This post is sponsored by Beneful® brand Dog Food.
To a dog, nothing beats quality time spent at a dog park, meeting up with four-footed friends old and new for off-leash romping, sniffing, leg-stretching, and socializing. But what if there’s no designated dog park or off-leash area near you? Does that mean your dog must resign himself to a lifetime of leash walks? Of course not! Necessity is the mother of invention, right? This is your opportunity to get creative, coming up with fun ways to improvise outdoor playtime to keep your dog entertained. Just please remember, take extra precautions when letting dogs off leash in wide open spaces, always keep the accent on safety, and always scoop your dog’s poop (nobody likes a poopetrator).
First, get your dog under control
Scout your hood for potential pooch play spaces. As you do so, make a point of stopping to chat with other dog lovers and asking them what they do to keep their dog-walk routine from becoming boring. Exchange phone numbers if possible, so you can text each other to set up play dates.
Meanwhile, bone up on the “Come” and “Down” commands, advises expert dog trainer Sarah Wilson, author of Dogology: What Your Relationship With Your Dog Reveals About You (check out her enlightened blog, My Smart Puppy). This way, you’ll have your dog under voice control, which will enable you to grant Spot greater freedom in the great outdoors. Reward your dog for coming to you with extra-tasty treats she doesn’t normally get (bacon, bits of roast chicken, etc) and repeat this exercise often until you feel confident that you have a chance of keeping your dog’s attention when you unclip her leash. Start slow, letting your dog off leash for a few minutes at a time, and use those tantalizing treats to keep her focused on you.
Don’t stint on the praise here — getting your dog to comply with coming back to you is crucial to safely improvising an outdoor play space where there isn’t one. “Be sure to pet, praise, and treat your dog any time he comes back to you,” counsels Wilson. “Make it a big deal, then let him go explore again. If every time he comes back to you he gets put back on leash, he’ll start thinking twice very quickly.”
Now get creative with play spaces
Okay, so there’s no properly enclosed dog park near you, but you’d like your dog to stretch his legs and run to burn off some energy. Locate a semi-enclosed space, such as a basketball court or parking lot. Go there with at least one other dog and owner, so you both can patrol the opening to the space to prevent dogs from escaping. The more the merrier in this scenario: If you coordinate three or more people with dogs to meet up there at a designated time, the dogs are more likely to stick together in that space as a pick-up pack — and you humans can all take turns standing guard by the opening/entrance to head off a dog who might try to run out.
You can also select a part of your neighborhood park that’s far from the street or road, and meet up with fellow dog lovers there. This can get tricky if one of the dogs gets distracted by a squirrel, however, so if you suspect your dog is a flight risk, don’t let him off leash unless you’re confident you have him under voice control. Nighttime in the park is great for exercising dogs, but take care to use a lighted, reflective collar so you’ll be able to spot Spot at all times — especially if he’s off leash even for short periods.
Expect the best but prepare for the worst — and here’s a surprising and brilliantly counterintuitive expert tip in case the worst actually happens: “If your dog does take off, try running away from him, clapping your hands, and whooping it up,” Wilson says. “Most dogs are party animals, coming back quickly if you sound like you’re having fun.”
If you know your dog is a flight risk and you simply cannot trust him off leash in an unfenced area, don’t despair — there are still fun outdoor options for you and Spot to enjoy.
Why not turn your neighborhood into an agility course? Some dog parks are equipped with fantastic hurdles and other obstacles for dogs’ exercising pleasure, and you can simulate this even in an urban, dog-park-less environment. As you walk your hood, look for agility substitutes: a low wall that runs along a parkway, say, or a long flight of outdoor steps (such as you’d find at a train station). Using treats as motivation, encourage Spot to jump up and walk along the wall, then jump down. Sprint with him up and down those stairs; the exercise will do you both good. (Of course, common sense dictates that it’s best to do this at off-peak times, when there aren’t dozens of commuters emerging from the train.)
Wilson recommends a couple of fun outdoor pastimes that safely give Spot a sense of freedom. One is Catch Up: “On a 15-to-20-foot long line, take your dog to an open area. Let him sniff around. When he heads one way, you turn — without comment — and go the opposite. Move normally. If the leash tightens, keep walking. When your dog heads toward you, PRAISE! SMILE! TREAT! ‘What a great dog!’ Repeat, repeat, repeat! Not only will your dog get great exercise, but you’ll also see some wonderful changes in his behavior around you. Win-win!”
Then there’s an outdoor activity Wilson calls Barrier Bouncing. “Find a fence or wall; step the length of the long line away, and then toss or bounce a toy toward the barrier. This allows you to let your dog romp fairly freely without concern that he, or you, are about to get yanked hard [by the line].”
Finally, harness the can-do energy of your fellow dog lovers and contact your local elected officials about designating an enclosed off-leash area for canine recreation. It might take years, literally, but if you get started now, there’s a good chance your community will get a terrific dog park — or at least a small, off-leash area that’s safely fenced in. What a great legacy!
Dogster readers, how have you and your dog dealt with “no place to run”? Please share in the comments.