Off leash: romping in dog parks

One of the best things to happen to dogs and those who love them is the growth in popularity of off-leash recreation areas nationwide. --source: Running Free! By Gina Spadafori.

As open spaces dwindle and property values make the large suburban back yard a thing of the past, these dog parks have emerged as a way to provide what most dogs desperately need: more exercise. Sedentary dogs develop health issues, such as obesity, and behavior problems that are worsened by excess energy and boredom, such as digging, barking, destructive chewing and that catch-all complaint of dog lovers everywhere: "He's too hyper!"

Dog parks make dogs tired, and a tired dog is a happy, good dog.

But the free-wheeling atmosphere of a dog park is not a good fit with every canine, and it's important to know before you click off the leash if your dog belongs inside an off-leash recreation area. And you need to know a few things about your behavior, too, to make your pet's dog-park experience better and safer for all.

The best candidate for a dog park is a healthy, well-socialized and friendly dog of medium size or larger. Smaller dogs might be easily hurt, and shy ones can be intimidated. Dogs who are aggressive toward people or other dogs have absolutely no business in a dog park, no excuses.

Puppies who have not completed their course of vaccinations and haven't been cleared by the veterinarian for outings should also stay clear. That's because you just can't tell the disease status of other canine visitors. And until your pup's immunity is where it should be, you're taking a potentially deadly risk by introducing him to a dog park.

Dog parks are often full of highly aroused, over-stimulated and/or under-socialized dogs who have not learned good communication strategies. In such a highly charged setting, even normally polite dogs can sometimes act ridiculous because they are too over-the-top excited to think clearly. --source: Sarah Owings (KPA Certified Training Partner),

The biggest problem with dog parks is not the dogs, but the people. Some of those problems are caused by people who know better, but other conflicts could easily be prevented with a little knowledge and foresight on the part of dog owners who truly don't know better.

The preparation begins before you ever set foot inside a park with your dog. Don't go in with food (for either you or your dog) or with your dog's favorite toy, since these high-value items can trigger fights. Do go in with lots of clean-up bags, and be sure to use them.

Once inside, don't open a book or get too involved in socializing with the other dog lovers. Your dog needs to be monitored at all times to keep him out of trouble. Don't allow your dog to be bullied, and don't allow your dog to bully others. Sometimes the park mix isn't a good one, and you need to take your dog home.

Dog parks work only when people work at them. If park problems become more the rule than the exception, the trend will reverse and the dog park will disappear. Be responsible for your dog and help to keep the drive for more dog parks alive.

Despite the growing popularity of off-leash recreation for dogs, there are a few controversies when it comes to rules, primarily:

**Children. Some who are looking for an outing with both their children and their pets want dog parks to be open to children. Proponents of "child-free" dog parks argue that children could get hurt by rambunctious dogs. If a child gets hurt, the dog will get blamed, they say, so it's better to leave children outside the gates.

**Small dog/big dog. Some small dogs think they're big dogs. Some big dogs think small dogs are edible. The clash of attitudes does not work out well for small dogs. Many dog parks are now adding a separate area that's just for small dogs.

**Fighting breeds. Pit bull terriers and other breeds developed for dog-fighting (and mixes of these breeds) are arguably not safe around other dogs. The pit bull advocacy group Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls (BAD RAP) warns: "Never trust a pit bull not to fight" and suggests other types of recreation for these dogs.

**Unneutered male dogs. Young male dogs who have not been altered are generally more territorial and more likely to fight.

Of the four common dog-park controversies, only the small dog/big dog issue seems to be easily remedied to the satisfaction of all sides. While arguments continue over who should be allowed in, savvy dog-park users sensibly vote with their feet, taking their animals out whenever any situation starts to develop that could spell trouble.

Date Published: 7/9/2007 8:47:00 AM
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of Dogs for Dummies, Cats for Dummies and Birds for Dummies. She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her at petconnection@gmail.com.

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