You and your four-legged friend are joined at the hip, partners for life, and in many ways you’ll never let go. What to do, then, when you’re entering an exercise arena where you have to literally do just that? For pet parents entering their first off-leash park, the first time can be a little scary. You need to know:
- Where to go
- How to prepare
- What to expect
- How to behave
Use this how-to guide for an introduction or refresher when it comes time for your canine companion to flex their freedom in a safe outdoor setting.
A Word on Wellness at Off-Leash Dog Parks
Most dog lovers know that—as the ASPCA reminds —physical and mental activity are an essential part of a dog’s well-being. Born to be active, most behavioral problems result from that lack of exercise. Since most of us can’t keep up with our canines, and many of us don’t have fenced farmyards for long runs and frolicking, the off-leash park is a wise choice.
Picking an Off-Leash Dog Park
One size doesn’t fit all, and whether you own a Chihuahua or a Great Dane you should spend some time sizing up the space your quadruped will be stretching those legs. Just because a site boasts off-leash dog hospitality doesn’t mean you take anyone’s word for it. Consider the following:
- Size: Is it a tiny park for your big dog? Is there adequate space to run?
- Security: Are the fences really secure?
- Sanitation: Are there ample trash receptacles and clean up areas? Bags to scoop that poop?
- Seasonal issues: Does it get really muddy in the rain? Is there shade for hot sunny days?
- Separation: Does the off-leash area have different sections for your small dogs, to prevent bullying or just being run over?
- Hydration: Is there ample access to clean water?
The best idea is to scout the area a few times before bringing your dog to not only observe the offerings, but how crowded the park is and what sorts of dogs (and dog lovers) seem to frequent the canine hot spot.
Park Pre-Funk: Vaccinations and More
Getting your dog ready is important, and the first thing is making sure they’re healthy and up-to-date on shots before adding an off-leash park and interaction with other dogs. This probably means a trip to the vet. Next, make a list for all the things you’ll need in the doggy bag that goes with you: the leash for ins and outs, a ball or other toys, your own doggy bags, and backup water.
Prepping Your Pooch
For safety, not to mention reputation, you don’t want your dog to be the troublemaker everyone complains about. You may not need an expertly trained dog, but ensuring they’re briefed in the basics is going to help in case of trouble. The best basics they can have under their belt (or collar) would be:
- To come when called
- To sit and stay
- Learning to “leave it“
With some basic training, they’ll be ready to put their best paw forward at the park.
Have you ever seen a human so anxious for interaction that they overshare, seem annoying, and won’t let others have their turn? Mother Nature Network points out that the off-leash dog park isn’t meant to be the primary source of your dog’s active life. Among their suggestions is making sure the nervous energy is worked off first, ensuring a more well-behaved interaction and play with others. Over-exuberance sometimes provokes altercation, so this is a great suggestion.
Learn to Let Go
Alright, you’re at the park…and you just can’t do it. You see the other dogs, nothing sinister mind you, but you’re nervous about taking off the leash. You need to overcome anxiety for more than your own sake.
As one website asserts, keeping them on the leash while those around them are free and playing may fill a dog with stress, as if your anxiety is being conducted down the leash like a lightning rod.
It’s an off leash dog park, so for your dog’s sake follow the hold axiom: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Avoid Snags (Literally)
Running free, even in a carefully planned environment, has a natural share of risks. Other than their collar and tags, it’s probably best that your pooch is stripped down to the basics. It might seem easier to leave on a harness, or a prong collar, but these could snag on trees or other items in the terrain. In some cases they might snag or hurt another dog, even when the intent between them is purely play.
Even a cute sweater could catch and either ruin the clothing or cause harm to your beloved buddy. Some parks have water features and getting snagged while swimming could lead to danger. Play it safe.
Age, Training, and Seasonal Issues
When is it not appropriate to take your dog to the off-leash park? There are some assessments that might mean it’s not the right day, or month, to try the open environment:
- Puppies haven’t had time to develop the social skills and are more susceptible to disease, particularly if they haven’t had their shots.
- Undersocialized dogs are not going to enjoy their time, either out of fear or aggressive tendencies. The off-leash dog park is a place to reinforce and maintain socialization skills, but not the place to break them in.
- Females in heat, for obvious reasons, shouldn’t head to the park. In fact, many suggest unspayed and unneutered pets in general shouldn’t be at the park, due to aggression and mating drives. PetsWebMD suggests even more considerations.
Your dog’s best behavior will all be for naught, of course, if you’re not equally well behaved. Bring doggy bags and always pick up after your dog.
If your dog is irritating another dog or their pet parent, be kind and apologetic and caring as needed. Creating dialogue and rapport with other dog lovers at the park will make any concerns about your pets a collaborative issue instead of an adversarial one. Most human visitors share that special friendship you have with your best friend, so you already have something in common!
You might notice someone’s dog playing happily, interacting with other pets in perfect playful fashion, but then a pet parent proceeds to call them back or use a clicker to bring them back for a moment. Why? Calling them back periodically creates good behavior and doesn’t equate the action with anything negative they’re doing, or anything being done to them.
A call shouldn’t be equated with anything negative, but actually the reverse. They should know it means a happy check-in, perhaps with a reward. Reinforcing the rhythm will help ensure a quick response when it really matters.
Price of Freedom = Eternal Vigilance
You can prepare for everything above, but there are human, canine, and even other animal and environmental factors beyond your control. Off the leash doesn’t mean out of sight, and a watchful eye may help your dog and others at the park. Some pet parents seem preoccupied with their human counterparts and may not be paying enough attention. Even the best dog can have a bad day or unknown condition. Just as parents pay attention to their children at a public play area, dog lovers know that equal attentiveness is required at their chosen canine hangout.
When To Leave: Fun Versus Force
Is your dog having fun? You may have planned, prepared, packed a bag, even rearranged your work schedule. What happens if they’re just not into it? Be prepared to call it an early day without holding a grudge: even a human extrovert gets a hankering for alone time, and since we can’t read our dog’s mind we may find our plans for their great day clash with their present mood or a missed malady.
Forcing off-leash time or prolonging a park visit will only exacerbate behavior issues or associate unhappy feelings with the location and practice. Better to cut off a great conversation with another pet parent and exercise that same unconditional love your dog provides for you.
With some planning, mental preparation, and confidence, navigating off-leash areas in the community provided for your pet will be, well, a walk in the park…and your dog’s experience won’t just be off the leash, it will be off the hook!