog to a park for exercise is like taking your kid to Chuck E Cheese for exercise—it’s a crazy environment with no rules, and everyone is running around wildly,” Ulbrich says. “It’s good to walk your dog first, at least a 10 to 15 minute walk, depending on the dog, to make sure they don’t go to the park all pent up or over zealous.”
The Bottom Line
Training is key to making your trip to the dog park a success—and of course, practice makes perfect!
“Don’t feel like once you have them in a good spot, you’re done,” Ulbrich adds. “Every dog, no matter how well trained, will get out of shape if you don’t practice.”