A window into Wagsmore Dogcamp's world of dogs

Dog Park Etiquette

on May 27, 2013

Dog parks can be wonderful things.  They give our dogs the freedom to socialize, exercise, and have some fun with other dogs and owners alike.  However, I think almost everyone who goes to an off leash park has had at least one negative experience.  Untrained dogs, aggressive, or out of control dogs can all pose a risk in the overall safety of the park environment. So how do you know if your dog is ready to share this experience with you?  This week we’ll go over how to ensure your dog is ready and trained well enough for the dog park.

First and foremost, you MUST have a reliable recall with your dog.  Can you trust that no matter what’s going on, when you ask your dog to “come”, he will leave whatever he’s doing to listen to you?  The reliability of this command helps to keep everybody safe and calm.  I’ve heard many times owners say “Oh, Fido is just having a good time” when their dog blissfully ignores their repeated commands to come to them.  While the dog may be looking like they’re having the time of their life frolicking through the fields, this is an example of a dog who is not under full control.  If a fight were to break out, you want your dog to reliably return to you each and every time.

So how do you get to that point?

A strong dog-owner relationship is imperative in order to have a functioning, safe off leash area.  The following exercises will help to build up the bond between you and your dog, provide your dog with some fun mental stimulation, and reinforce the reliability of your dog’s basic commands.


Even with the distraction of treats right in front of them, these dogs will still watch on command

“Watch” or “Focus”:  This command, which is taught in most basic puppy classes is a very handy trick to keep in your back pocket.  When you ask your dog to watch, they should look at you, and wait to see what your next command is going to be.  Let’s say your dog is starting to get excited or aroused over something going on at the park which you don’t necessarily want him involved in.  You ask him to “watch”, and he immediately turns and looks at you.  You can now tell him to sit, down, or give him another command to redirect his attention from what had originally caught his interest.  So how do you start training for this?  Ask your dog for a sit, then bring a treat up towards your eyes and say “watch” (or look, focus, etc).  As soon as your dog meets your eyes, give him a reward.  If you use clicker training, make sure to mark the behavior of him looking at you immediately, then give him his reward.  Studies have shown that a reward administered within 2 seconds after a good behavior is the most effective.  After that, it becomes unclear what the reward is for.   Repeat this about ten times, using the lure to bring the dog’s eyes up to meet your eyes, rewarding each and every time.  It’s important to remember to start slow!  Don’t expect your dog to gaze into your eyes with undying attention right from the start.  There are a  lot of exciting things going on, and I’m sure everyone has noticed that dogs are easily distracted.  You want them to understand that looking at you is a good thing, and that it earns them a reward.  Next, try lengthening the amount of time that they look at you.  A few seconds, each time they hold your eyes, reward them.  When they’re reliably looking at you, try pointing to your eyes, keeping your treat in your other hand, and say “watch”.  If they look at you, immediately reward them.  When you have a reliable response, continue lengthening the amount of time.  If you feel really confident, you can begin adding distractions to make it harder.  Will your dog “watch” even though there’s a treat on the floor?  What if you’re holding a ball by your waist?  On your walks, can you ask for a “watch” when a person is walking by?  If you can, then congratulations!  Your dog has a wonderful relationship with you!

“Touch”:  Asking for a touch is similar to asking for a “watch”.  You want your dog to seek out your hand and touch it with his nose.  This, again, is a command that requires the focus of the dog be entirely on you.  You want this to be a fun, rewarding command for you dog!  Start by putting a very small treat between your fingers and put your hand to your side with your fingers flat with palm facing the dog, and say “touch”.  As soon as the dog bumps your hand with his nose, reward him.  (again, if using a clicker, mark the behavior as soon as he bumps your hand).  Do this several times, rewarding each time he touches your hand with his nose.  You can use either or both hands for this command.  After he is reliably going for your hand, start asking for a “touch” without a treat between your fingers.  Again, as soon as he touches your hand with his nose, reward him.  This is a command you want to be rewarding each and every single time you use it.  You want it to be so fun and the outcome to be so desirable that he’ll choose to “touch” your hand over anything else!  So use praises, treats, baby talk, anything to make it the best thing the dog has ever done! Now, of course, we’re going to step it up a notch.  What will your dog do if you move your hand up a little bit, so he really has to stretch with his nose to reach your hand?  What about if your hand is down close to the ground?  By moving your hand around, you can see if he’s really understanding this command.  When you’re certain his understanding is firm, you can start asking for “touch” on his walks when you’re out and about.  You can try having a friend or family member bouncing a ball from a distance away. (It’s very important not to rush and ask too much of the dog too fast.  If he goes completely crazy for tennis balls, you might just want to have someone hold it from 20 feet away, and see if he’ll remain focused and listen to his command.  It’s far more effective to have the dog succeed with the challenges being something he’s able to cope with, instead of having him repeatedly fail what you’re asking of him.  If you aren’t  getting  a behavior majority of the time because of distractions, make it a little less intense for him.)

“Come”:  One of the most important commands to have firmly established is the ability to be able to reliably have your dog come to you.  For safety and practicality, this command is something every owner wants to have.  The toughest part about it is it takes a long time, and a lot of consistent and dedicated training.  One of the most important things to remember, is when your dog comes to you, you should ALWAYS reward it.  It’s hard to remember that dog’s don’t have the same association skills that we have. If you’ve told your dog to come, and he dawdled his way over to you, never reprimand him for coming to you, no matter how slow he made his way.  You want each and every time he comes to be something that’s a pleasant experience for him. Along that same train of thought, if every time you ask your dog to come, you do something unpleasant and negative (he gets a bath, gets his nails trimmed, leaves the dog park, gets yelled at), the reliability of the command will go down.  So even around the house, just randomly call him to you.  When he does, reward him, and let him carry on with his day.  Same idea at the dog park, recall him do you several times throughout your time there.  Don’t ask him to do anything specific, but when he comes to you, give him a cookie or praise, and let him return to his play.  It’s important that your dog understands that when you say come, it doesn’t mean his fun is going to end or that something unpleasant is going to happen.  Repetition is very important while teaching and enforcing this command.

There are also a few other things to be aware of at the off leash park.  Be mindful of where your dog is and what he’s up to.  It’s easy to get distracted as owners and chat with other folks visiting the park that day, but we need to remember that we’re there for our dogs, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that they’re playing respectfully, and minding their manners.  If it looks like your dog might be playing too rough, or is trying to play with a dog who’s uncomfortable in that situation, it’s best to carry on your walk and find your dog a suitable playmate.  Just as we all appreciate when our dogs have positive experiences at the park, it’s important to make sure that your dog isn’t scaring or intimidating any other dogs as well.  Cleaning up after your dog is also important, and it takes everybody’s cooperation to make sure the parks stay clean!  Most off leash parks provide several garbage bins for easy waste disposal and convenience.

We hope everybody enjoys their summer with their dog, and stays safe!


One response to “Dog Park Etiquette

  1. Hi there! I’m a fan of your posts and I firmly believe in educating the public about Animal Welfare and training, so I’m nominating you for the Shine On award. You can see the details on my blog, here: http://thecaninecompanion.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/shining-on/

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