Getting Ready for a Baby
Lisa Kerley BSC KPA-CTP
Ideally you’ve just found out the happy news and want to start preparing your first kid (the one with four legs) for the new arrival as soon as possible. The key to a smooth transition is early preparation. It is very important to establish new patterns and routines beforehand, so your dog does not associate the changes with the baby. Not only will you make things easier for your dog, but with some preparation early on, you won’t feel overwhelmed as the big day approaches.
By thinking and preparing ahead you will be able to have the final game plan in place before the baby comes home. Ideally the new routine should be a normal part of your lives at least a month before the baby comes on the scene. The more changes needed to get there, the longer the preparation period required.
So where do you start? Here are a couple of basic things to start thinking about.
Make a list of all the ways you think your dog’s routine will change.
In the house:
Is your dog your shadow in the house?
Does your dog get up on the furniture?
Does she make up her own routine for most of the day?
Do you typically respond to your dog’s requests for attention, such as pawing or jumping?
If your dog presently has free-run of the house, you will need to establish a routine of regular quiet times throughout the day. In addition, creating a special place for your dog to settle will be very helpful. With a baby present, your dog will need to respect the times when you require some space to safely feed and hold the baby. Along with not having to worry about tripping over a dog that is constantly underfoot, she will need to be able to chill out while you’re attending to someone else.
If the duration or schedule of your dog’s walks or exercise activities will be different once the baby arrives, start making the adjustments towards that new routine now.
Will someone else be helping out with the walks? If so, have them start taking over some of the walks now.
And don’t forget about your dog’s transportation. If your dog’s place in the car will change, get your dog used to it now (crate, seat belt harness or simply a new position in the car).
Identify the things that will be novel to your dog.
Many dogs find the cry of a baby upsetting, so it’s a good idea to start desensitizing your dog to the sounds of a baby beforehand. You can accomplish this with the real thing or recorded material. You can create a good association by pairing the cries and squeals with something tasty.
As well, start getting your dog used to you carrying a baby in your arms. You can do this simply by holding a swaddling of fabric. Again, don’t wait until the last minute to start desensitizing.
Note: Some dogs become agitated in the last trimester of pregnancy. They may become very clingy or stressed. It is important to not coddle, but make them feel secure through consistency and sticking with the routine you have been practicing. Complimentary tools, such as Aromatherapy and Tellington TTouch can be used to relieve your dog’s stress.
Get your dog used to going for walks with a baby now. If you hope to walk the dog and the baby together on your own, and your dog is unruly on the leash you need to start dealing with leash manners now. Don’t wait! Basic leash manners need to be in place before adding the challenge of a stroller. If your dog is polite on leash and you’ve done some initial desensitization to the stroller, you can head outside with the dog and stroller together. At first, it is easier to have one person pushing the stroller while another walks the dog. Reward your dog for staying calm and being mannerly. You can use treats during the first outings as bonus pay. When you feel ready you can try the same process on your own. The important thing is to work out any ‘bugs’ on the walks before the baby’s actually in the stroller!
Hopefully this has given you some ideas about things you need to consider while getting your dog ready for your new baby. Again, the sooner you start the smoother it will go for everyone.
In Part 2 we’ll discuss:
– the specifics of desensitizing your dog to strollers, carriers and sounds of a baby before baby comes home
– setting up resting stations your dog will love
In Part 3 we’ll discuss:
– last minute preparations
– bringing the baby home
For more care and training information for your dog visit:
Using Brainpower Instead of Manpower
Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP
How often have people told you to “show your dog who’s boss”? I get that a lot too. As a professional dog trainer, people come to me for help and advice with their dogs every day. Away my facility however, many people don’t know what I do for a living and are more than eager to give me ‘some tips’ with MY big guy. I’m told I should use a chain to assert myself and to maintain control. I need to correct mistakes and ‘get after him’ if he steps out of line. Not only am I warned that he will take over, but that he will actually become dangerous if I don’t do these things.
Over the last two decades I’ve worked with literally thousands of dogs of every size and description, from a 1lb Chihuahua pup to a pair of Presa Canarios weighing in at 165lb each. All have had their own unique personalities and every imaginable behavior or training issue. From dogs that would readily use teeth to defend anything they prized, to those that would pin strangers against walls and hold them there until rescued by the parents. Not once have I felt that resorting to harsher equipment or tougher methods was necessary or would help.
So every time I hear “those kind methods are fine for the soft ones, but they don’t work with bigger / stronger / tougher dogs”, I smile. Really? Because my guy, a stallion, weighs in at over 1100lbs.
Horses endure force and punishment in the name of training and in their day-to-day handling, even more than many dogs do. They have chains on their faces and metal in their mouths. Their heads are tied down and their mouths strapped shut. They are poked in the ribs with metal spikes and hit with sticks. This is partly because of their size, as this somehow makes a smack or kick sting less; partly because they ‘do worse to each other’, so they can certainly handle anything we might dole out; and partly because that’s the way it’s always been done, perhaps the most upsetting reason of all.
And stallions often get more than their fair share of this. They have a reputation for being intense and dangerous. Their behaviour is strongly influenced by hormones and they often respond to things in the environment much more intensely than is typical with a gelding or mare. “You can’t treat him like a regular horse”, I’ve been told again and again.
Now, I’ve seen how labels can land people in a lot of trouble with their dogs. They set up an attitude for confrontation and challenge, even before getting started. Just like the dogs I work with, with my horse I’ve focused on building a strong relationship, one where I have developed trust by being reasonable and fair in my expectations and remaining consistent in those expectations. Short-term goals never override maintaining or strengthening our relationship.
I set my horse up for success by teaching him the skills he needs to share his life with me safely and comfortably. They are the foundation of our work together. I make these lessons clear and reasonable and don’t rely on equipment to get results. Initial work is presented simply, breaking the behavior or skill down into small pieces. This allows my student to grasp the lessons more easily and reduces frustration, both important for success. Most of the lessons are started at liberty, whether they ultimately will be used for day-to-day life or for riding. And because I have taken the time necessary to teach preliminary skills, there’s no need to rely on equipment like bits or crops, to get things done.
I know that if I have over-faced him and he loses his focus, or doesn’t respond to a request or acts inappropriately, it’s because I haven’t trained him adequately for that situation. I do not react to undesired behaviours by getting upset or using punishment. Instead I get him through the situation with as little drama as possible, making extra room for him if that will help, or giving him something to do that he’s good at that will get him focused and help build a pleasant association. What I take away from the experience is not that my horse has been ‘bad’. Instead I recognize that something is missing in his training. Whether that’s something I can work on in the moment or something I need to set up in a later session, reactions or stronger equipment won’t be part of the solution.
And just like us, horses can have bad days, and may not always be at their best. I’m not going to allow an off day to damage our relationship, or be an excuse to get tough with him, either.
So what special lessons and skills are required for a stallion? Stallions tend to use their mouths A LOT and many bite. They can be pushy about space and difficult to control, especially when they get aroused. They often lose their focus because of distractions in the environment.
My first concern was for safety. I didn’t want my guy to get hurt because his emotions got the best of him, just as much as I didn’t want to get run over or injured.
He also needed to be able to cope calmly with his daily life at the barn, including having mares moved around him and being groomed nearby – both big demands for a stallion! When we are together, whether that is riding, walking together or around other horses, I need him to pay attention and follow my direction when asked.
So with a plan in mind and a clicker in hand, I taught him to:
– take treats nicely
– be calm and polite around food and at feeding times
– stay out of my space unless invited in
– get out of my space calmly and quickly
– be around distractions while remaining calm
– walk together quietly, matching my pace and following my direction, while maintaining a loose line
Guess what? These are all skills that any horse (or dog!) would benefit from knowing! The only difference was that we had to spend extra time and care on developing his attention and focus in the face of distractions. Extra care and time that I was more than willing to spend to ensure he would be safe and have exceptional ground manners. And taking this time has allowed these skills to be developed without intimidation, force or equipment.
I like to think my stallion is an ambassador for positive, force-free training. He’s proof that tougher methods or harsher equipment are not required because the animal is bigger or stronger. Every day both of us enjoy the benefits of using brainpower instead of manpower. And it sure feels good when people tell me what a polite, well-behaved guy he is, too!
For more tips and info on force-free training visit:
And if you would like to see what Bandolero and I get up to, check out:
Freedom – Too Much of a Good Thing?
Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP
A classic conversation that I have with new clients goes something like this:
Client: “Mitzy is SO smart. She’s only 12 weeks and she already knows how to sit.”
Lisa: “That’s great. Puppies’ brains are little learning sponges!”
Feeling encouraged by my response, the client continues: “She hasn’t had any more accidents in the house so she doesn’t need her crate anymore.”
Lisa: “Really? (Eyebrows are raised, at this point).
Client: “No. And at night she’s more settled out of it, so we just let her sleep on the bed. That way we don’t need to get up at all!”
So if a pup’s not having accidents or tearing the house apart, what’s the problem with giving them freedom? In the short term it may seem easier or kinder to just let a puppy have what they want. But wait. Whether the puppy has the maturity or skill to handle it, this approach of easy freedom early in a dog’s life takes away the opportunity to teach some very important skills – tolerance, impulse control and patience, along with developing confidence.
Consider a child that has always gotten whatever she wants, when she wants it. Experience has taught her to expect it this way, so the skills required to ask for things appropriately and deal with not getting them quickly enough have not been learned. Yikes – that’s a scary thought!
Dogs that get to decide how things happen – having free run of the house, choosing when they want your company or when they want to be alone, are in the same situation. They are used to getting immediate gratification, and as a result, have a hard time coping with not getting their way or being asked to follow through with things they don’t want to do. They will be intolerant of being denied what they want – responding with frustration, anger or stress. Not the best plan for developing patience and tolerance, is it? These are skills that must be learned, and are just as vital for our dogs as they are for our children.
So that makes sense, but what’s too much freedom got to do with your puppy’s confidence, you ask? By leaving a pup to make choices with too many options, they are being put in situations beyond their learning or skill set. Without proper direction or support, they are forced to deal with things and face challenges on their own. Even in the safety of their own home, dogs with too much freedom often begin patrolling the environment. They will react to noises outside, people passing by, and even the mailman.
Although teaching impulse control, tolerance, and developing confidence takes time and effort, the benefits to your pup are huge. Dogs that possess these skills are typically calmer and more manageable even before any additional training takes place. As a bonus, you will also be teaching them to be comfortable in a crate, be on their own and walk politely on leash. How cool is that!
Being Comfortable in a Crate
Many people don’t plan on including the crate as part of their adult dog’s routine. However, keeping your dog comfortable with it through regular use will equip you for many of life’s unforeseen situations – medical emergencies, transport, moving, renovating. These are all stressful to the dog – there’s no need to compound their anxiety by putting them in a crate for the first time in a year.
Having a secure, safe place for your dog that can go anywhere will also allow you more options and flexibility. Your dog will be welcome at more social engagements and facilities if they can be comfortably crated. This will allow you to take them more places and include them in more aspects of your life.
Lessons: Many pups are happy to sleep in their crate at night. Some can even handle being in the crate for periods during the day, if the house is empty. Being willing to settle there when the house is more active, is a different matter however. A dog’s first steps in this training needs to be very easy so they can be successful. Ensure your pup always has something great to keep them busy for the duration of their crate time – a beef chew or Kong, for example. Make sure you provide something really special, that your puppy LOVES and save it for these crate sessions. Start with short sessions – even as little as 5 minutes and practice while the environment is calm. Gradually work your pup up to where they can calmly hang out in their crate while things are happening that are hard to resist – such as when you’re prepping meals, lounging nearby on the floor or the kids are playing.
Being on Their Own
Having a dog that cannot be left alone will affect almost every aspect of your life. It will restrict how long you can leave home, and can impact even the simplest daily activities. Many dogs intolerant of being left will be destructive. Finding safe solutions can be challenging and costly. For many, the only option is providing nearly continual care via babysitters, walkers or daycares. Going out for dinner won’t simply be a matter of getting restaurant reservations.
Lessons: Continual access to you while you’re at home won’t give your puppy the skills they need to be on their own. Having your puppy regularly spending time in their crate while you’re at home, will also be setting them up to spend time alone when you have to be away. No matter what your hectic day entails, you can create a basic routine that the little puppy can get used to – something that they can rely on. With this consistency, they will learn to accept periods on their own as positive and normal.
Some puppies will wander off to a quiet place on their own. This is not the same as crate time. The point is to help your pup become comfortable with being put away and being on their own when it is NOT their idea. All gentle examples of direction from you will help your puppy develop tolerance. Short, regular sessions in their crate throughout the day will help your puppy accept imposed down time.
Although we have used the crate as an example (because of its usefulness outside the home), these lessons can also be taught using a pen, containment area or tether. Even using a safety harness in the car counts! Finding as many opportunities to practice these foundation skills will improve your dog’s ability and make things easier in the long run.
Having a dog that walks calmly and politely on leash is one of the joys of sharing our lives together. Developing good leash skills also has value to your dog’s well being. There is increasing evidence that a dog pulling while on a collar can be detrimental to their health. Additionally, poor leash skills result in unruly approaches, pass-bys and greetings. These in turn can develop into frustration behaviour, and escalate to leash aggression in maturing dogs. And with many areas now requiring dogs be leashed, it is a must-have skill.
Lessons: Dogs get into the habit of pulling because we allow it to work for them. As a result, any slow downs or impediments to reaching things of interest become a frustration. Instead, you can show your pup that displaying some patience and impulse control will get them where they want to go. When you approach something attractive, stop at a small distance away and wait for your puppy to settle. This delay can be frustrating to your pup, but you will be helping them develop tolerance and be able to reward calm behavior.
By consistently providing this space and pause, you will also allow your pup to check out potentially worrisome things safely and comfortably. Following this protocol will help to prevent reactivity.
All these lessons are best started with a young puppy. This is much easier than changing game plans later on, when a lack of these skills requires more intense and time-consuming (and expensive!) remedial training to occur.
By helping your pup develop these skills, you will be giving them the foundation that will make training much easier and allow them to progress faster than dogs without them. Instead of becoming over-excited, frustrated and unable to focus, they will be in a state where they are ready and able to learn. They will be in a ‘thinking brain’ rather than an excited, reactive state and they will be able to take direction from you more easily. All of these will ultimately help them to make good choices and decisions. Possession of these skills can help prevent many common behaviour problems from developing. As an extra benefit (as if any more are needed!) you will also be giving your dog the skills and confidence to go almost anywhere, allowing you to share more of your life together.
For more training and care information visit:
Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP
In a previous blog, we discussed how many people systematically teach their dog to ignore them. Although none of us set out intending for this to happen, having a dog that is attentive, well-behaved and responsive is for many. nothing more than a dream. It may seem a daunting task, but there are a few small details that can have a huge impact on creating a well-mannered, receptive and, just as importantly, happy dog. And, you’ll be pleased to learn they don’t take a lot of time.
Whether you are actively training or not, your dog is always learning. Even outside your specific training sessions, he is learning there are consequences to his actions and developing associations with things in the environment. You have the CHOICE to make your dog’s interactions with the world (and with you), positive and productive ones, or not.
But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to be working on something every moment. Most of us are goal-oriented, and as there seems to be so little time to get things done, we can get caught up in getting results. Often in our haste we lose track of what’s actually happening with the little one at the other end of the leash. This can impact both your dog’s learning and well-being.
Take, as an example, having your dog meet people. Depending on how you do it, it can have a number of different outcomes. If your only concern is getting your dog to sit, you may not be paying attention to what your dog is taking away from the experience. Is the equipment you are using creating discomfort or concern? How about your handling or your demeanor? Is your dog at all concerned or unsure during the interaction?
By being aware of the quality of the experience, you can help create positive associations and build confidence in your dog. This will help to build the connection as well as build trust in you. In the situation above, we want the dog to walk away feeling great about meeting new people and feeling that you kept him safe and comfortable. And you can still help him learn to sit as part of the process!
Sadly, this is often not the case because of the way situations are handled,. It is just as easy to create negative associations, damage the dog’s trust and slow down their learning. HOW things happen is just as, and often, more important than WHAT is happening.
Keeping it Positive
Keeping all your dog’s experiences positive may seem a daunting task, but really it’s not. You just need to keep a few points in mind:
Is the interaction helping to create a stronger bond?
The quality of your interaction and the type of feedback you provide your dog will impact the relationship you have. What you do and how you respond to him will either be building trust and connection and thereby strengthening the relationship, or not. This is especially important when your dog is concerned about something. How your dog responds to you in the future, including whether he looks to you for direction or chooses to give you attention is impacted by the relationship you are fostering.
Is the experience helping to build confidence?
Attention to your dog’s emotional state is vital in creating a confident dog and an essential component of good learning.
How you set up interactions and experiences can build your dog’s confidence or damage it. Just as all socialization is not good, quality plays a part in this as well. You can set your dog up for success by focusing on what you like and make the right choice easier for him. Doing well feels just as good to your dog as it does for you!
When coming across new things, allow the dog to proceed as he feels comfortable, rather than making him interact. Give him space so he can find a comfortable distance when checking things out.
Is your dog learning something useful from the experience?
It’s easy to only react to situations and have your dog go through them with no benefit from the experience. By giving an unskilled dog too many options or conversely, micro-managing him all the time, he will not be learning the skills and lessons you are hoping for. As mentioned above, set your dog up for success!
With a bit of care and attention you can prevent your dog from leaving with a bad feeling that can affect future interactions. Rather than just taking it for granted that things are OK for your dog, it’s worth it to actively create positive associations by pairing daily experiences with things he enjoys – a treat, a kind word or an enjoyable activity.
Equipment and Methods
Your choice of equipment and how you use it influences the quality of your dog’s experiences.
Another important consideration is the equipment you choose and how you use it. Just as you can damage trust and confidence, you can also create negative associations to seemingly unrelated stuff in the time it takes for a single collar jerk or spray from a correction can. Even something as benign as a gentle push on the bum can be unpleasant for some dogs. Although this may seem a bit extreme, consider how you feel when someone stands too close, for example. It’s not really that big a deal, but it can be unpleasant and leave you looking for an escape route the next time that person appears. By simply removing these aversives, you will greatly improve the quality of your dog’s experiences.
Your choice of equipment and how you use it influences the quality of your dog’s experiences.
All the considerations above can be enhanced by learning to watch and assess your dog’s emotional state and watching for signs of stress or discomfort. Understanding body language and what it means is an invaluable skill. Like us, every dog is different in the way they experience and feel about things. Watching body language will allow you to judge how your dog is feeling and in turn, whether things are good, or need to be adjusted in some way.
These concepts apply to everything you do with your dog – when you’re just hanging out; playing; on a walk; encountering something for the first time. You are continually being presented with opportunities to strengthen your relationship, and build your dog’s confidence and skills. So keep these points in mind the next time you are together, no matter what you are doing. This attention and awareness will be invaluable in helping him have a happy, comfortable life.
And keep in mind:
If you have a young puppy, there are some things in his learning that cannot be omitted or put off, such as providing a well-thought out, positive socializing program. This part of your young pup’s learning is time-sensitive, and should not be delayed.
If you do notice something with your dog that you don’t know how to deal with, don’t delay in getting some good help, hoping instead it will get better with time. Seek the assistance of an experienced, force-free professional.
For more detailed information, please visit:
Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP
For many people, going to the dog park is part of the fun of having a dog. It’s an opportunity for their dog to socialize, play, exercise and burn off some steam without a lot of effort. It seems like a win-win situation. Dog parks in concept, are a nice idea. In practice, however, they often create more problems than they are worth.
Most people know to stay clear of dog parks until their pup has completed early vaccinations. From a health perspective, parks aren’t safe and until a pup has a proper level of protection from illness, parks are not an appropriate place to be. The risks go far beyond health issues however, and its not just puppies that you need to worry about.
The atmosphere at a dog park can present social and behavioural risks as well. For young or immature dogs, ‘social immunity’ needs to be carefully developed through pleasant and appropriate experiences. As youngsters, dogs, like humans, need role models to teach them good lessons and help develop good skills. For this to happen, appropriate play opportunities have to be set up with proper supervision by an knowledgeable human. Without this, inexperienced or insecure dogs will learn that other dogs can be scary and may result in them becoming reactive as a means to protect themselves.
Without the proper choice of playmates and adequate supervision, young dogs can learn that being rough and ignoring other dogs’ signals to back off, is OK. This is how bullies get created. During adolescence, increased size, confidence and hormones can often lead to rough and inappropriate play. To discourage these behaviours from being reinforced and becoming a habit, it is important that your young dog has play time with dogs that have great play and social skills. Just as with puppies, it is vital that they have good role models and appropriate supervision.
Even adult dogs can be at risk at the park. Dogs often group themselves and multiple dogs can ‘gang up’ on one dog. Small dogs are often placed in danger when they mix with bigger dogs in an uncontrolled setting. Aroused play can quickly turn into something dangerous.
Park guidelines (if there even are any) usually indicate that dogs must be “well-behaved” to be allowed. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as most dog owners don’t know what inappropriate behaviour looks like. Many don’t think there’s a problem unless a dog is obviously aggressive or one is traumatized to an extreme extent. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the only way you realize that any particular dog should not be present is after there has been a problem and some poor dog gets injured or traumatized. Unfortunately, most parks have no supervision, leaving no one regulating the dogs that are allowed to be there.
Additionally, dogs at parks are typically left to play for too long. Skilled play involves lots of breaks. They may not be long – just time enough for a shake off, sniff, a piddle or drink of water, but they allow for one or both of the dogs to calm down or recover and keep the play at an appropriate level. Dogs that just keep going until they drop, are not learning the subtleties of good social interaction. Over time these dogs will often ignore their playmates signals to ease up, only paying attention when the other dog finally has to lose his temper to get a break.
Remember, socializing and play aren’t a benefit unless they are done well in your young dog’s life.
Even if you are well-schooled in understanding body language and the nuances of dog interactions, that still doesn’t mean your dog will be safe. It’s common practice for dogs to be unsupervised while at the park, with parents collected somewhere in the distance, busy chit-chatting or having a latte. Many parks are too big to allow parents to stay near their dogs and be ready to step in, if necessary. We’ve even seen dogs being let out of their vehicle at one end of a park, the parent driving to the other end and waiting to pick the dog up. Others are let out of the vehicle to run free and out of sight while the parent stays in the vehicle. This lack of supervision may leave you having to step in unassisted to split up a tussle with another dog to keep yours safe or comfortable. Are you confident that you can manage unfamiliar dogs that are aroused or aggressing?
If you are not convinced and choose to take your dog to a dog park, there are some things to keep in mind that can help to lower the risks.
- Educate yourself.
Do you know how to do a “consent check” to ensure the dogs want to continue playing together?
Do you know 3 ways that dogs show they don’t want to interact or need a break (other than growling or snapping)?
Can you recognize more than 5 body language signals that indicate stress?
If you answered ‘no’ to any of these, then you would benefit from the advice of a skilled positive trainer before supervising your young dog’s playtimes on your own.
A informed handler understands what good play looks like and allows interactions only with dogs that are skilled and appropriate with their dog. They recognize signs of stress, and can identify when a dog is unsure or uncomfortable, and step in to help out. They are aware of signs of aroused, asocial or inappropriate behaviour and keep their dog safe by avoiding these dogs. Dogs need frequent breaks to keep play appropriate and establish good play habits. A skilled handler will regularly interrupt play to help keep play at an acceptable level and prevent interactions from getting out of hand.
What does good play look like?
Observing and supervising play is a big part of my day job. After 15 years, you get pretty good at recognizing the subtleties of canine body language, interaction and play. Dogs that frequent dog parks are pretty easy to pick out at my facility. Their play is rough or intense; they get stuck on a certain behavior, such as chasing or playing on top of other dogs; they don’t acknowledge signals from other dogs to stop or slow down; and often get upset when another dog finally resorts to a more intense request to take a break. Unskilled dogs usually have an agenda and their own set of rules. Good play is more like a dance. It may be intense at times, but both of the dogs involved are active participants. One dog is not just doing stuff to the other.
A skilled player:
- adjusts his play to accommodate the skill, style and confidence of his play partner.
- uses lots of body language to reassure the other dog that his antics are all in fun.
- offers a variety of play behavior versus just doing the same thing over and over.
- is happy to give and take. This means that even though he may LOVE to chase and does it frequently, he is able to accept being chased as well. Another example is being on top or on the bottom in play.
- initiates breaks and is happy to accept requests for breaks from other dogs.
- Be choosy
Many people choose a particular park based solely on convenience or proximity to home. There are more important considerations that should factor into the ones you choose.
Parks get reputations, just like other kinds of hangouts can. A particular park in our area is known as the ‘gangsta park’. There are more dogs roaming around that apparently have no parent present; more rough, unsocial dogs; and a higher incidence of fights. Although many have frequented the park without a problem, why take the risk? Remember that a traumatizing social interaction in a young dog’s life can have a serious impact on future socializing and confidence.
You should also be selective about the physical setup of the park itself. Ideally, a dog park should be completely fenced and have a double-gate for security. If not, it should be located away from roads or other local dangers. Every spring there are a number of dogs in our area that are swept away in the fast-moving waters at one local park! If the ground is mucky or has a lot of standing water you might be exposing your dog to giardia or various other pathogens. Parks that are heavily used by large volumes of dogs will build up residual fecal matter – also a health risk.
There should be separate areas where small dogs, more timid dogs and younger dogs can play safely away from the more intense activity. Is the area small enough that you can stay near your dog as they move about? If you can’t stay close at hand, you won’t be able to supervise them properly or help them if they are in trouble. The park should not be over-crowded. As the volume of dogs at any one time goes up, so does the chance for problems.
- Be involved
Remember what makes for great play? Good playmates and an involved, skilled handler. Ensure your dog is having a good experience by:
- choosing an area of the park where there are only a few dogs.
- checking that all dogs are accounted for. Do they have a guardian with them who can advocate for them when they need a hand or step in when they are being inappropriate?
- choosing appropriate playmates for your dog. Pick confident but calm playmates if you have a rowdy dog. This will discourage him from bullying and help him learn to control his excitement during playtime. Choose gentle, careful playmates for a shy dog. This will allow him to develop confidence.
- monitoring your dog and watching for signs of stress, or alternatively, for signs of arousal.
- ensuring he has regular breaks throughout the play.
- keeping an eye on what’s happening around you. Stay clear of over-aroused, rough play, or bigger groupings of dogs. If something is developing, get your dog, secure him and move to another area.
- finding other parents who are interested in creating good play opportunities with proper supervision (and with an appropriate dog!) This is invaluable and if you come across them, take advantage and set up more play times together.
Being involved in your dog’s interactions will have an additional benefit beyond safety and creating a socially-skilled dog. Typically, once parents let their dogs off-leash, they don’t interact until it’s time to go. The dog is having a good time on his own, when suddenly the parent appears and the fun ends. Not really the association we want! By staying involved, you can harness the power of play as a meaningful reinforcer. You will also help your dog to learn how to work with you around a big distraction.
You might have the impression that I’m not a big fan of dog parks. There are safer, more appropriate ways to socialize and exercise dogs, so I don’t recommend them to my clients. It’s interesting that most professional dog people don’t go near dog parks with their own dogs. Considerations for health and safety, along with social and behavioural well-being (for dogs of all ages) are typically compromised there. I hope that this information will help you and your dog stay safe and have great experiences.
For more valuable information on keeping your dog safe at the dog park, check out these 2 videos from Sue Sternberg:
At the Dog Park – The Importance of Participating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Az6K1wZGb8
At the Dog Park – Red Alert Behavior Series
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