The Benefits of Dog Parks:
Dog parks are a wonderful place for well behaved and social dogs to exercise, socialize, and blow off some steam through intense dog play in a pack-like setting. Los Angeles has some amazing dog parks for exercise and training no matter what part of town or part of the world you live. I have seen mountain dog parks in Colorado and there’s even a dog beach here in Malibu, California! Your dog can really benefit from regular visits to the dog park as long as your pup is prepared socially and certain rules are adhered to by both dogs and humans.
From the Car to the Corral:
As I’m sure many of you notice about your own. Many dogs can anticipate when they are headed to the dog park before the car even pulls out of the driveway! For these cases I recommend some car training by using a series of moving commands (ex: “Heel”) as a way to lead your dog from the house to the car and a placement command (ex: “Down”) while driving to divert any over anticipation of where they are headed so they may focus on one thing (the command) which when delivered properly will promote a calm meditative-like state versus the ten steps ahead thinking that makes a dog overreact once you actually arrive at the park. Once you arrive at the dog park, follow the steps in reverse by walking your dog on a “Heel” or similar moving command to lead them to the entrance to the dog park. If necessary, do not be shy about walking your dog in the opposite direction for 10-15 minutes before leading them into the actual park to play. You want the calmest possible association for them enter the park and greet the new dogs in addition to teaching them that they must listen to you before they move on their initial impulses since it is not always safe. In return, they are rewarded with play and exercise for their efforts for following our commands to lead them into the dog park.
At the Gate:
This is the big moment! You are about let your dog romp and play with his or her buddies. However, there is one last step before letting them off the leash. Most dog parks have a 2-gate corral type of setup where there is a first gate you go through with your dog on leash and then once you close that behind you, you are in a smaller enclosed space to remove your dogs leash safely before opening the second gate where the open play space is. This is set up so no dogs escape and you can have time to take your dog’s leash off without the other dogs interfering. To get to this point, I like to make dogs calmly “Sit” at each gate without any pulling or over anticipation. Remember, it is ok to leave the corral or park for a few minutes to walk your dog as a reset and give it another try once you regain control and they are in a calmer state. Once you get to the main gate, have your dog “Sit” once again, and remove their leash. If you your dog enters the dog park in a calm, well-led way, they will usually not draw the attention of too many dogs which is another benefit of leading your dog into the dog park as opposed to being the owner whose dog is barking all the way into the parking lot and dragging them to them gate once they get out of the car. If you take notice, these dogs tend to drawn the most reaction and initial attention from other dogs who are interested and at times irritated by the erratic and unbalanced energy these dogs are projecting. In the next section I will discuss what to do once your dog is off leash playing but always remember; A dog who is well led and calm while entering the dog park is most like to play in socially appropriate ways and listen to their owners when they are off leash.
Dogs will be Dogs:
I have been to over one hundred different dog parks worldwide and have logged thousands of hours working with clients at various parks in private and group training sessions as well as my regular visits with my own dog. One thing I always notice is how few people, if any actually interpret dogs behavior at face value. I always will hear something like, “He’s being aggressive!” when a dog is just setting their limit for play with another dog which once established, makes everything even more secure for their future interactions. Or how a person will try to referee two dogs herding one another vigorously (the nippy thing they do behind each other’s ears while running and playing) and cause a conflict because they got involved in something that was fine on its own.
There are indeed times when dogs do become a danger to one another and we must step in to prevent a dangerous situation. However, it is our responsibility to know the difference and be a responsible dog owner by understanding our dog’s individual temperament and level of socialization. If your dog is getting over stimulated by play or the presence of a certain dog, a simple touch in their mid section to divert their attention briefly as if to say “I’m refereeing you so just regulate yourself please…” even an actual command to calm them for 30 seconds before reentering a play state will help them feel guided without the need to overreact while they are doing their thing. I find that too many dog owners are on their phones or chit chatting while their dogs are going wild with no modulation. These seem to be the dogs that cause the most problems at the dog park because their owners are not being present in a way that teaches them how to act and socialize properly. Don’t be that owner or I will probably give you an earful of friendly, yet stern advice on proper dog park etiquette.
My Dog Won’t Come Once Off Leash:
A strong off-lead recall is the holy grail of basic dog training obedience. I tell clients that everything we work for comes down to those moments. This means that if your dog does not listen absolutely perfectly on-leash then you must work on the areas that need improvement. You also must do on-lead distraction training at dog parks or around other dogs and animals to teach them how to listen and maintain command commitment while in a play or prey drive mode as a potential distraction. After your dog is proficient in these areas there a number of ways to graduate to off leash. Some dogs benefit from dropping the leash and gradually removing it as you phase out of obvious control. I have found that using a lighter line (even fishing line if your are careful about your hands) as a transition from a heavy training lead to no leash can be helpful. There some dogs that no matter how much you practice, treat, correct, and phase out, they still know when the leash is off and will not listen as well as when it is on. They make a number remote or e-collars that do everything from vibrate, electrically stimulate, or spray citronella as a deterrent for not listening when in a situation where a leash can not be used and the dog has had the proper amount and type of leash training as a foundation. There is a lot of controversy about remote collar training. My opinion is that they human and do not cause pain if used correctly and in a humane way. Although I rarely find a need to use them in my regular practice, they are helpful dog training tools for or stubborn dogs who have been trained by more obvious means like a leash which they become too aware of and it prevents them from listening to their fullest potential or when their impulses take over. There are some trainers who solely use this method. I feel that as with relying too much on treats or any other dog training gadget, there is something lost in communication and we are just manipulating or bribing our dogs without affording the opportunity to actually connect with them in a more meaningful way.
Worth the Trip!:
As I mentioned there are many dog parks all over Los Angeles and the United States. If you have a puppy, it is a valuable environment to teach you dog how to socialize to a wide range of dogs in a leash free setting. For your properly socialized dog, it is where they can go to get exercise and just be a dog while romping with their friends. Finally, for those who are like many of my clients and still working on rehabilitating their dog who is aggressive or not yet comfortable around other dogs, a dog park is a helpful place to expose your dog to other dogs as long as you are under full control at all times and have been instructed by a local professional dog trainer on how to address these behaviors. Whether it is an open space or fenced in off leash park, jumping… (I mean “Heeling”) into the car and heading down to your local dog park is definitely worth the trip!
Brett Endes, The Dog Savant is a professional dog trainer and author with over 20 years experience specializing in problem behavior and puppy development counseling. The Dog Savant hosts a weekly podcast and is currently developing a web-based show to promote his message of canine behavior awareness. Brett takes a unique approach to dog behavior like no other trainer. His methods are based on psychology and principals of meditation along with a dog’s natural way of communication. Brett has been affectionately called, “The man with a dog’s brain”. He is available for private consulting of individual clients and speaking engagements in the greater Los Angeles area and worldwide. To learn more about Brett or for contact info please visit his website: dogtrainingLA.com