First, I would like to say--an off leash dog park, an area with lots of dogs on or off leash, is not the way to socialize scared, reactive, fearful unsocialized dogs or dogs who have been aggressive with people or dogs!!!! Seek help from an experienced trainer!
Your first visit should be without your dog.
The next visit should be to an off leash area at non-peak times. Peak times are after work on Monday-Friday and midday and the evening hours and all times on weekends.
The first visit can be somewhat stressful for both you and your dog. You may be unsure about how your dog will behave. Your dog, if not well socialized, may be worried by the presence of other dogs and people. Stress and anxiety could ruin the experience for you and your dog(s), so try to keep those initial visits short and happy.
Practical rules for off-leash areas:
1. Pick up Poop! Always! Everywhere!
Yes, even in the long grass and the woods, and especially near paths or water. Deposit poop in trash barrels. If no barrels, take it with you.
Show some respect! Don't leave your dog's mess for others to step in, look at, or clean up. This area is not maintained by tax-supported city workers. It's your job to keep it clean. Thousands of dogs use this area, and poop accumulates faster than it degrades.
Also, some dogs EAT poop - don't add to the misery of their owners!
Poop run-off pollutes our ponds, lakes and streams with nutrients.
POOP KILLS public opinion and undermines the reputation of all dog owners.
2. Keep your dog leashed until you are within the off-leash boundary. Be sure to be a distance from the parking areas.
If you choose to keep your dog on or off leash please remember: A leashed dog often feels threatened when other dogs approach them. They may bark, growl, or even lunge to ward off perceived threats, triggering a similar response in other dogs. This is why people who walk their dogs on-leash are often afraid of off-leash dogs, so please respect the off-leash boundary. This is also why it can be difficult to control your leashed dog when passing other dogs in the parking lot or on the access paths. Keep as much distance as you can from the other dogs. You may even step aside and wait until another dog passes. Try to focus your dog's attention on you rather than the other dog. Move quickly and calmly past the dog. Once your leashed dog no longer has eye contact with the passing dog, your dog should calm down.
If you do not have a reliable recall (come when called) DO NOT LET YOUR DOG OFF LEASH. Instead, use a long training line ( a leash 10 feet or more--NOT FLEXI) attached to the dog's collar (it's much easier to catch them). Drop the line and let the dog run freely. Periodically call your dog by name only, do not use the word come, again just their name. Once they come to you, say good come and give a tasty treat and release them again. Your dog should suddenly become more interested in following you than in running away or ignoring you. Praise and reward your dog when it comes to you. Repeat this exercise each time you visit the site. ALWAYS reward a success!
4. Keep walking! Avoid the temptation to congregate at the entrance.
Walking helps the dogs perceive the site as neutral territory, which minimizes turf battles and other canine misunderstandings. Remember that all dogs have a natural instinct to defend their space, and some dogs have a stronger instinct than others do. If you have one of those "friendly" dogs, try not to let it run up and greet an unfamiliar dog. From a dog's point of view, especially shy dogs or well-trained dogs, this kind of behavior can be seen as rude or threatening. That "friendly" dog may provoke a natural correction response from the other dog. Keep your groups small and keep walking!
5. Supervise your dog at all times.
KNOW YOUR DOG. Avoid situations that are likely to cause problems for your dog or other dogs. Be willing to work with other dog owners to prevent incidents. Leash and leave the site if your dog is having a bad day or is showing signs of unacceptable behavior.
Understand that dogs have different temperaments and play styles. Some dogs are aloof and don't like to play, some seem quite rough in their play, some are party animals and will attempt to provoke a chase by nipping or barking. Educate yourself on dog behavior, observe your dog's response to situations, and ask questions. A behavior that concerns you may simply be a more rambunctious play style or an invitation to chase. On the other hand, owners of rambunctious dogs must be sensitive to the needs of shy dogs and be ready to move to other parts of the site to prevent incidents.
Beware of breaking up dogfights. Do NOT reach in to pull the dogs apart. A good approach is to carry a water bottle and squirt water in the dogs' faces to distract them. Once the dogs are distracted, you can separate the dogs more safely.
6. Supervise children closely.
Keep your child close and do not allow running, screaming or biking.
Many dogs were not raised with children. A child who screams or runs can trigger a dog's prey instincts (chasing or biting).
Do not give your child treats to pass out to strange dogs. Treats can create competition between dogs and your child might be caught in the middle.
Do not allow your child to approach strange dogs without permission from the owner. Many dogs have little experience with children. A strange dog could feel challenged by a child's overly friendly approach and may snap or growl.
7. Keep the area safe and clean.
8. Take responsibility for the actions of your dog.
Remember, by law, you are liable for damage and injuries inflicted by your dog. Offer to pay for vet bills, doctor bills and replace damaged property. Involved persons should exchange names and phone numbers. Report serious incidents by calling 911 if necessary.
9. Be a responsible dog owner.
Keep licenses and vaccinations up to date.
Spay or neuter your dog.
Train your dog in basic obedience.
Educate yourself about dog behavior (many books, magazines and websites are available).
The scoop on poop
Many people believe that disposing poop in the trash is environmentally irresponsible. In fact, it's the dog poop left on the ground that poses the greater environmental threat. We all know that poop is "fertilizer," but we may not all realize that these nutrients flow directly, or via storm sewers, to our lakes, ponds and streams. Leaving poop near water, on sloped ground, or on paved surfaces is irresponsible and the real consequence is water pollution!
Other people believe that it's OK to let the poop biodegrade "as nature intended." However, biodegradation is a slow process, especially when the weather is cold. With the large number of dogs using off-leash areas, poop accumulates faster than it degrades. The accumulation exposes our pets to harmful parasites and our shoes, cars and homes to unpleasant dog poop contamination (do you know what your dog is stepping in?). Also, there are some dogs that EAT poop. Please don't add to their diet!
Few people realize that the most important reason to pick up poop is to help reform our reputation with the general public. Abandoned poop piles foster the notion that dog owners are rude and irresponsible, and that dogs are a public nuisance. Indeed, we cannot defend a dog owner who lets their dog poop in a public space (or in somebody's yard) and then leaves the mess for others to smell, look at, step in or clean up. Like it or not, off-leash recreation is a controversial issue for local governments and there is a strong anti-dog sentiment that persists in the political process. Dog poop tops the list of complaints about dogs, far exceeding concerns about dog aggression and public safety. POOP KILLS public opinion! And public opinion is what matters most in efforts to obtain recreational space that we can enjoy with our dogs.
Please understand that these off-leash areas are maintained entirely by the goodwill of site users, not by tax-supported public servants. Your action sets an example, good or bad, for others who use these areas. There may be a time that you find yourself without a bag or simply miss seeing your dog "do its business." Please pick up a stray poop pile to offset that pile that someone else picks up for YOU! Better yet, carry extra bags to offer would-be offenders or pick up a few stray piles along the path. It's everyone's job to help keep our site clean.
Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.