Dog Park Wisdom


People, like dogs, are really pack animals. For most of us, living with Canis familiaris isn't an escape from Homo sapiens. There are some exceptions -- misanthropes holed-up in compounds waiting for the End Times in the company of several dozen hounds, for example. But generally, dogs provide opportunities to connect with other people. It might be the conversation in low-tones over two leashed pups sniffing each other in the street. Meeting on cold and misty dawns, while most of the neighborhood sleeps, builds bonds among strangers. At play dates or the dog park, off-leash dogs gambol and cavort while their people look on like parents and talk about diets and obedience challenges.

Loving our dogs leads us into all sorts of entanglements -- including joining activist groups and volunteering for organizations -- on their behalf. Plus there's a rapidly expanding online universe, the virtual dog parks, in the form of social networking sites, forums, groups, and blogs that allow us to talk about, question, praise and explore our lives with dogs 24/7.

Here we look at advice for getting the most out of your actual, for-real dog park as well as some of the finer points of dog-fueled communities (including groups of two) from the folks who've been there, done that.

Leash-free Etiquette

We've come a long way from the days of un-enforced leash laws, through crackdowns to carving out designated spaces for dogs to play off-leash. Today, many municipalities have off-leash zones. Developers are adding dog parks to retirement communities and the rooftops of condo complexes. So, more and more, we enjoy the opportunities and face the challenges of letting our dog romp leash-free with other dogs.

No two off-leash areas (OLAs) are the same. In New York City certain sections of the 88 parks, including Central Park, are designated off-leash areas between 6-9 a.m. and from 9-12 p.m. In addition, more than 50-and-counting fenced dog runs (some with pools) dot the city. In the Seattle area, we have more than a dozen OLAs that range from 40 partially-fenced acres with a river to a fully fenced urban lot. Boulder, Colorado, has fenced off-leash areas for well-behaved dogs plus swaths of mountainous open space where dogs who qualified for voice and sight control tags can romp leash-free.

No single set of rules can apply to such a variety of circumstances, but there are some baseline codes of conduct that park users and stewards pretty much agree on.


* Exercise common sense. Only bring dogs that get along with other dogs and people.

* Do bring well-trained dogs who respond to voice control and can use the dog parks responsibly.

* Stop bothersome dog behavior immediately.

* Scoop your dog's poop and waste "accidentally" left behind by others.

* Focus on your dog.

* Carry a leash and extra waste bags.

* Be prepared to end your visit if your dog is causing problems.

* Bring water for your pup if there isn't a supply at the park.

* Close and latch any gates behind you.

ixNay on the icnicPay and Other OLA Don'ts

* Leave food at home. Snacking and picnicking at the park inspires bad behavior. Some stewards even advise against bringing dog treats, but that seems unrealistic, especially for guardians who are using treats to train their dogs in the off-leash area.

* Don't let your dogs dig. Digging runs down the park and creates leg-breaking hazards. If your terrier loves to excavate, create a sandbox for her at home.

* Don't hang out near the entrance, where altercations can break out with excited new arrivals.

* No naked dogs, i.e., no dogs without collars, and I.D, license, and rabies tags.

* No spike, prong or pinch collars.

Reality Check

In most New York City dog runs, you'll be reminded at the entry gate that you are financially liable for any injury caused by your dog. You will also be asked politely to settle all vet bills with the owner before visiting the run again. If your dog gets into a fight, exchange contact information and leave. (This is actually in the fine print of most dog park rules.)

Garrett Rosso, the manager of the Tompkins Square Dog Run in the East Village , says, "This is the friggin' most important rule." It's a rule born out of economic reality. While a stitch and a drain used to run about $200 in Manhattan . Today, it's closer to $2,000. And don't think you can get away without paying. "There is a dog-run newsgroup where everyone gets on and gossips and god forbid you don't pay your bill," Garrett says. "We monitor each other like crazy."

Neutered Territory

It's a good idea to neuter your dog. Intact dogs are more likely to be attacked or provoke aggression. (We're not talking about puppies.) Bitches in heat are equally problematic.

There's No Such Thing as Too Much Bling

"To anybody who says, my dog stays with me and he'll never run off, I say, 'until it happens,'" says Judy Trockel, the chief bottle washer at the 42-acre Marymoor Park dog park in Redmond, Washington. Dogs in an off-leash-area are at more risk to run off or go free -- especially in unfenced areas -- and a spooked dog moves quickly. Judy has seen it happen. She says collars should have legible, up-to-date contact information, plus a vet tag and a pet license. (She suggests using your cell phone number on tags, so you can be reached as soon as someone finds your dog.) Microchipping is also recommended.

No chain, choke or prong collars

Without a leash attached, these collars serve no purpose and cause serious problems when dogs wrestle. The collars can become linked, freaking out the dogs. Dogs can get their jaws caught in the prongs or their teeth lodged in one of the chains. Bill Zardus of the National Dog Run news list almost lost a finger trying to break up a fight with a dog in a prong collar. Other users have seen serious, even lethal consequences for dogs.

Does it need to be said? No dogs with communicable diseases or infections.

What about On-Leash in the Off-Leash Area?

"If the run isn't very crowded and people seem amenable, a dog that is undergoing training can be safely leashed in the dog run," says Tod Wohlfarth, co-chair of NYCdog Dog Park Committee and president of Friends of Leroy Dog Run. "However, generally it is a serious party foul. The leash is essentially an accelerator for a dog's anxiety when it feels threatened."

There is usually no great reason to bring leashed dogs into an off-leash area. After all, there are plenty of places to leash-walk a dog. Sometimes it's just a temporary measure to get your dog into the park or out of a bad situation or so she doesn't bolt to an open gate. If you need to have a leashed dog in the off-leash area (and it's permitted), don't use the extension-type leads. Dogs can be hurt in tangles, and some DPW tipsters have seen rushing dogs clotheslined by an extended, taut line.

-- Excerpted from Dog Park Wisdom, Skipstone, 2008

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