Four Training Tips for Your Dog’s Next Nature Walk

You wouldn't think a dog trainer in NYC gets much nature, but my dogs and I live near Prospect Park.


There’s a limited amount of nature in the concrete of New York City, but I try to find all the green I can with the dogs. Lucky for us, we live seven blocks away from Prospect Park, the biggest park in Brooklyn. Both of my dogs are legitimately pretty convinced our park is paradise. We spend almost every weekend there, and I try to get the pups there a few days a week in the morning before I head off to my office job. The part of Prospect Park closest to our house isn’t a manicured sporting field, so we’re able to spend most of our time in the park exploring wooded trails and small grassy areas near water where it’s almost possible to forget that you’re right in the middle of New York City!

In the park we’re surrounded by an astonishing amount of wildlife: chipmunks, bats, rabbits, the occasional raccoon, and, always, birds in the trees and on the water — including swans, which leave Charlotte a bit puzzled since they are actually bigger than she is. For the most part Charlotte doesn’t care much about the wild animals we encounter. This changed one day recently when Mercury, Charlotte and I left the comfort of our air conditioner and made the steamy walk through the NYC heat and humidity to the park.

It was a normal day for us. We worked on Charlotte “watching” me when we passed other dogs, and staying below her reactivity threshold whenever possible. Charlotte went swimming at her favorite place and chased toys, Mercury avoided the water like it was lava straight from hell, and then I decided it was time to go home. I took Charlotte off her long-line and put her back onto her gentle leader and short leash combo, picked up our toys and started walking. It was a normal walk, until we turned the corner around the boathouse. There in the middle of the sidewalk was a giant turtle covered in algae clearly having recently crawled out of the lake.

Mercury knew something was up and was very curious about this strange creature. He’s not concerned about any other animal, and was interested in who this strange new friend was. Charlotte, however, is not the most observant dog and didn’t know why we would have stopped just because there was a rock in the middle of the path. Charlotte has been close to turtles before in the water, but in her excitement about swimming I don’t think she’d ever noticed them! I was busily snapping pictures until the turtle stuck its head out and started walking towards the dogs!

Charlotte’s eyes got big and I could see her brain going into overdrive as she barked as if to say “THAT ROCK WANTS TO EAT ME!!!” As the turtle continued moving towards the dogs, Charlotte barked a couple of times. Quickly, I put my phone away (posting to Facebook/Twitter would have to wait) and turned the dogs away from all the natural excitement towards home. This was one tough Brooklyn turtle, not the least traumatized by a leashed-dog barking, and it kept walking after us!

In the spirit of our encounter, here are tips for sharing space with wildlife:

1. Obey leash laws

Not doing so is rude and creates at best stressful and at worst dangerous situations, not only for other dogs (like my Charlotte) and people who might not be excited about a greeting from your dog, but also for wildlife who call the area home.

2. Protect other animals

Don’t permit your dog to chase, corner, or tree any wildlife — this includes squirrels. We share our parks with an array of animals and it’s important to ensure that everyone’s safety. Imagine if you were a squirrel — how would you like being chased by a giant slobbering barking monster in your own home?

3. Respect fences and other barriers

Park and wildlife workers will often put fences around nesting areas and other environmentally fragile areas. It’s important that we respect those fences and not permit our dogs to disregard them, no matter how green the grass appears on the other side.

4. Know your dog’s recall

If you allow your dog off-leash in areas/hours that are allowed, ensure your dog has a solid recall. Can you call your dog off a squirrel? Away from the water? Another dog? If not, I believe it’s unsafe to ever let your dog off-leash in an unfenced area. Not only do dogs pose risks to wildlife, but also wildlife can injure dogs. Raccoons are here in the city, and dog friends of mine in other parts of the country routinely encounter snakes, porcupines and other critters your pup doesn’t want to tangle with.

About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.

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