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Dog parks aren't for every dog

Sharon Chapman, Pet Friendly

Staff Writer
Austin 360

With the cooler weather, I assume attendance is up at Austin dog parks. This is purely a guess because I don't actually frequent dog parks. My dog, Ginger, doesn't enjoy them. It has to do with being sniffed by a bunch of strangers, which I understand.

But I have friends who enjoy dog parks, and so I talked with professional dog trainer Kimberly Burgan, who works primarily in North Austin and Round Rock, to get tips ( I was not surprised to learn that Burgan, like many dog trainers, is actually not a fan of dog parks, except that they help keep trainers in business by reinforcing or creating bad habits.

Dog park fans: Don't start composing angry emails. Burgan also envisions a world where dog parks are frequented by educated dog owners, where it's a privilege to take your dog there. (And she also knows there are dogs, she calls them "Jell-O dogs," who can go with the flow and handle most situations.)

So she has guidelines for clients and other folks who really want to try a dog park.

Before you go

"If they're already experiencing problem behavior at home, it's not an option at this time,'" Burgan says. Those behaviors are not going to get better or disappear in the sensory overload that is a dog park.

It's not an automatic green light if your dog is not having problems at home. Burgan says to think about your relationship with your dog. Do you trust your dog? Does your dog trust you to advocate for her? Will you honor your dog's body language if you see signs of stress? Burgan recommends reading "On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals" by Turid Rugaas for a primer.

Your dog also needs to have a reliable recall in four to six different situations before you try the park, she says. That means the dog comes when you call, despite external or internal distractions. Internal distractions include excitement or anxiety; I find that applies to both the dog and the human. And you have loose-leash walking under control — your dog is not straining at the leash from the get-go and ignoring you.

Basically, before you open that park gate, "you have a level of influence and your dog respects that benevolent leadership we should always be shooting for," Burgan says.

And, finally, do you think your dog would enjoy the experience? Burgan says dogs who are confident, show exploratory behavior and recover well from unexpected distractions might.

At the park

If you have a small dog, Burgan says, never pick it up or walk around holding your dog. Hello, Napoleon complex. "You might be giving them an inappropriate feeling of status," Burgan says. And your small dog might think he can shoot off at the mouth to a bigger dog because he has you for backup.

Be an active part of the fun; you should get the experience and exercise as well. Burgan says the humans are the bouncers; they need to make sure nothing bad happens. If you see signs of stress in your dog or another dog (that's why you need to know canine body language), you can walk through the dogs, splitting them apart. You don't need eye contact, words or aggressive body language, Burgan says; remember that benevolent leadership.

Don't have your dog on leash at an off-leash park. "The dog can't offer proper body language, and the other dogs can't read it," Burgan says.

Do not bring your dog's favorite toy or a bunch of treats. This surprised me, until Burgan explained. Dogs can be all about resources; you don't want yours to be worried about keeping its favorite wobby from 20 other dogs. Burgan says the UK doesn't allow toys or treats in dog parks and the ones there run well.

If you do frequent dog parks, make sure you increase or at least maintain your training, play and exercise at home so you don't lose your influence on your dog. "The dog park should not be the primary source of stimulation," Burgan says. "It's the icing on the cake."

And, finally, my favorite dog park tip comes from my friend Heidi Hays: Don't take a baby pot-bellied pig to a dog park.

That's the lesson Heidi had to teach someone at Red Bud Isle several weeks ago. Heidi and Olive have a great human-dog relationship, but it was too much to ask Olive to resist chasing a tiny living thing made up of pig ears, pig snout, pig hooves and bacon. The chase lasted about 20 minutes. The pig was fine and I'm guessing will not be seen there again.

City of Austin off-leash dog parks

Auditorium Shores, 920 W. Riverside Drive.

Davis White Northest District Park, 5909 Crystalbrook Drive.

Emma Long Metropolitain Park, 1600 City Park Road.

Norwood Estate, Interstate 35 and Riverside Drive.

Red Bud Isle, 3401 Red Bud Trail.

Onion Creek District Park, 7001 Onion Creek Drive.

Shoal Creek Greenbelt, 2600-2799 N. Lamar Blvd.

Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, 12138 N. Lamar Blvd.

West Austin Park, 1317 W. 10th St.

Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Road.

Far West (not a park, but off-leash): The right-of-way of Far West Blvd between Great Northern and Shoal Creek boulevards.

Check sites.htm for more information and any closures, such as Auditorium Shores today for Fun Fun Fun Fest.