I thought I would touch on what I look for in a training park. When I first got Tess there wasn’t a lot of thought put into where we trained. I knew I had to take her to new places, but I guess I really didn’t know what to look for in a location to make the experiences the best possible.
I’ve done a fair bit of work with Tess on reactivity towards kids and dogs the last number of years (still a work in progress) but it has given me some valuable information on how to counter condition towards those issues, which has helped me a lot with Riggs. So I thought I would share my thoughts.
The type of park you are looking for is going to change a bit depending on what it is you’re working on. I’m not going to get into the reactivity stuff very much here since it is well beyond the scope of what I’m comfortable giving advice on. So this will be more geared towards a new dog or puppy that doesn’t have any issues going in (or none you’re aware of).
While this can change depending on what I’m working on (basic obedience, exposure/counterconditioning to objects or people, recall, greeting manners, agility, etc) I generally look for the same things.
Parking Close By
This may seem like an odd requirement, but I like a park that has parking close to where I want to work. I really find this important when I am going to work on loose leash walking skills, or anything requiring equipment coming to and from the car. For training loose leash walking I know my mentality changes as soon as I’m on a sidewalk or pathway, all of a sudden my expectations change just because there is a path to follow. So I try to park somewhere close to a good sized open space, with a puppy I honestly would (and did) carry them to the open space, and start working on it. If I couldn’t park within carrying distance I might walk the puppy using a front clip harness, then when I’m ready to work on the leash walking hook the leash up to the collar only.
For anything requiring car stuff I obviously don’t want to drag equipment too far away. So if I had agility equipment to pull out, or when we play fetch, disc, or practice our tracking I like to be close to the parking lot.
If we’re just going for a hike or walk, this really doesn’t matter at all!
Open Field or Area
I like to have a good sized open space, depending on what you’re working on you might need more or less space. For basic obedience a 15’ x 15’ area might be enough, if I was working on exposure to kids with a puppy I’d probably want a good 200m or more approach if I wasn’t sure their reaction, or if I was working on a problem. You want to have a good amount of space to move away from the object or person if the puppy shows fear, and if all is well you can always move closer.
The photo below is a great example of a good place for introductions, if anything its way over the top. There is probably more than 500 meters of open grass area leading up to the playground and plenty of areas as you get closer to move off to one side or another if kids were to start running out towards you or otherwise startle your puppy.
Obviously if you are working on exposure (or counter conditioning) to an object or person you need that object or person around! For people, be it kids, men, skateboarders, bikers, or wheelchairs I love taking the dogs to dual pathway parks. Any park with a separated pathway for walkers and bikers. Usually these dual pathway areas are the more busy pathways, so you are just about guaranteed to see people, and people are usually pretty caught up in their own activity. So I’ve found they are pretty likely to leave you in peace to work on whatever you’ve set out to do. I find this really helpful for greeting manners. I can take the dogs to the pathway and just have them sit and stay every time someone walks by. I can get a tonne of repetitions in a very short period of time, it’s very low stress, if the dog doesn’t sit right away you can always wait get it right and try again. Plus it saves asking friends and family for help, so they might still say “yes” to some other hair brained training ideas I might get.
One thing I do look for is a fair amount of green space on either side of the pathway, if something is a little too scary for the dog I can simply walk a big semi-circle around it to lessen their concern.
Photo above is what I would consider a good amount of space between pathways, I could move closer to one if I wanted to expose the puppy to something, or further away if I thought it might be something he’d find scary. The photo below is the same park, but a spot I would consider starting to get too close together, especially around the corner up ahead. If I were walking in the green area by the trees and a skateboarder were to come zipping around the corner we might not be able to move far enough away to make it a non-scary experience.
If you are looking for something specific like skateboarders you might have to do a scouting trip or two to see if there are some around on that pathway, these photos were all taken at Glenmore Park and while there are little kids that scooter around fairly often, actual skateboarders are few and far between. So for that I’ve had better luck around Eau Claire Market, or often I luck out at Edworthy Park. Edworthy has a lot of green space between the bike and walking paths between about Shaganappi Trail and 29th Street NW. So I like that area since I can move further away from the path if I need to, or work our way closer for first introductions.
For kids I’d do the same homework looking for playgrounds, find one that has a long approach like the one above, but also that is likely to lots of kids there playing. Glenmore Park has numerous little playgrounds that all seem to fit the bill, I’ve also had good luck at Bowness Park, Reilly Park, many of the larger playgrounds in newer suburbs, and outdoor swimming pools.
Owners Following Leash Laws
Another challenge is finding on-leash parks where people actually follow the on-leash rules. I know a lot of parks in our city that are on-leash parks, but are treated by everyone that visits as off-leash. If you are really setting out to work on training something I would avoid these parks, it’s a distraction you don’t need.
So I would say make sure you follow leash laws as well when training, that doesn’t mean you have to go to an off-leash park to work on all your “off-leash” skills, just perhaps be mindful of others and use a long line or similar if you want to work on recalls or retrieval type skills.
I think like many people my attitudes towards off-leash parks have changed tremendously since first using them. I took Tess to many when she was quite young; and now having seen the impact it likely has had on her I wouldn’t do it again…or at least not the same kinds of parks. I still feel socialization with other dogs is very important so for Riggs I take him to a daycare that I really trust, and which is very well trained in dog introductions, communication, and that has very few fight incidents. He still gets to play and have a blast, but I know all the dogs are being monitored to make sure play is safe and fun for everyone, and that they get appropriate breaks to rest. A lot of dog owners have no trouble at off-leash parks, but that’s not been my experience. However, as a condo person I do still like to take my dogs out for an off-leash romp or fetch session, so where do we go?
Private Off-Leash Parks
These can be a god send if there is one in your area. Especially if you have a reactive dog that you are concerned about, or a little dog that gets overwhelmed with the big dogs. With a private fenced area both you and your dog can relax and enjoy your time. Unfortunately there aren’t always options around like this so many people might not have access to one, but we are fortunate to have a couple around our city. They seem to run about $10-15/hour in our area to rent. I’ve also rented training facilities just to play or train in, they seem to run about $20-50/hour.
Walking vs. Standing Around
I like an off-leash park where the people and dogs walk around a circuit/pathway rather than stand around in an area chatting. I find the dogs less overbearing towards each other if they are moving around with their owners, everyone just seems more relaxed and interested in their own activities; rather than bounding over to greet the next dog to enter the park.
I don’t know what the “ideal” amount of land space per dog would be in the mythical perfect off-leash park; but for me it’d be measured in acres. I find it very challenging when you enter a park that’s maybe 2-4 acres and has 30-50 dogs in it. Even if the dogs are friendly and everyone’s relaxed, that’s a lot of movement in a relatively small area and a lot of opportunities for problems.
One of my favourite off-leash parks in our city is Nose Hill, if we go to one of the quieter areas of the park we often can walk for an hour or more and only see a handful of other dogs. Not every city is going to be so fortunate to have such a great park inside the city limits. But hey, that’s my ideal!
The Edworthy off-leash park can also be a great option (especially if you skirt the visiting areas right around the parking lots) and is a very nice walk.
Bowmont Park near Silver Springs, Varsity, and Montgomery can be a great area as well.
The Sue Higgins Park (previously called Southland Park) is a great example of a park that unfortunately has been a little too successful (and popular for my liking). But is a fantastic example of what a great dog park would be.
Number of Dogs for the Size of Park
I know I’ve touched on this above, but I’d look for a good number of dogs for the size of the park. I have one favourite we go to to play fetch. I don’t think the park even has a name, but it’s a large green space in the middle of a cul-de-sac. It’s not huge, about the length of a city block and maybe 150m at the widest, but more often than not we have the park to ourselves. It’s by a moderately busy community road, but with a decent recall (and the almighty ball) I don’t worry about that very much. If I was worried I’d probably just leave a long line on. There’s another off-leash park that we go to occasionally, it’s about double the size of the previously mentioned one, sometimes we have it to ourselves, or more often share it with another person or two (and their dogs of course). You’re idea of the right number of dogs probably depends on how good your dog is with other dogs, or the size of the other dogs that attend the park. If you have a very gregarious dog your idea of the right number of dogs might be double or more than what I look for. But once you have an idea of what you’re after it’s much easier to scout out the right park for you and your dog.
I hope you find that helpful, or at the very least gives you some different ideas of things to consider when finding great parks to take your dog to.