Monday, December 24, 2007

Puppy Parks & Dog Beach Tips

The area where I live (and where most of my clients live) has several dog parks & beaches within close proximity. Dog parks and beaches can be a really fun way for dogs to socialize and play-off excess energy. However, there are some rather serious drawbacks. Many clients ask me if I think these places are safe. The answer honestly depends on you and your dog (as well as the other dogs and owners who happen to be sharing the space with you!) Before making the decision to visit, take the time to consider what's best for your unique situation. These are a few things I believe pet parents should keep in mind before such an outing, in order to better ensure a positive experience.

1. How well-trained is your dog? The better trained, the more you can relax. Your puppy doesn't need to be able to do a play-dead, high-five, backwards flip triple combo, but I recommend that your dog has the "come" command down really really well. If your dog does not come when called at home, where there aren't any distractions, there is NO WAY your dog will respond to you in this environment. Most dog parks & beaches are off leash, and since you can not control the actions of the other dogs or dog owners, you will want to feel confident that you can call your dog to you, if you need to get out of the area quickly.

2. All vaccinations should be current. Again, you can't control the health of the other dogs, but you can make sure your dog is immunized. This is not the place for puppies who haven't had all their shots yet. Your dog may come in contact with germs & diseases during play, or through exposure to shared water, toys, or waste (there are even airborne illnesses.) On a related note, be sure your vet's phone number is in your cell phone just in case of an emergency situation.

3. Consider your dog's physical state. Small breed dogs can often feel intimidated by larger breeds. Small breeds can also trigger the prey drive in larger dogs, and that can sometimes lead to dog attacks. Some parks will have a small breed area, and if yours does, that's where you'll want to take your little guy so he can be down on the ground without feeling stressed. Resist the urge to carry him, as this can have an effect on the hierarchy of the play pack: being up high, your dog may feel he is more dominant in this position (or the other dogs might interpret this as being so.) The other dogs will also feel compelled to jump up in order to greet him.
If you have a large dog, or a breed that has been publicized as being aggressive (pit bull, rot, etc.), know that you may encounter some initial prejudices upon your arrival. Other pet parents will most likely be watching you and your dog very carefully, so it's important that you feel confident in your dog's ability to respond to your commands. By demonstrating to others that you have loving, consistent control, your well-trained, polite, gentle, friendly big dog can leave a good impression of you, of themselves, and even of the breed! Rude, out of control dogs will do the opposite, and (sadly!), some dog parks have actually even banned specific breeds for this reason. You want to be sure that when people are talking about your dog, they're saying GOOD things :)

4. Consider your dog's mental state. If you have a supershy dog, this is not the best place for them to socialize. It might be best to start with walking playdates with a friend, dogs on leash, at a regular park. Consider small group training classes. Gently ease them into new faces and places. If you have an aggressive dog, ABSOLUTELY do not take your dog to a dog park or beach. Not only is this dangerous for other dogs, it's also dangerous for you. As an owner, you do not want to get sued. Aggressive dogs need to work one-on-one with a trainer specializing in aggression.

5. Take a peek at the park without your dog before your visit. Try to determine when the busy days/times are. Associate yourself with the entry and exits. Know what the rules are. Visit the website for details.

6. Leave the little humans at home. High-pitched screams, cries, whines, running, chasing, pulling... it's all very stressful for dogs, especially dogs who have never encountered children. For safety reasons, make sure both your canine AND human babies are old enough and well-trained enough before this level of interaction.

7. Enter through a low-traffic area. I've noticed that most fights tend to happen right at the gate/ busy entry area... dogs rush to great each other at these locations and there is a greater chance that over excitement and pack mentality might take over, especially with dogs new to the park. Encourage your dog to play off aways, more towards smaller groups in the beginning. If you notice that your dog starts to take on a "greeter" role at the entry way, call your dog to you and head off to a different location for play.

8. If your dog park is off-leash, take off the leash as soon as you enter (side note: if having your dog off-leash makes you nervous, that's a clue that maybe your dog's training isn't at the right level just yet.) Mixed leashed and unleashed company can lead to conflict. Leashed dogs often feel threatened because they don't have the same level of freedom to protect themselves, if needed, and this can create problems. Carry the leash with you at all times in case you need to reclaim your dog in a hurry. I recommend using a normal flat collar and 6 foot lead (same as in my training classes.) You can quickly clip on the leash and lead your dog away.

9. Keep walking, especially on your initial visit. Calm movement (rather than sitting still or standing) will help minimize territory and defensive behaviors. Instead of stare-downs, you're more likely to encounter friendly sniffs.

10. Know where your dog is at all times and stay close. Pay attention to your dog's body language, as well as that of the dog's she's playing with. Keep your eyes out for obviously fearful dogs (they can freak out and become fear-aggressive), and also keep an eye out for toy possessive dogs (tennis balls are especially coveted.) Some dogs don't adjust well to sharing, and they can get snappish. Dog attacks do occur at these locations more than most people are aware of, so be sure to keep your attention focused on the well-being of your pet. If the behavior of any of the dogs (or humans!) makes you feel uneasy in ANY way, it's best just to trust your intuition and leave.

11. Be friendly and respectful of other pet parents. All dogs are different. They have different backgrounds and unique life experiences. So if an owner feels your dog might be roughhousing too much, but you believe your dog is an all-heart softy who's maybe just being enthusiastic, don't take it personally. Rather than debate, it's easiest to simply respect the pet parent's feelings and have your dog play with someone else! This person could actually be doing you a favor. They may be protecting your dog...

Local Beaches & Parks:

Dog Beach Zone (Long Beach)
Best Friend Dog Park (Huntington Beach)

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