A huge decision every dog owner has to make, is whether or not they should take their pup to a dog park. Whatever you choose, understand that dog parks are a crash course in socialization. I wouldn’t recommend starting socialization training at a dog park. Also, there are basic steps that you need to take prior to introducing your pup to a dog park. This doesn’t guarantee success, but it does lessen the chance of your pup having multiple bad experiences. Think about the first time you drove a car. Was it on the highway or someplace with fewer cars? Did you practice breaking and accelerating? Were other motorist perfect drivers? How nervous were you when you finally drove at a higher speed? Many dogs aren’t successful at dog parks because they were basically thrown into the drivers seat, and told, “It’s easy, you’ll figure it out”.
Do I Really Know My Pup?
Baxter Ridgeback/23 weeks old/ IG: https://www.instagram.com/baxter_ridgeback_mdp/
Before you go to the dog park, be honest with yourself. If you know your pup reacts aggressively, which is ok, don’t go to the dog park. There are some dogs that draw a line in the sand, and will not tolerate anyone crossing that line. Some signs that your pup is aggressive are, resource guarding, snarling and showing teeth, and freezing in an aggressive stance anytime a dog comes near. Now, if your pup is dominant, they can be taught how to socialize. Dominant dogs like to make other pups submit. This can be a bit much for some dogs, and you need to be able to stop your pup if they are being too rough. It’s even ok to have multiple dominant dogs at the park at the same time, and you’ll notice that they will play more rough than the other dogs. Be aware if your pup plays too rough or is too scared, because you’ll need to separate them from the pack so they can calm down.
How Do I Prepare for The Big Day?
The most common pitfall is choosing not to slightly exhaust your pup beforehand. I’ve seen it countless times, the pups that have an excess of energy before they enter the dog park are usually the ones causing problems. It’s simple, dog parks are a place for dogs to play, and the secondary function is to burn the remaining energy.
What is the one thing that well rounded pups at the dog park have in common? They have a very good recall. It doesn’t matter if they are engaging with the pack or not, they can be recalled. There are four phases of recall that you and your pup need to train. In each phase you will let your pup get distracted by the environment. When they are not focused on you, recall them. If they dont respond, give them a slight tug on the leash to get their attention. Then immediately change your behavior to playful and upbeat, and recall them again. After a few repetitions you should be able to phase out all the “fluff”, and only say the recall command. Depending on the dog, you may need to use a prong collar or e-collar (see Leash Training post to understand how to properly correct your pup).
Anytime you can get good repetitions, with or without distractions, it will help improve your pups recall. When I recall Baxter, I prefer to use a whistle. It provides a consistent tone, despite my emotion. Dogs are expert behavior analysts. If you sound frustrated or angry, good luck trying to convince them to come to you.
These are the four phases of recall training:
- First, practice recall in a sterile environment while your pup is on a short leash (4′-6′ long). A sterile environment is typically a familiar room in your home with very few or no distractions (preferably none).
- Second, practice recall in a semi-sterile environment while your pup is on a short leash. This environment is a familiar area outside with a few distractions.
- Third, practice recall in an environment with moderate distractions. This time your pup will be on a long leash (15′-30′ long).
- Finally, practice recall in an environment that isn’t home. There should also be a high amount of distractions like people, vehicles, or other animals. I like to go to dog friendly stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Petsmart, and Michael’s. Sometimes, I’ll even take Baxter to a trail to train recall throughout the hike. Note, you may want to use a short leash at first. Then transition to a long leash once you are sure your pup isn’t too distracted.
To be successful at recalling your pup, you need to be more interesting than the environment and distractions. This is done by not making the training session a chore. If you’re constantly correcting your pup, they aren’t having fun. If your pup isn’t responding, move further from the distractions. Recall training should be a very fun and positive environment, with lots of rewards and praise. If your pup is distracted and doesn’t recall immediately, try using a whistle & saying their name. The sharp sound of a whistle should get your pup to look at you. Once they are conditioned to be aware of you, you should be able to phase out the whistle and only use their name.
Dog Parks, What Should I Expect?
What should you expect at the dog park? Organized chaos. That’s right, there will be dogs chasing each other, chasing balls, jumping, barking, fighting, relaxing, and even humping. Also, not everyone abides by the rules at public dog parks. Your pup should be up to date with their vaccinations, as well as their flea and tick medication.
I love taking Baxter to the dog park, but only because I prepared him for that chaotic setting. No, he didn’t like his dog park on the first visit, but once we went when ther were two or three dogs, he loved it. Then other dogs entered, but he was the greater and not the one being greeted. I hope you find the right equation of time of day, training, and comforting for your pup. I’ll say it again, dog parks are a crash course in socialization. I wouldn’t recommend starting socialization training at a dog park. If you want to socialize, there are doggy daycares available everywhere. If you want the free version of socialization, go to the dog park, but you need some basic obedience training to make it easier for your pup.
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