Dog parks can be a little like the middle school cafeteria — cliques are common, the new kid might get pestered a bit, and a scuffle could break out at any moment (and that’s just among the humans!). But as fraught as they can be, dog parks are also a great way for your pup to get exercise and make some pals. To help you navigate the terrain, we talked to certified dog trainer and behavior counselor Robert Haussmann, founder of Dogboy NYC. Here are his tips for staying calm and in control the next time you’re there.
Have a dog that’s new to the park or is just naturally more skittish? Consider one-on-one play-dates before taking them to the park. Once they seem ready to make the transition, Haussmann recommends going during off-peak hours. “If your dog still seems stressed or over-excited, try taking them out for a walk around the block to cool their jets, and then come back and try again,” Haussmann says.
Master These Commands
“Before heading to the park, your dog should have a reliable ‘come’ command as well as ‘leave it,” says Haussmann. Teaching your dog these basics—and practicing them to make sure they’ve got them down—will head off potential problems before they have a chance to escalate.
This is not your opportunity to catch up on emails and update your Instagram (except for posting the occasional cute-pup-frolicking pic). “Remember why you are there and interact with your dog,” says Haussmann. You can steer your dog away from play that might be too rough for them and offer reassurance when they need it. And, of course, “if you dog is being inappropriate, you should intervene,” Haussmann adds.
But Don’t Overreact
You want to be attentive, but not in a hovering, helicopter-parent way. “Humans can accidentally trigger issues by adding stress to the environment,” says Haussmann. “Becoming frantic, utilizing aversive punishment techniques, or keeping your dog on the leash in an off-leash park are all actions that can stress out the dog and the community.”
Find Your Tribe
Another thing that can help put your pup at ease at the dog park? Having their own pack. “Once your dog has found their tribe, organize some play sessions at the park with the humans involved,” says Haussmann. This can help build your dog’s confidence so they’re more comfortable at the park.
Forget the Toys
Depending on your dog park, you may want to leave the tennis ball — and treats — at home. “In a traditional dog park, the close proximity of so many dogs around food or toys can stir up competition,” says Haussmann. But if you have access to a dog park that’s large and open, “then bringing treats for training or a ball for fetch is acceptable as long as you can find a quiet corner to play or train,” says Haussmann.
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