On April 6, 2020, the NYC Parks Department closed all dog runs until further notice due to the coronavirus. They are closed to help promote social distancing in an effort to “flatten the curve.” This decision caused quite an uproar throughout social media. I saw post after post about people who are upset, petitions being sent around to open the dog parks back up, and I’m still seeing the occasional post about people who are tired of not being able to go to the dog run.
I know lots of dogs, and their owners, are currently missing their daily social time with friends and off leash running around. And I understand why some people are disappointed that this aspect of their lives has also been affected by coronavirus. The good news is that there are tons of other things you can do with your dog in the meantime.
Although I am also saddened by their closure, I will admit that even when open I am not a huge fan of dog parks. I’m not saying that you should never go, or that dogs don’t enjoy them. But, dog parks are problematic. They are a major safety risk to your dog, and a place where your dog can pick up some pretty bad habits. Before bringing your dog to play once they reopen, there are some things to do to ensure your visit is a safe and happy one.
1. Recall. Your dog should come when called no matter what. If your dog does not come when called, even while playing with other dogs, you cannot ensure their safety in a dog park. If there is a fight between other dogs your dog needs to be able to come away from the fight in an instant. The last thing you want is your dog running over to see what the commotion is and getting hurt. Your dog should also be able to come when called while in the middle of happy play with friends. A strong Recall is the number one foundation skill your dog should have before going to the dog park. And if they don’t have a solid recall, in all scenarios, the dog park is not a safe place to bring your dog.
2. Limited space. Dog parks are small, and filled with lots of dogs. It sounds counterintuitive, but aim to go to the dog park when it is less busy. Fewer dogs in the dog run allow your dog more space to run and play, and makes it easier to resolve conflicts with other dogs. This makes it both more safe and more fun for your dog to visit the dog park when there are one or two dogs than when there are ten or fifteen.
3. Dogs of different ages, sizes, and play styles don’t always mix well. When you go to the dog park your dog should be playing with dogs of similar sizes. If your small dog is playing with several big dogs you need to be VERY careful. A few large dogs chasing one small dog can lead to predatory drift. Predatory drift is when the large dogs chasing will try to catch the small dog as if s/he is prey. This can be deadly for small dogs.
Ideally, your dog is playing with other dogs who have similar play styles. If your dog likes to wrestle they will be happier play wrestling, if your dog likes to run and chase they will enjoy playing with other dogs who like to run and chase. If you are at the dog run and dog size and play styles don’t line up, it is always an option to leave and do something else. Additionally, If you see your dog being a bully, or being picked on, you should leave.
I know lots of dogs, and their owners, are currently missing their daily social time with friends and off-leash running around. And I understand why some people are disappointed that this aspect of their lives has also been affected by coronavirus. The good news is that there are tons of other things you can do with your dog in the meantime.
4. Disengaged owners. Pay attention to your dog, and to other dogs at all times in the dog park. The dog park is not a place where you should go, let your dog off leash, and sit on your phone. It is vital to pay attention to what is going on around you because it allows you to intervene when appropriate at the beginning stages of any signs of trouble.
My rule of thumb is that when in doubt, just leave. It is way better to leave while your dog is safe instead of waiting too long and having something happen. If you are unsure of what sort of behavior is concerning this poster by Lili Chin will give you a head start to understanding dog body language and how to tell if your dog is unhappy at the dog park.
5. Dog fights do happen. If one day you are at the dog park, and your dog was attacked or got into a fight, what is your plan? If you do not have an instant answer to that question, you should not go to the dog park until you do. Having a plan in place is like having a first aid kit handy, it is better to be prepared and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Part of that plan should include knowing where the closest 24/7 emergency vet is. Knowing what to do could be the difference between life and death for your dog.
6. Resources. Be very careful about resources when at the dog park. Avoid bringing treats and toys. If your dog is unable to share toys, food, water, attention and/or space from other dogs these issues should be resolved before entering a dog park. These behaviors are more likely to escalate or present in stressful or exciting situations so even if your dog does not have problems sharing at home they might when at the dog park.
The goal is to find activities that your dog enjoys doing. Below, I have compiled a list of 10 activities you can do with your dog until the dog park opens again. These activities aim to tire your dog both mentally and physically so that afterward they can be truly relaxed and not over-stimulated. This list serves as a place to start, but if you think of, or find something that your dog likes that is not listed here, great, do it!
Now in the meantime, how are you supposed to tire your dog out without their typical daily dog park playtime? The good news is that you have SO many options! When figuring out what things our dog can do for fun, what we are really discussing is called canine enrichment. According to Kelly Bollen and Brad Sheaer, canine enrichment is defined as “a process for improving the environmental and behavioral care for confined animals within the context of their behavioral needs.” There are 7 types of enrichment, as illustrated by this poster. Hopefully, it serves as some inspiration, you can be as creative as you would like with enrichment.
The goal is to find activities that your dog enjoys doing. Below, I have compiled a list of 10 activities you can do with your dog until the dog park opens again. These activities aim to tire your dog both mentally and physically so that afterwards they can be truly relaxed and not over-stimulated. This list serves as a place to start, but if you think of, or find something that your dog likes that is not listed here, great, do it!
1. Work on your recall
2. Take a nice relaxing sniffy walk
3. Play with a flirt pole. Here is a blog post I wrote just about flirt poles.
4. Bring treats on your walk and practice your loose leash walking and/or heelwork