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  Spirit Ridge K9 Training  & Rescue

PO Box 70,
Hillsburgh, Ontario, N0B 1Z0   
  

E-mail: jim@spiritridge.net

"........ because sit happens"

  LEASH FREE PARKS - Live by the Sword, die by the sword!

I was recently asked to comment on the merit of 'leash free' parks.  For those readers that are unfamiliar with this concept, leash free parks are essentially parkland that is fenced and dog handlers are allowed to let their dogs run free off-leash and do what dogs do without being restricted by their owners in any way.

Leash free parks have been around for a while and the City of Toronto currently has 31 leash free parks.  Interestingly enough the concept of a 'leash free' park is foreign in Europe.

There are many reasons to avoid leash free parks like the proverbial plague and no reason I can think of to take a dog there.  Here are the main reasons why leash free parks are a very bad idea and one that is based on misconceptions and naive attitudes.

1)  The vast majority of handlers that take their dogs to these parks are unskilled.  They let their dogs run free and have zero control over them - particularly when the dogs are in the frenzied state of mind that they usually are in.  This invariably leads to episodes of K9 aggression, domination, bullying etc all of which have an effect on your dog's mind.

2)  There are zero controls in place to ensure that all dogs are current in their vaccinations; people who frequent these parks are putting their K9 friend's health at danger.  Bites frequently occur, saliva is regularly exchanged and feces from dogs that you do not know that may contain bacteria (amongst other things) can be detrimental to your dog's health.  Not all dog owners vaccinate their dogs against all possible K9 diseases.  For example, many do not vaccinate against 'kennel cough' (Bordetella) or Leptospirosis - so if you must frequent leash free parks, at least make sure your dog is thoroughly protected against all possible diseases!

3)  Frequently, dogs gang up on other dogs and the 'bully dogs' are in heaven with their owners either being unable to control them or being engaged in idle social chit chat with other dog owners while their dogs terrorize other 'softer' dogs.

4)  Often, better 'socialization' is used as a justification for allowing this leash-free madness to take place in these parks.  This misconception is perpetuated by the ignorance of inexperienced dog owners.  It is important for readers to understand that a dog's primary socialization period (with other dogs) is between 4 to 6 weeks of age and with humans between 4 and 12 weeks of age (source: 'The Dog's Mind' by Bruce Fogle - chapter six).  Beyond this period of a dog's life, the benefits of 'socializing' with other dogs are greatly reduced.  What they learn in their play with each other is how to 'communicate' as dogs.  Those with developed communications skills know how to meet and greet other dogs, what to do to communicate their status, health, who they are etc.  This, however, goes out the window when dogs are chasing, biting, growling at each other and forming temporary packs on the basis of who happens to be at the park on the particular day they are there.

5)  Many dog owners frequently complain that their dogs just don't 'listen' to them.  I always respond by asking why they think their dog should listen to them when the major source of their 'entertainment' is other dogs in these leash free parks?  What do the handlers have to offer that is equally or more exciting to their dogs than no leash, no constraints, running around in a crazed state (with toys frequently thrown in for good measure).  If you want your dog to start paying attention to you, you must control the food, treats, toys - everything your dog loves and keep her from the 'no-holds barred' leash free parks!

I often use an analogy to drive my point across: would the same dog owners who frequent leash free parks ever consider just tossing their children into a public swimming pool where there is no lifeguard on duty? This is essentially the environment you are placing your dog in, since no one really has control over the dogs and the owners aren't even paying attention most of the time!

It is for all the preceding reasons (and many more that I have refrained from discussing in order to avoid making this a lengthy article) that I have been against leash-free parks from the day I was first exposed to them.

If you must 'socialize' your dog, you need to do this in a controlled environment and under careful supervision - especially when they are puppies and oh so very impressionable!  Handlers need to be able to 'read' their dog's body language (as well as that of the other dogs) and be prepared to terminate the meeting and socialization before things get out of hand.  If you do not, the victim of this naive attitude will be your dog and, most importantly, the relationship that I am sure all dog owners wish to foster with their K9 friend!

Jim Tsitanidis
K9 Trainer and Behavioural Consultant