Training Tips for Dog Park Skills

So you want to take your dog to the dog park. Or maybe you already do but you are frustrated with your dog’s behaviours while in the dog park. Most trainers are not fans of dog parks because so many things can go terribly wrong. But, for those who really want to take their dogs to a dog park, here are some tips to help you help your dog behave better in the dog park.
Firstly, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and is not, and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour. Read more about that here.
The Overall Training Approach is this:
Start with Kindergarten and progress through the grades as your dog’s skills improve. 
  • Start in an open area that is free from distractions. When your dog’s skills are good enough, you can try them in an area with the dog park in the distance. As your dog’s behaviours improve, work closer to the dog park. Once your dog can behave well enough outside of the dog park, then you can try those skills inside the dog park.
  • Use a long leash (with a harness) to transition your dog to off-leash skills. Start with a 15 ft leash. When your dog is consistently behaving well 15 ft from you, then you can consider extending the distance to 30 ft. Work up to 50 ft. Practice safe leash handling skills to avoid injuries (to you and your dog). Use a longer leash that is sturdy enough for your dog and won’t cause rope burns or cuts. 15 ft leashes can be purchased for under $20 and they are not too much of handful. Some stores (in Regina or online) sell 30 ft leashes and even 50 ft leashes.
What skills should you work on?
1. Check-ins. This is when your dog voluntarily gives you his/her attention, and ideally comes near you. You want to reinforce these check-ins every time to ensure that the behaviour is highly likely to be repeated in a higher distraction environment. At the beginning of the training, use a very high value reinforcement along with your praise. As your dog improves, you’ll want to gradually wean out any reinforcements that you won’t be using inside the dog park.
2. Recalls. You want to train your dog to come when you call the first time. You may need to get the help of a force-free trainer to work this and point out some common mistakes that can be teaching your dog NOT to come when you call. A shock collar is not suitable for use in a dog park. It will lead to stress and distress and that will lead to aggression (fear-based, frustration-based, or other). If you need help training your dog a solid recall without using shock collars or other punishment-based methods, a force-free trainer can show you some very effective ways to train this behaviour so that your dog LOVES to come to you when you call (rather than being afraid not to come when you call).
3. Loose leash skills. Using a long leash, you still want your dog to practice loose leash skills. The leash is just a safety line and shouldn’t be used to guide your dog around. Your dog should be able to come to you, walk with you, or leave that thing alone (e.g. creek, dead thing, etc.) without you having to use the leash to control your dog. The whole purpose of loose leash training is to have your dog behave without needing a leash. But the leash is there just in case.
USE A HARNESS TO TAKE THE PRESSURE OF YOUR DOG’S NECK. Hitting the end of the leash at a high speed will cause injury if the leash is attached to a collar or a head halter. The harness should not pinch and should not have thin straps that might cause discomfort if the dog pulls hard. A vest harness that fits well is a good choice.
Pick up the slack so the leash doesn’t get tangled in legs (yours or your dogs) and so that you can slow your dog down gradually before he/she hits the end of the leash. Letting your dog run and hit the end of the leash hard can cause injury (even with a harness) and is no longer an acceptable training method for force-free, humane training.

Dog Park Safety in Regina: Share Your Story

Regina’s dog parks need improvements, that’s for sure. Yes, the City has been adding improvements over the past year or so (thanks in large part to the hard work of a few volunteers, including the preliminary efforts done years earlier), but sadly, the City’s slow progress on some items does not reflect the importance Regina dog owners put on health and safety of their dogs.  In 2012/13 the City was presented with a report from ROLA (Regina’s Off Leash Association) that used the results from a dog park user survey. Forty percent of the responders indicated that a small dog area was a priority. With the 5+ years of dog park incidents involving small dogs being injured by large dogs, I would expect that the “small dog area” would be even more of a priority now.

As a certified professional dog trainer, I do not recommend dog owners use any unsupervised public dog park. I believe the risks are too great when dogs of unknown temperament and health are put together in a space where appropriate supervision is lacking. I certainly would strongly caution owners of small breed dogs to avoid any dog park that does not have a separate area for small dogs. The risk of injury from impact (intentional or accidental) and aggression from large breed dogs is too great.

The dog park is a place where dogs go to run and zoom around, and owners of large dogs shouldn’t have to worry that their dogs are going to accidentally hurt a smaller dog if there is a collision.  A dog under 25 lbs can sustain serious injuries from an impact from a moving object that weighing 50 lbs (or more). We have rules regarding the weight of children playing on sports teams for safety reasons. Why should this be any different for the dog park?

Then there are intentional injuries from large dogs to small dogs. High intensity play can get out of hand quickly. There are cases of something many dog trainers refer to as “Predatory Drift”: when a larger dog in a high state of arousal attacks a smaller dog as if it is prey. This can happen to any dog, even dogs that know each other well and have played together often.

I believe that if the City Council knew how serious this risk is, how important this is to people who care about the health and safety of dogs (and how many of us there are), we could finally get the City to provide a separate off-leash area for small dogs.

To help encourage the City to take action on this issue, I am collecting data. If you are a resident of Regina and have experienced this problem of large to small dog injuries (accidental or intentional) at one of Regina’s off-leash parks, please consider sending me the details: the approximate date, the approximate size of the large dog and the size of the small dog, a brief description of the injuries sustained by the smaller dog, including any veterinary costs and the recovery time, and if you feel the injuries were by accident or intentional aggression or overly assertive play.   Please feel free to send me an email and know that I will not share the identity of any individuals and will keep your story private (other than using the information for data collection to create a report).

Together we can help improve this situation for everyone.