Last time we discussed how to socialize under-socialized pups in dog parks, focusing on first steps like cultivating the proper mindset, use of training collars/harnesses, and even adopting a gait that will let your dog know that you mean business. We also touched on the absolute importance of developing “sit” as the fundamental training position which should always be the default—particularly during tense meetings with new friends. This time around we are going to build on these ideas and talk about actions on when arriving at the dog park.
As you approach your local dog park—particularly on foot—you may notice that your pup becomes fixated and starts pulling intently while staring straight ahead. Take this as an opportunity to ensure that you can exercise both the necessary force to stop them with your training collar/harness, and the necessary will to have them sit. If you can’t do those things when they are focused, know that it will be much more difficult during a possible canine skirmish.
Once you’ve got your pooch to sit, they might still have that game seven look in their eyes as they stare toward the dog park like a gladiator staring at the coliseum’s proving grounds. This can not be how they enter the park; it’s still an aggressively fixated state. Try getting between them and their point of focus when you have them seated, and taking control of their snout if necessary to break their fixation. Reassure them that they are a good boy/girl and perhaps break them off a little treat if you’re carrying some. Snacks over scuffles, right?
Of course, your dog will still be ready to jump in headfirst, but you can delay their gratification to good effect by taking them for a lap around the outside perimeter before entering the gate. This two minutes of reconnaissance can save you a great deal of heartache and worry when more aggressive dogs who might pose a threat run to the fence snarling. Of course, threats won’t always reveal themselves this way, but some do. In fact, big, meandering circles inside the enclosure are a good way to keep distance, keep momentum, and see threats well in advance once you’ve decided to take the plunge.
This is being written from the perspective of socializing a pet who poses a potential danger to other dogs, and so the assumption is that they will be kept leashed in the park and while meeting other dogs. However, there are some times when even “Baby Huey”-type dogs who don’t know their own strength might be taken off-leash (an otherwise empty dog park, for example). We’re going to stick with leash-on as this is more of a beginner’s guide.
Still, a leash is a psychological connection to a dog as well as a physical one. Your state will be communicated to your dog and they will amplify it. Keep as much slack in the lead as you can even when you shorten the length, as slack communicates calm and control. Gently swinging your arms back and forth will help achieve a dynamic slack which is loose enough to keep them relaxed, but felt enough to keep them in line.
Also, to keep from transferring anxiety to your dog that they will transmute into the next dog’s problem…
And by mantra, we’re talking about repeating something over again. Instead of telling your dog how to behave, imagine that you’re using your speaking voice as a shared internal monologue for you and your pooch. A lovely and benevolent (and apt) phrase is “Hello friend!” every time new friends approach for a sniff. When you say it sweetly, audibly and repeatedly, it effectively drowns out your own thoughts of, “Oh God, please don’t something bad happen”, and your dog will totally pick up on that and act accordingly.
We’ve covered a lot so far and set ourselves up for good meetings with other pooches. Next time we’ll discuss how those meetings might go and how to stay present while giving your pooch the freedom to cultivate their own identity and niche in the fluid pack that is the dog park.