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November 03. 2012 7:26PM

Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Pet owners need to be cautious when visiting dog parks


 

I recently attended and presented at the annual conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. One of the presentations was given by Robin Bennett, a friend with whom I've given seminars on dog day care and interactive dog safety. Robin's talk was titled, "Five Things to Know Before You Take Off the Leash: A Guide to Safe Dog to Dog Interactions."

As I've written in previous columns, attending a dog park is not without risk to your dog (and you) - especially if the park does not have clearly stated and well-enforced rules of conduct and participation. To help dog owners fulfill their responsibility for their dogs' enjoyment and safety, Robin laid out some very clear guidelines everyone can use.

The theme of her recommendations: "Follow the yellow brick road."

Starting with the Scarecrow: Use your brain. Things to consider are your dog's age, breed type and style of play. If your puppy is younger than 4 months, don't take it to a dog park - period.

Young puppies can be easily overwhelmed by rough play, even with a puppy just a few weeks older. The difference in play styles between a 12-week-old and an 18-week-old puppy is much greater than you would think. An unpleasant or frightening experience at that young age can permanently and negatively affect your puppy's view of other dogs. On the other hand, play is important at this young age, so if possible, find a puppy class that includes supervised play sessions as well as manners training, or a day care where the puppies are well-supervised and separated by age and play style.

At the other end of the age spectrum are dogs over the age of 6 or 7. Consider whether your dog truly enjoys interactive, physical play. Many dog owners take their dogs to a dog park firmly believing their dog loves it. Be the Scarecrow with a brain: Assess it objectively. Here are some clues to help your assessment:

If your dog stops often, is panting heavily with his ears back and sticks close to you rather than running off to play, chances are he's saying that he doesn't love what is happening. Watch for and respond to your dog's pleas for help. If your dog is sniffing rather than playing, he's avoiding and redirecting his attention. If he's jumping up on you, he's asking for help. Or if he frequently shakes-off as if he's wet, he is likely overwhelmed.

Another thing to watch for is appropriate play groups. Two dogs playing together is usually fine - especially if they change roles with, for example, one dog chasing and then switching so the other is the chaser. Problems might arise if a third dog enters the play between two dogs, which can lead to a brief scuffle, or worse.

Space is important to dogs. When you're entering and exiting the park, it's important that your dog - and other dogs - not be crowded in small spaces. Lack of space creates a danger and can lead to a dog striking out.

Next, follow the advice of the Tin Man: Follow your heart and trust your gut. If you're worried about another dog, or a particular interaction, if you have a funny feeling, trust it! There's no harm in taking your dog out of the park because you're concerned about something.

Which brings us to the Cowardly Lion: Have courage. You are your dog's advocate. If you don't act in your dog's best interest, who will? Avoid bowing to social pressure to "fit in," especially if you are uncomfortable about another dog, an interaction or your dog's safety. Have courage and act on your feelings: Always err on the side of caution.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a column topic, email gail@alldogsgym.com or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. Past columns are on her website.


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