Arctic Dogs and Dog Parks
By: Gary Wynn Kelly
Many owners of northern breed dogs want to take their dog to a dog park, but are uncertain as to whether this is a good idea for their dog. If the owner is new to the northern breeds, it may be intimidating enough to just cope with that new Siberian Husky, or even American Eskimo dog. In truth, there is far more to going to the dog park than putting a leash on your dog.
Dog parks can be good alternatives for exercising and socializing northern breed dogs. It is best to be prepared, learn more about the breeds, and learn as much as possible about the dynamics of dogs meeting dogs. Additionally, you will want to prepare your dog medically, and be prepared in other ways for your visits to local dog parks. Most of the problems at dog parks are with people, and not dogs.
It is essential to know and understand the dog park rules, and the etiquette that goes with appropriate use of a dog park. Visits to the park can be a relaxing time for you, while your dog has a fun romp among other dogs. It can also be a disaster if you are ill prepared, or have not prepared yourself and your dog for the visit.
Know the Rules
Drive by your local dog park, and visit it without your dog. On this visit, bring a pen and notebook. Make notes in regard to the rules about the park and its use. Become completely familiar with those rules and how they might apply to you and your family. Dog parks work out best when all the people know and obey the rules.
One of the most obnoxious occurrences at a dog park is the ignorance of visitors who choose to ignore the rules. Bringing underage children into the dog park, bringing food — either personal or treats for the dogs, and bringing in toys or objects that then are left behind, perhaps constituting a danger to other dogs or people — all are too common, and equally objectionable. The rules are posted with an expectation that all benefit when they are obeyed. People who choose to violate them reduce the quality of experience for all of us, and introduce a needless element of danger among innocent dogs and people.
Please take time to know the rules, and help to make sure they are followed by calling them to the attention of others who have not read them carefully.
The prohibitions against underage children are posted equally for the safety of the dogs as well as the children. A child can move unexpectedly, and possibly startle or step on a dog that may then bite the child. The dog may get the death penalty because of the encounter, while the child may only get a scolding, and a bite that takes a week to heal. Not all dogs are socialized to children, and the rules do not *require* that a dog should be socialized to underage children. Rather, the rules are for such children to remain outside of the dog park, and away from dogs that may not be used to children.
Some people do insist on bringing treats for their dog into the dog park. This is a danger to themselves and other dogs, too. Nothing starts a fight among dogs as fast as food. *Treats are food*. Treats should remain in the car.
Training can be done without treats, but if treats are required, then the dog should be trained in another environment — away from the dog park. Offering a treat to your dog in the presence of other dogs can start a fight that could spread quickly to multiple dogs and owners.
People often bring food for themselves, or a drink in a mug or other container. Please discourage this, and avoid doing so yourself. It is a temptation for other dogs — a distraction, and an unwelcome one, as the owner may have brought her or his dog to the park for exercise — not to follow you around in hopes of getting you to let it have whatever you brought. Even a relatively well trained dog can be distracted or curious about food or a beverage you have. I have heard people say that it was nothing but coffee from Starbuck’s, as though that were different. That nice smell entices the dogs, especially if it is not familiar to dogs.
Pay attention to your dog while it is at the park. Understand what it is doing, and be ready to take charge, should an encounter with another dog, or unsafe situation be likely.
People do bring toys to the park. This, too, should not be done, but is a common practice. Your dog may consider it a delight to play fetch at the dog park, but it may annoy another dog if another owner is throwing a toy for her dog, and your dog grabs the toy. A fight can quickly ensue. If you are oblivious to what your dog is doing, you may find that the fight has escalated into a brawl before you are aware that your dog is even involved.
Please discourage owners who bring toys to the park — and especially the owners who abandon the toys, often broken, and walk away without them. Your dog can too quickly pick up that piece of tennis ball, and inadvertently swallow it. This can have unfortunate consequences, the least of which is that you saw it, and had an expensive vet visit as a result. The worst is that you did not see it, and your dog dies a horrible death when it impacts the intestines.
Pick up toys, and throw them away in the trash containers. This is a service to everyone, and perhaps even more important than cleaning up poop from the dogs. It is certainly a courtesy to clean up poop, and it removes a health hazard, but those toys that remain are dangerous in their innocence.
Preparing Your Dog
Before you ever plan your visit to your local dog park, there are things you should know, and think about before making that trip. Make certain that your dog has current vaccinations — actually check, and make a note on a prominent wall calendar if necessary. You cannot know that all the dogs that visit the park have been well vaccinated — some may not have, and could have spread a disease to which your dog will be exposed. This can result in the illness, or death of your dog.
Parvo, for example, remains in the environment for up to 9 months after the dog who had it is gone. If your dog has not yet had all of its vaccinations, it is not yet time to take it to the dog park. I have too often met people with young pups at the park — happy because they just got their puppy, and they are proud to have it at the park where everyone can meet it. This is irresponsible at best, and nearly criminal at worst. The pup can all too easily pick up a disease for which it has no immunity as yet, and spread that disease further because of the careless actions of the owners. Taking a dog not yet properly vaccinated to the dog park is playing Russian roulette with the dog. Make sure your pet has had all vaccinations, and is current with them. It is not enough to just have a rabies tag on your dog. It is advisable to have a Bordetella vaccine, too. Too many times, vets and low cost vaccine clinics skip this important vaccination because you stated that no, you do not expect to board your dog. Dogs get kennel cough from dogs at dog parks quite as easily as at kennels. Kennel cough itself is not any more terrible than a bad cold, but in pups, older dogs, or dogs with a weakened immune system, it may be deadly.
Also, if you are not completely aware of what is happening, your dog might get a further or secondary illness that can result in expensive treatments, or threaten the dog’s life. At the least, you may be inconvenienced and have your vacation ruined, when you find that no facility will board your infected dog until it is 2 weeks clear of symptoms. No responsible groomer will bathe and groom such a dog either.
It follows that if your dog is ill, you should never take it to the dog park. Even if you know what your dog has, and the vet is not concerned about your dog, it is exposing your dog to other infections while it may have a weakened immune system. Keep your dog at home if it appears ill at all.
If your dog is an intact animal, not yet spayed or neutered, you will need to take further precautions. Be sure that if your dog is a female, that she is not in heat, or starting to come into heat. Even if she is not yet in her heat, she will start attracting knowledgeable males as much as 2 to 3 weeks before showing signs to you. If you see this starting to happen, take your dog home. Your dog is not forbidden by rules from the use of the park when her heat is not obvious, but it is a discourtesy to the other owners to bring a dog about to go in heat, or in heat, into the dog park. It can lead to fights, or at the very least, annoy others as it makes it nearly impossible for them to get and retain the attention of their dogs.
If you have an intact male, and choose to take it to the dog park, make sure you have good control over your dog, and that you have already trained with it in multiple settings, so that you can feel comfortable with your level of control. Intact males are more likely to get testy around other males, especially if they are intact, and in the presence of a female who may be coming into heat, or has been in heat recently. Your dog may be an example of good decorum otherwise, but in such a situation, it can become more difficult to handle.
Make sure your dog has the right collars and tags. Your dog should have proper identification and license tags, if they are required, and most places do require them, and it should be microchipped. If your dog should escape, and I have seen dogs escape, you will be less anxious if your dog has proper collars, tags, and is microchipped. Consult our article now on the Lost Dog in the ADRTC Library, to be sure that you have prepared in this regard. Make a good photo of your dog, and take the other steps to be sure your dog is readily identifiable.
Be certain to have good equipment — a good leash or leashes, with clips that work. A mended leash may be suspect, and perhaps should be replaced. Clips become loose over time, and then may separate when you most need them to hold. I usually take an extra tab along that is attached to my belt. Check the collar, and make sure it is able to contain your dog if your dog pulls, or attempts to duck out of it.
Check out our article on collars for your dog.
Make sure that you have a current animal license, if you are required to have one. Some jurisdictions patrol dog parks, and can levy large fines on owners who are not current with license requirements. This is also true of the vaccination requirements, and sometimes, a license may be required for an intact animal that is different from that required for altered animals.
Make certain that you have already treated your dog with a proper flea and tic medication, and in some areas, a heartworm medication. I recommend the heartworm medications with the “plus” indicator, for protection against numerous types of worms that can be at the dog park.
As an example, many areas of the country are susceptible to hook worm, and such medications prevent your dog from getting hook worms. A vet can tell you the dangers in your area, and prescribe proper medication.
Also, if you plan to have your dog vacation with you, visit relatives, or areas not known to you, consider having your dog on such medication *before* leaving for your vacation, as that area may be of far more danger to your dog than the community in which you live.
Know your dog. Spend time with a new dog walking it around your neighborhood. Find out how it acts when on leash, and when it is passing by other dogs, or the homes where other dogs live. Get to know your dog, how it reacts, and make sure it knows when you speak to it, and responds predictably. Note that I did not say that it obeys you, as any Siberian owner will testify, that is not likely, but that it will act as you expect, and so that you are prepared for how it will react. A Siberian Husky when called, is more likely to wander off the opposite direction than come. Being prepared to handle that will spare you embarrassment.
If you are driving to the dog park, then be sure you know where there is safe parking, and that you have a secure vehicle in which to transport your dog. Remember, your dog is going to see and know that other dogs are present, and it will be reacting to this. Have your dog securely restrained when arriving, and be sure to properly place it back in the restraint when leaving. The open bed of a pickup truck is not a proper method of containment or transport. If the pickup is enclosed, make sure the dog is still restrained when you open the back to let it out.
Dog Park Etiquette
There are official rules in park use, and those are violated often enough that it is best to be informed in advance, so that you are prepared to cope with that reality. There are also unwritten rules of etiquette–some of which are mentioned in the preceding section–such as not bringing a dog about to be in heat into the dog park. This unwritten etiquette may vary by community, and by time of day, or day of use. It is the people factor behind dog parks that creates a less certain environment, as with most situations in life.
When you arrive with your dog or dogs, you should already know the basic rules of that park, and you are hopefully well prepared to obey those rules yourself, and be ready for the possibility that not all other visitors will. It is much like driving in that respect.
For a first visit, you may wish to go at a time when the park has few visitors, or none. That will give you a chance to learn how your dogs handle at the park, without too many additional variables. You will want to know how your dog handles the experience before it gets complicated by too many other dogs and dog owners.
As you approach the park with your dog on leash, you may wish to walk around it first, if this is a first visit. This gives you a chance to settle your dog before entering the park. For some dogs, and a new dog especially, it may take several visits to the park with only that happening — your walking your dog around the park a few times for exercise, without ever entering it.
This gives you a chance to get your dog used to the idea of the park and other dogs being in the park. This may take some dogs more time than others. An American Eskimo may need several visits this way before entering the dog park itself. A typical Siberian Husky is likely to be ready on the first visit for any dog park.
When you are ready to enter the dog park, go through the first gate and to the second. Stop there, make sure no one is entering or leaving behind you, and that anyone coming out is either waiting clear of the gate, or wait until they leave. Be aware of who is leaving and entering *before* you let your dog off leash. A husky can unexpectedly bolt in the opposite direction and out the exit gate before you or the owner leaving with a dog realize what has happened.
Once your dog is off leash, hold to its collar as you open the inner gate, and move with your dog, through that gate. If you have 2 dogs, this may take maneuvering. Many times it may be best to take the seasoned dog and send it in first, while preparing the other to walk inside with you.
If your dog is well trained on leash, predictable, and well socialized, it may be just fine to walk through the inner gate with your dog or dogs on leash, and then release them in the park. I do this, but my pack is extremely well socialized, and it is easier for me to do that if the park is busy.
If you have a new dog, or a dog that is notorious for not coming when called, you may wish to have a drag line along. A drag line is a piece of clothes line, or a plastic coated cable attached at one end to a clip. The clip goes on your dog’s collar. The line should be at least 6 feet long, but may be longer if you think it necessary.
The dog drags this line along as it walks about the park. When you want your dog, you walk towards it, not saying anything until you are nearly to the drag line. Then speak quietly and firmly, demanding your dog to come. When it tries to walk the other direction, or run past you, simply step on the drag line. This is a quiet and authoritative method of gaining control over your dog with no hassles, arguments, or embarrassments. No matter how often you use a drag line, and catch your dog this way, it will seem surprised. Dogs cannot remember, and make that association across time. They are surprised that you now have them on leash when they were free.
The breech of etiquette comes when an owner, unsure of their dog, walks into the park, and keeps the dog on leash as they move about the park. The dog, being in this environment for the first time perhaps, or with limited prior visits, is feeling insecure, and starting to bark at all approaching dogs. This may cause other dogs to come over and soon, the vocalizing is escalating to insults, and a potential for a mature and more dominant dog teaching your dog a lesson. Soon, the adults are getting nearly as noisy as the dogs. Learn the etiquette. Take your dog off leash — it will feel more secure, and behave in a more appropriate manner, as it has instincts that tell it how to behave off leash. It has none that help it when on leash.
If There is a Fight
If your dog should end up in a fight, and it is unlikely, unless you kept it on leash when you should not have done so, *do not* under any circumstances insert any part of your body into the fight. Get the other owner, or another experienced person to help.
Breaking up a fight is easy and safe when done correctly, but the number of dog bites in America each year to people breaking up dog fights, indicates how often people do it the wrong way. Be sensible, and keep your body parts out of the fight — do not grab for collars, or try to whack at dogs.
Get that other calm person nearby, who seems to not be upset, and ask her or him to please grab the other dog by the hind legs. That will tell this person that you know what you are doing, and you are more certain to get help. Grab your dog firmly by the hind legs at the leg above the knee. Lift up the rear of your dog, and wheelbarrow it backwards out of the fight. The other person should do this to the other dog at the same time. This stops the fight in seconds, with no one being bitten. Your dog cannot easily turn and bite you if you have its rear legs in the air, and are pulling it backwards. By the time it desists from fighting with the absence of the other dog, it will turn, realize just who has it, and that it is helpless to do anything but calm down.
Congratulations! You have just learned what most of the people at the dog park forget to do when they most need to do it. Teach your friends this technique, and practice it with your dog in situations at home, when there is no fight. You will feel more confident, and be ready if you ever need to do it. I never have had to do it at a dog park , as yet, but I have seen dog fights at dog parks, and I have seen at least one person being bitten, who brought her dog in on leash, and did not know how to handle the resulting fight.
In the event that another owner less knowledgeable than you now are, has entered the park with a dog on leash, and your dog has just jumped that dog, tell the other owner to hang on to the leash only, while you extract your dog via the wheelbarrow technique. If possible, have a nearby experienced person standby to help should the novice drop the leash, and leave you with a strange dog now able to follow and attack your retreating dog. Your friend can step on the leash, or use the wheelbarrow technique to stop the now aggressive dog.
Keep your cool, and carefully educate the new person. There is nothing to be gained by being upset and calling anyone names. Before you read this, you might not have known the proper thing to do, so please be kind and educate an upset and possibly embarrassed person. Just use that sentence I wrote about a dog knowing instinctively what to do when off leash among other dogs, but not knowing what to do when surrounded by possibly hostile dogs when on leash. That leash nearly literally ties the dogs brains in knots and leaves it with an insoluble problem.
Remember, this person may have to be embarrassed later about what he/she said, and have to apologize if they wish to return to the park when anyone is there who saw the encounter. You will not have to apologize if you demonstrate respect and kindness in educating them in how to handle their dog in any dog park.
Dogs with Dogs
A surprising number of people do not know dog behavior well enough to visit a park for a long time. If you are one of those people, please spend time going to the dog park *without a dog*, and learning more about dogs. Read articles, visit people who do know and learn. Watch dogs, and then watch dogs, and watch more dogs. Watch carefully. Pay attention to what they do, how they interact and how they vocalize. I can generally know precisely what is happening with my dogs, or even strange dogs, by just hearing them. At least learn when a dog is threatening, is insecure, is upset, or is playful.
There are many people who go to a dog park and react to every growl, every vocalization as though it is a personal attack on their own dog.
Dogs at dog parks play. Dog play is an almost ritualistic interaction with dogs making mock threats at one another, or barking to elicit a response. Get used to it, and learn when it is play, and when it is a sign of behavior you need to monitor. Sometimes, you can stop that potential fight by calling your dog, or simply speaking to it in admonishment. Dogs can be like children, and sometimes push another dog a little too far. Letting your dog know that there are limits is a kindness to everyone using the dog park.
One of the nuisance people one meets at a dog park is the over-sensitive owner, who often has the most spoiled dog. The dog is always aggravating other dogs — sometimes not so obviously as in staring, and when it is corrected by a dominant dog that knows how youngsters ought to behave, the owner gets rude and insulting, often making demands that you take your dog and leave. Learn when your dog is appropriate, and when it is not. Scuffles are normal among dogs. That is how they establish authority among themselves. Be prepared to explain this politely and with authority when necessary.
This is advisable, as any dog that is permitted to continue such behaviors will provoke more dogs, and one day, possibly provoke a serious fight. If it is constantly reinforced in having bad behavior, it will develop worse dog manners, and get a much stronger correction from knowledgeable alpha dogs.
People who are not knowledgeable about dog hierarchy and try to carry human notions of peace and silence into a dog park are a jeopardy to the future of their own dogs, and a danger to all other persons using the park. If the spoiled dog does not learn to back down when instructed properly by a dominant dog, a serious fight can ensue, and a person could be bitten if the fight escalates too far.
If such a person continues to attend the park at times when you do, and refuses instruction, then change the time at which you go to the park. You and your dog will be safer, and have a more enjoyable time.
Watch your own dog carefully. Sometimes your dog may annoy another human guest of the park. A dog that is running over and mouthing another person while the owner is clueless, is not welcome. Likewise, the dog that is jumping on people and licking them, while the owner laughs, or thinks it is cute. It might be that your laugh is out of nervousness, and your denial is defensive, but save everyone the embarrassment of telling you your dog is illy maintained, by training it properly, and correcting it if it does attempt to engage in such antisocial conduct.
Most people visiting dog parks will be helpful and will work with you and your dog. Ask them for help in correcting your dog for jumping. They can catch your dog by the front paws when it jumps on them, and continue to hold the dog balanced on its hind legs for a long time. When your dog is starting to dance and complain about the discomfort of supporting its weight on hind legs and lower back, it is time to say “NO!” firmly, and let the dog go. The experience was uncomfortable for the dog, and it will hesitate to do it again. Do this with a dozen people, and in your own family, and you will soon have a dog that is far better mannered.
People naturally meet and discuss their lives and dogs when at the dog park. It is not unusual to meet new friends this way. This is great socialization for you, too, but it must be accompanied by a vigilant watching of your dog. People who become absorbed in their private discussions, or a group story telling, can create a hazard for others if their dogs are starting mischief while the owners are occupied and unaware. Constant awareness of your dog and your dog’s interactions is a courtesy to other visitors and their dogs.
When you are ready to leave the dog park, walk to your dog. Calling your dog from a distance is disruptive and distracting to other people and dogs. Walk over to your dog, and when close to it, call it to you. If you need a drag line to capture it, make sure you put that on in advance of entering the park — possibly when removing the dog from your vehicle.
When you have your dog, put it on a short leash or tab, and walk it to the nearest gate. Make sure no one else is entering, or that you have their attention if you are leaving. Watch other nearby dogs to be sure none is ready to dash out when you exit the inner gate with your dog. Check again as you prepare to leave the second exit gate, as another dog might have managed to open the gate after you by itself.
As you repeatedly visit the park, you and your dog will know what to expect. Going at regular times of day can be helpful to many dogs who appreciate routine. Varying the routine can be helpful to you, so your dog is not always expecting to go at one time, and possibly upset if your schedule does not permit you to take a dog park visit one day.
Lessons for Your Dog
Visiting a dog park not only teaches your dog basic socialization to other people and dogs, but also gives your dog a chance to mature more quickly. Dogs “learn” through a variety of different mechanisms, and one of the important ones is through an environmental stimulation that results in instinctive behaviors being activated. Your dog will gain experiences with other dogs at the park that force these instinctive behaviors and knowledge to become active. This can be most helpful to you. It produces a calmer and more secure dog.
Your dog will learn to use its mouth correctly — not biting too hard, or using it inappropriately. Other dogs can teach your dog that lesson more efficiently than you ever can. Your dog will learn about staring, and why it should not do that to other dogs unless it intends to create an offense. Your dog will learn to be more socially aware of other dogs, as well as people.
You may find that your dog gets far more tired in a dog park than when you go hiking, running, or do other activities with your dog. This is because there are nervous demands on your dog. It is like your going to a party at the boss’s house, or at your mother-in-law’s. The nervous energy exhausts you far more than the physical demands of the situation. The experience may be great fun, but it still requires a heightened social awareness that makes demands on you and your dog.
Copyright 2007, by Gary Wynn Kelly
Please respect the copyright, and only reproduce with all credits to the author and the Arctic Dog Rescue and Training Center. Individuals may copy and distribute this article on a non-commercial basis as long as no modifications are made and this notice is included with all copies. Direct all questions to ADRTC.ORG.