Maddie and Hudson playing under the close eye of Aunty Pen

I often get asked my opinion on dog parks and Im going to put it right out there and say ‘Apart from very well run and organized dog parks, Im not keen!’
I think they are a fantastic idea for people who have well trained dogs to give them a great off leash run and let them socialise, but unfortunately, too many people see a dog park not as a canine socialisation opportunity, but as one for the humans!
Many is the time I have parked up outside a dog park, debating whether or not to go in, and seen humans in groups, standing around chatting; I have seen people texting while their dogs play roughly and wrestle each other to the ground, no one paying any attention to the behaviour so dangerously escalating in front of them; I have seen dogs being chased by large groups of dogs, the ‘chase-ee’ looking so terrified, and where was his owner? In the corner checking her emails on her phone! Ugh!
A couple of months ago, friend and client Sandy Armstrong told me about a regular problem at her local dog park, whereby owners drop their dog off, completely unattended, and then go for a run in the park themselves, coming back an hour or so later to pick the dog up, unaware of the chaos that the unaccompanied dog might have perpetrated in their absence. Sandy, and a bunch of other clients of mine, have taken to meeting at the dog park at the same time early on a saturday morning so that they can have the place more to themselves and enjoy some well policed constructive play with their little group of dogs, and keep an eye out for anyone looking to dump their dog off for an hour or two, firmly telling them that this is not allowed.
In this scenario, I think dog parks are fantastic; sharp eyed owners with well trained dogs making sure that everyone has a good time and plays appropriately. There are very few owners like Sandy and her group, though, Im sad to say……
Here at the ranch, it is a little like a dog park, acres of off leash running and the dogs playing for hours and hours in the meadow all together. There is one difference, however….a leader!
Its incredibly important in any situation that is new or challenging to the canine that he or she has adequate leadership that they can trust and depend on. Those of you who have been to the ranch will know that my mantra is cool, calm, confident, firm but always benevolent leadership. Its what I practise every day here at the ranch, whether we have two guests or twenty in the field. My right hand “man” Freddie, leads the canines in the same way, letting them know what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Between the team of five of us [myself, my husband, and canine supervisors Freddie Levi and Ava] there can be no misunderstandings as to what is acceptable and what is not. Because we speak dog here and never ask the canines to go against their natural behavioural traits, they ‘get it’ very quickly, so everyones on the same page.
Obviously, my big stock in trade is to be able to read dog body language, and thus be able to pre empt certain situations from becoming problematic. The dogs are under no illusion as to who leads the pack and all do as they are guided, because to not do so will lead to either emotional or physical isolation. We use time outs here at the ranch for any dog that doesnt heed warnings and whom we think might endanger or frighten another dog during play. They dont last long [dogs forget the reasons behind time outs very quickly so we impose a three minute max on them] but theyre very effective and, because dogs learn vicariously, offer an excellent learning opportunity for the entire pack at large not just the dog in question.
In the picture that accompanies this blog, you will see me, with eyebrows fully knitted [I WILL have a lifestyle lift one of these days, I swear!] as I intently watch the antics of two very physical dogs playing and having fun. In this scenario, I am not in the least bit concerned about them fighting with each other, both are well known to me and know the ropes here; I am more concerned about the energy increase that might lead to other dogs, who are new to the ranch, getting hyped up. A few seconds after this shot was taken, I had my husband grab a huge stick and toss it into the woods which served as a great diversion for all of the dogs, as they all went running off after it. Problem averted, energy dissipated and everyone back on the same level as they hunt for the stick.
Here’s a few do’s and don’ts for the dog park, DD style!
At the dog park, I suggest you go fully prepared, not just with treats, but with confidence!  If you re not confident, she wont be confident! One of my clients, Ellen, was not confident about going to the dog park and so I suggested she go early Saturday morning and asked Sandy and Kimberley, another DD dog mum, to keep an eye out for her and be her support on that first visit, which she readily agreed to do. The confidence of having someone else there made all the difference to Ellen and her dog had a great time, building everyones confidence for the next visit.
Walk with your dog! Owners that keep moving in the dog park have dogs that keep moving along with them.. dogs follow action, remember…if you want your dog to have fun but mind you, keep moving so that he always has to have one eye on you, and will gravitate to your area. More problems happen when humans cluster standing around face to face because dogs misread the body language of that behaviour. More about that in later blogs…
Keep a leash strapped to you at all times so that you can reclaim your dog in an instant.
Don’t allow your dog to be victimised during play…its no fun to be chased by fifteen dogs for any but the most confident bombproof dog. If you see this happening, call your dog to you with a treat and impose a time out. Be prepared to go outside the gates if necessary, but PLEASE dont do nothing!
Don’t be afraid to tell other owners that their dog is not playing appropriately…you don’t have to have a fight over it, but you can easily make something up and tell that owner that your dog injures easily or has been attacked at a dog park before but that you want them to continue play so could he please keep an eye on his dog? Most people don’t want to be jerks and so will comply plus Im pretty sure God forgives white lies in this instance…..
Know your dogs’ limitations… don’t ask her to take on more than she can handle and always leave before she gets overtired and starts to make poor decisions.
Introduce the dog park gradually to your dog…if your dog is not socialised, its unfair to her to stay for two hours on her first visit as shes not equipped to do so yet. Subsequent visits can be longer, but keep first visits short as she gets used to it.
Be your dogs’ advocate at all times, but especially at the dog park….