I’ve been a pretty avid dog park patron for quite a few years now, taking first my beloved malamute, and now my small lab mix as often as I can. I have found I have changed my approach to how I use the parks, depending on the dog I’m with. But there are a few things that I have found to be helpful for all dogs to enjoy the parks.
First thing, keep the small park for the small dogs. When I first started going to the Fort Steilacoom dog park, I didn’t fully understand the reason behind having two separate parks. At first I thought maybe the small park was for people who did not fully trust their dogs to come back to them when it was time to go, and didn’t want to risk having to chase their dogs all over the place. But that’s not the reason at all. Small dogs play differently than large dogs. And that is not a discriminatory comment, its just the truth. I once read an article that explained it really well. Think of some teenagers playing basketball. They are fast, strong, well coordinated and above everything else they are rough with each other. Now imagine a parent bringing their toddler into the game to play. He would get crushed, and by no means is that the fault of the teenagers, they should be able to play basketball without having to worry about crushing a baby. The same goes for small and big dog parks. Don’t bring your big dog in with the little guys to get trampled, and don’t be surprised if your little dog gets trampled in the big park. It goes both ways.
The other important thing I’ve learned over my time in parks is that it’s not really natural for dogs to be forced to play with one another. Most times when I go to a dog park in the afternoon, the busiest time, I will find a group of people hanging out near the covered picnic tables. They’ll stand around each other and socialize as their dogs play, and while that’s fun and all, sometimes it’s not what is best for the dogs. Dogs are not really meant to be thrust into a pack situation. The best way for dogs to meet and greet is actually on the move. Wolf packs rarely come across a lone wolf and force them to play in a circle around each other. So I’ve adopted a perimeter rule.
When I come into a park, the first thing I do with my dog/dogs is walk the perimeter, at least twice. If we run into dogs along the way, and they play, then great! But by moving about the park I am allowing my dog to explore, while also allowing him/her to meet other dogs more naturally. The perimeter rule also allows me to sort out which dogs might the best for my dog to play with. Not all dogs are going to play well with each other, and by scoping out the field, I can make sure my dogs find the right friend. It also gets both of us more exercise.
There are of course other rules that are important to note, most important of which is if you have an aggressive dog, do not bring him/her to the park. Aggressive dogs can be helped, but shoving them into a park is not the way to start that process. Another important note is that when leaving the dog park, put your dog back on a leash! Just because you’re dog is friendly, does not mean every other dog in the surrounding area is as well. Places like Fort Steilacoom have great walking trails around the park, and many people use these trails. Not all people who use the trails like dogs, and people who have aggressive dogs are allowed to walk their dogs on leash on these trails. If your dog gets in a fight with an aggressive dog that is being walked on a leash outside the designated off leash area, that is your fault. Your dog should have been on a leash.
Another thing to note is the issue of treats. Everyone loves to give dogs treats, but there are a couple of reasons why we should probably avoid bringing treats to parks. One, a lot of dogs have a lot of allergies. If you give a dog that’s not yours a treat either on purpose or by accident, you could be causing the dog and his owners a whole host of problems. So if you must bring treats to the park, be sure to ask the owners if its ok first, and know what ingredients are in them so you can tell the owner if they ask. Another issue with bringing treats to a park is that some dogs, that are normally very friendly, can become food aggressive when treats are involved. Treats are fun to give out, but we need to be very careful about when it is an appropriate time to do so.
Dog parks are a great tool to socialize your pet, but its important to figure out the best way to go about it with your dog. And always keep in mind that every dog is different, some will play rough, some will like to chase or be chased. Always be able to get your dogs attention if you need to. And remember, dog parks are fun, so have a good time and meet some new people who love their dogs as much as you love yours.