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Another day at the Offleash Dog Park!

There is mum, three kids and their exuberant 6-month old Labrador. He is jumping in everyone’s face while mum shouts: he is friendly and just wants to play. The other dogs try to run but there is no escape.

The local dog trainer is there with yet another dog - scared of other dogs, trying to increase distance and avoid the other dogs. But he cannot escape because he is on a leash. The trainer explains that he ‘needs to get used to it’. The dog is showing a lot of stress signs but no one takes note, then he lunges, gets yelled at and jerked on the leash. The owner looking rather confused.

Hipster is on the phone and his French Bulldog trying to hump a Great Dane. Everyone laughs and thinks it very funny. The Bulldog loves the attention and keeps going.
The Jack Russell has disappeared into the bushes, her owner yelling ‘come’ over and over again, but to no avail.

I will make no secret; I am not a big fan of off leash areas. In my experience only about 20 % of dogs are enjoying the experience, 30 % will cope and do their own thing as long as the other dogs leave them alone but 50 % of the dogs in the park are saying loud and clearly: "get me out of here – this is no fun!"

The dog park is a relatively new concept, California introduced the first one in 1979, Switzerland in 2012 and Australia has had them for about 20 years now. However, these days it seems to be the most popular and often only place for dog owners and every dog has to go.

While dog parks have benefits there are a range of problems associated with them. The main problem is the artificial set-up. We make dogs meet unknown dogs on an ongoing basis and expect them to play with strangers or at least tolerate them. But dogs are a bit like us. 

As children we will talk and play with everyone, as teenagers we tend to have a group of friends but will still engage with new people easily, in our twenties we become a bit more choosy with whom we interact, in our thirties we start to be set in our ways and after 40 we rarely make new friends at the pub. 

Dogs are the same: when they are young they will play with most dogs they meet but once they get older they become more specific and will only play with their friends and dogs they know. It is unrealistic to assume dogs will play indiscriminately with other dogs once they have reached social maturity. It is also unrealistic to expect dogs to get along with every single dog they meet.

There are some groups of dogs who should not go to the off leash area: unvaccinated puppies, females in season, sick and old dogs, reactive or aggressive dogs. Entire males are also not the best candidates here in Australia. There are so few un-desexed dogs that they get ‘picked on’.

Not suitable are dogs who do not enjoy other dogs' company, who are fearful or nervous around other dogs. Contrary to common belief, the off leash dog park is not a place to socialise your dog. There are too many things that can go wrong.

Very small dogs are at risk because not all big dogs have learnt to play appropriately with little dogs. Sometimes bigger dogs also mistake little fluffy dogs in the distance for a rabbit and chase. Depending on the prey drive of the chasing dog this might not end well. 

So who then makes a good candidate? Dogs who are well socialised and resilient and enjoy the company of other dogs, even unknown ones.

Teenage dogs from around 6 months to 2 years often enjoy interacting and playing with other dogs. They should have done a good puppy pre school that provides moderated off leash interaction. They should have met socially with a lot of appropriate dogs so they have developed resilience in case something goes wrong. They need a very reliable recall and basic obedience. 

The choice of dog park is an other important consideration. The first visits have to be during low traffic times. Choose a dog park that has some features (water access, trees, play equipment and not just an empty space), fencing can be helpful. Check the other users and the other dogs first. If your dog does not like to share his toys, leave them at home.

Ideally, the dog park is a place where dogs are playing nicely with each other, the owners supervising closely, occasionally calling their dogs back, rewarding, then asking for a sit, another reward and let them go again. Things are rather calm and relaxed. If a dog gets bullied, both owners will intervene and redirect their dog to a more appropriate play mate. Arousal levels are low and the dogs are supervised at all times. 

But most people do not recognise ‘good play’. Good play ebbs and flows, one dog is chasing, then the other; one is on top then the other one; there is disengagement and engagement; play behaviours such as play bow, eye flashing, ‘bouncy’ movements are displayed and there is the occasional lull in the activity. If it is too one sided and too rough, interrupt and regroup.
The dog park is not a place to rehabilitate reactive, fearful or even aggressive dogs, ever. The environment is too unpredictable and accidents can happen in seconds. The other users of the dog park also have not given consent that they agree to expose their dogs to dogs who need re-socialisation. A lot of owners in the dog park have spent time socialising their dog to be friendly and socially apt. They do not want to risk that for an aggressive dog or a bully. 

And for the record there are a lot of lovely, happy, completely normal and well socialised dogs who do not cope with the dog park and do not want to go there. As an owner you should respect this and look for alternative ways of having a good time with your dog.

A good alternative is going for walks with a group of dog friends and a play at the end. Or a fun agility class or any other dog sport where dogs meet in a social setting without having to play if they do not feel like it. A well run day care where they meet their friends is another option. 

I also recommend on leash walks in different environments, in most places, city or country, dogs are allowed on leash. There are great NSW State Forests where you can take your dog for walks or the Spit to Manly walk on the Northern Beaches is a great walk (part of it is off leash).

Off leash time, yes, in moderation and only for suitable dogs!

About our writer

Barbara Hodel has been involved in dog training for the last 15 years. She has completed a Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services and a Diploma in CBST (Canine Behaviour Science and Technology). She’s also a Delta-accredited instructor since 2007. 

She has been running Goodog Positive Dog Training on the Northern Beaches Sydney for the last 9 years, running classes on all levels as well as workshops and agility fun classes.
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