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At the Dog Run

Is the dog run right for you?

Dog runs are a wonderful outlet for your dog to exercise, play and socialize off-leash, essential for your dog's mental and physical well-being.  This however does not mean that dog runs are right for every dog; nor does not mean that dog runs should be your dog's sole outlet.  There are many options for your dog to play off-leash; each with its own benefits and all with one overarching theme - to allow time for your dog to be a dog!​  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Arrange play dates with well-socialized dogs.

  • Sign up for puppy or dog play groups - just remember to thoroughly vet any professional service as you would for child daycare. 

  • Take long walks together in nature - giving your dog as much freedom as possible to explore and sniff around. 

  • Play tug of war, fetch or any other safe and interactive games with your dog.

  • Explore private dog runs - as they may be better maintained or have rules more suitable for you.

Staying safe and having fun

As joyful as dog runs can be, they aren't without risks, including infectious diseases and injuries from play or bites.  Although we cannot eliminate all risks, we can take preventative actions to decrease their likelihood, stay safe, and have fun.

1.  Preliminaries

Prevention is the best intervention - below are some preliminaries to have in place before heading to the run.



  • Learn the basics of how dogs communicate through vocalizations and body language.

  • Recognize innate behaviors in various breed groups, including herding, hunting or guarding.

  • Know and adhere to the rules of the dog run, generally posted near the entrance or online.

  • Learn how to intervene safely should your dog get into a fight.

  • Expect the best, but plan for the worst - this allows you to remain calm should a situation arise.


  • Observe your dog's play style and only head to the park if he is well-socialized, has good bite-inhibition, and fluent in basic behaviors.

  • Ensure your dog is up to date on all vaccines and preventative meds, healthy, and has been cleared by his vet if he is recovering from an injury, illness or procedure.

2.  Preparations

Come to the run prepared to keep your dog comfortable and safe.

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What to bring:​

  • Your phone, wallet, and contact information of your vet and emergency care centers

  • Treats to reward good behavior - and a means to keep them out of sight and reach of other dogs

  • His own water bowl (and water, if not available) in order to keep him hydrated and comfortable

  • A spray bottle full of water, whistle, or something that can be used to distract the dogs in the event of a fight

  • Appropriate equipment including a collar with identification - prong, choke or shock collars have no place in the dog run, or anywhere - besides being very dangerous, your dog is at the run to experience joy, not pain or the threat of pain.

3.  Participation

​Dog runs are not a spectator sport!  Remain an active participant, advocate, and protector of your dog.

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  • Teach your dog to wait politely before opening the gate. 

  • Remove his leash - but keep his collar or harness on to be able to grab if necessary. 


In the run:

  • Remain alert, this is not a time to read a book or chat on the phone.

  • Stay engaged and reward him for checking in with you - including looking or coming to you.

  • Get his attention, cue and reward for simple behaviors such as a touch, sit, or down.

  • Watch for signs of stress or over-arousal and take a break - better yet, take breaks proactively. 

  • Be aware of large size differences between your dog and others, this sometimes leads to aggression.

  • Prevent overheating:  know the signs and what to do in order to prevent a tragedy.


  • Have your dog willingly come to you, and reward him generously.

  • Avoid turning leaving into a game of chase - which is very fun and rewarding for your dog!

  • Do not forcefully grab or drag him out - leaving should be as joyful as entering.

4.  Play 

Or is it fighting?  Become conversant in the rich language of dogs.


Dog to human:

We ask our dogs to learn our language and our culture, but isn't it time for us to learn theirs?  All relationships, human or cross-species, depend on effective two-way communication.   Your dog is constantly communicating with you, whether to let you know he feels safe, afraid, in pain, joyful, or calm.  Understanding him helps you to respond effectively - whether training, grooming, petting, or at the run.  Put plainly, it is our responsibility as dog parents, at minimum, to learn the basics - there are many great resources to help, including those included on Deep Dive

Dog to dog:

Dog to dog communication is rich and varied, used to prevent or resolve conflict, invite play, calm down, and much more.   They communicate through vocalizations; body positioning; and ear, eye, tail, and mouth movements.  No one signal tells a complete story, each behavior must be taken in context, and in conjunction with others.


A good way to begin is to observe your own dog in various situations, noting his body positions and movements.  Do your best to focus on observable behaviors, such as 'his tail is tightly tucked', rather than 'my dog is scared or submissive'.  In particular, note his body language when he is clearly relaxed - this can serve as a baseline. 

Play or Fighting? 

Given all this, one of the main challenges at the run is to be able to differentiate between rough play and fights:  the following are signs of play:

  • Fluid, curvy, and loose body positions, and inefficient movements, such as play bows and 'rocking-horse' runs. 

  • Self-handicapping behaviors such as a larger dog making himself smaller or laying down, exhibiting strong bite inhibition, or otherwise showing restraint

  • Role reversals where the dogs switch between who is on top or bottom 

  • Consent on all sides which can be tested by physically separating the dogs, and seeing if the so-called victim wants to return to play (if not, keep him away)

  • Giving distance and space, where dogs move apart from and back to each other. 

  • Displaying calming signals - designed to communicate that he is no harm, and include such things as yawning, the 'shake-off', licking, and turning away - these can also be a sign of stress and time to take a break.

5.  Protection

Even with all of the boxes checked above, the unexpected can happen in a matter of seconds. 


Below are expert tips on ways to break up fights while minimizing the risks of injuries; keeping in mind that  there are no guarantees, as dogs can redirect their aggression towards people, or the fight might continue. 

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  • shout - this can be interpreted by dogs as excited 'barking' and can worsen the situation

  • hit or threaten the offending dog(s), this can result in increased aggression

  • grab by the collars, this can result in bites

  • get in between fighting dogs as this can result in serious injuries

  • pull the dogs apart if one dog has the other is a bite and hold position, this makes the dog grip even harder (think tug of war)

  • use water or sprays as punishment - they are meant to distract the dogs enough to be able to pull them apart.

  • use pepper sprays, this risks injuries to others around.


  1. stay calm, silent, or talk in a soothing voice

  2. distract the dogs with loud, startling sounds (garbage can lids, loud whistle, compressed air such as 'Pet Corrector' or similar)

  3. spray dogs around their faces with water, and be ready to grab your dogs when separated

  4. separate the dogs with an object, like a garbage can lid or backpack, if feasible

  5. throw a blanket or coat over their heads and be ready to grab them when separated

  6. get all other dogs out of the way, and have each person grab their dog by their hips (not their legs, as this can cause injury) such that their back ends are in the air, this helps to separate them - use this technique only if physical intervention is necessary and neither dog is in a bite and hold position

  7. when one dog is in a bite and hold position, 'feed the bite', rather than pull apart, push forward instead.

  8. get behind the dog who is in a bite and hold position and stabilize his head if it is shaking the other dog, as shaking causes serious injuries

  9. Educate yourself, including podcasts or webinars from Trish McMillian and Michael Shikashio, both experts on aggression and safety

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