Dog's Eye View
This weekly column about dog training publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.
We think of our dogs as social beings that need time to play. Off-leash dog parks, if managed properly, can fill this need by offering our dogs a wonderful outdoor experience. Before you go, here are some things to consider:
Be aware of and respect all the established rules, including making sure your dog is current on vaccinations and city licensing. The city of Steamboat Springs’ Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department has a wonderful brochure that includes maps of the designated areas as well as off-leash rules. The brochure states, “Within the park boundary, your dog should be under Voice and Sight Control.”
This is crucial to any successful dog park. All owners should understand and abide by this rule. At all times, owners should know where and what their dog is doing (sight control). Don’t let that latte you brought along distract you from constantly monitoring your dog’s activities. Owners should be able to call and have their dogs respond reliably to being summoned (voice control).
I can’t stress the importance of this one enough. If your dog doesn’t have a really reliable recall, please work on this or enlist the help of a trainer.
Once at the park and before you let your dog off the leash, do a quick survey of the environment. Are the dogs there playing happily with one another (look for a good give-and-take or role reversal between which dog is “in charge” of the games), or do certain dogs seem to be picking on or pushing the others around, creating a rather tense situation? Feel comfortable with your observations before releasing your dog. Then remove any halters and choke or prong collars for safety reasons. Leave treats and toys at home or in the car. They can trigger competitive and even aggressive behaviors in groups of dogs.
The second you let your dog off the leash, begin watching and accessing your dog’s behavior. Even the most even-tempered dog can have moments of stress and/or distress. If she seems to be trying to get away and/or getting too excited and a bit snarky around the dogs, she may need a short break or maybe has had enough for the day. Watch her as if she were a young child. Make certain she’s having a good experience and isn’t bullying or being bullied by another dog.
Some dogs run madly into the fray, thrilled at chasing or being chased. Others may prefer staying on the fringes, sniffing the bushes and trees. Both are benefiting from the dog park in their own ways. But dog parks are not for all dogs. Before you go, decide if your dog is too young or perhaps too sensitive. Dogs 4 months old and younger are too young for dog parks. They need more time to strengthen and develop and are at risk for communicable diseases. If your dog shies away from other dogs or shows signs of anxiety, such as avoiding engagement when around big groups of dogs, think about taking her elsewhere or visiting the park when fewer dogs are present.
Come with an understanding of the rules, and be prepared to stay involved and be observant. Dogs, like children, need supervision and guidance. Remember to be respectful of the humans there. And please clean up after your dog. For off-leash areas to be successful, everyone needs to know and follow proper dog park etiquette.
Lisa Mason is an experienced dog training instructor with the Total Teamwork Training group. Her specialties include new puppy owner education and management.