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Safety tips for off-leash dog parks

off-leash dog park

When taking your new puppy or adopted dog to an off-leash dog park, there’s a few things to look out for to make sure they are kept safe and feel secure.

Off-leash recall

Even though you may have worked on your recall at home, under high distraction with lots of dogs running around at an off-leash dog park, your new puppy or rescue dog may not come back to you, so definitely start where it is fenced and start working on your recall on a long lead.

A long lead is recommended so that your dog still has a lot of freedom, as walking a dog on a shorter lead next to you at an off-leash dog park can make them feel threatened if other dogs approach, causing them to act out aggressively out of fear, or make them a bit of a target for other dogs to come up and take advantage of their vulnerability.

If you aren’t sure about your recall, go at a quiet time, stay away from other dogs and with a long lead so they can still move freely and you can practice your recall too.  For tips on improving your dog’s recall in all situations click here.

Nervous dogs or puppies

If they are nervous or anxious, you could introduce them to off-leash dog park play with other dogs slowly, by starting on the outside so they can watch how other dogs interact. When one comes near the fence, reward calm behavior and to create a positive association.

Move them further away if they do start to react, and try it again, but keep working on this by keeping them under their threshold (the distance just before they react) and only make slow steps forward, always rewarding calm behaviour. Come back at quieter times too to help.

We don’t want to rush them and make it a negative experience, or it could promote anxiety or fear based aggression which we definitely don’t want.

Calm entrance

Try to have your dog sit and be calm  before entering the park, so they don’t rush in too excitedly or at other dogs, which could be inviting trouble.

Good dog play/body language

Tips on good and bad play to watch out for – play bows, taking turns, mimicking each other’s behaviour, pausing before both resume.

Avoid too many dogs playing, standing around in the middle talking, on mobile, watch dog size if a puppy.

There is more on good and bad play to watch out for in my article on off-leash beaches here.

Be responsible

Learn dog body language and what it indicates. – don’t let your puppy or dog rush up to another dog, especially if a dog is looking a bit anxious ie: ears back, tongue flicking, tail tucked.

Note that some dogs, like my new adopted dog Vindi, simply don’t like puppies. They don’t know how to read them, get frustrated or annoyed at their silliness and high energy levels.

Not all dogs have had good early experiences in their life, but still deserve the chance to get out and socialise, so it is up to you be responsible for keeping your dog and others safe.

From my own experience, as well as a trainer, PLEASE, if you see an owner keeping their dog away at a distance, or they are walking them on lead, DO NOT let your dog run up to them.  No matter how nice your dog might actually be it could make the other dog feel threatened, resulting in them acting out aggressively or making any anxiety they might have worse.

I have to deal with this every day and it makes it worse for any anxious dog every time they get put in the position that they feel they have to react. It just reinforces their fear, and their use of aggression, so this is why having a bullet proof recall with your dog is extra important.

Fleas & Worms

Ensure your dog’s vaccinations and flea, tick and worm treatments are up to date, as fleas and ticks can spread from grass and other dogs, while disease and worms can be passed on through the poop of other dogs.  I use and recommend Nexgard Spectra to keep your dog protected from these and other parasites.

On that note, make sure you always pick up after your dog too!


About the Author: Lara Shannon is a NDTF certified dog behaviourist and trainer, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training and boarding business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of Eat, Play, Love Your Dog.

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