The dog park phenomenon has swept the country, offering off-leash freedom and social stimulation for pooches and their owners. But it isn’t always fun and games there, as even the most socialized canines can have dilemmas. As part of an ongoing series for Vetstreet, dog trainer Mikkel Becker teaches you how to address common behavior problems at the dog park.

Dog park gate

Q. My dog gets so excited walking (or, rather, pulling, lunging, spinning and barking) into the dog park that he nearly knocks me over. Even though he’s perfectly friendly and is just excited to go see the other dogs, I am embarrassed by his behavior every time. What can I do?

A. Don’t be embarrassed; overly excited dogs are a common sight at the dog park. Most dogs are so exuberantly happy about getting to play with other canines that they completely forget about the human at the other end of the leash and only pay attention to their main goal: getting to the fence line — and the fun — as quickly as possible.

That’s not to say that you have to live with a dog who goes crazy on every approach to the park. This behavior creates a hazard for your dog and for you. The solution to ending this unruly and potentially dangerous behavior actually begins at home, where your dog can be taught a few basic behaviors — wait at a door, turn and sit, and heel on leash — that will come in handy when you need him to walk calmly into the park.

Teach Your Dog to Wait at the Door

The wait at the door not only works at home, but also can be used when you’re getting out of the car to keep your dog from dashing into the road. Start by teaching this behavior at home to help your dog grasp the concept. To begin this training, your dog should first know a sit or a down.

Once your dog will sit or down, grab a treat bag and go to a closed door that your dog is less likely to have an interest in dashing through, such as a bedroom or bathroom door. Then ask your dog to sit or down and begin moving one hand toward the closed door. If he stays in the sit or down as you move your hand to touch the door handle, mark the behavior with a “good” or a click and reward immediately.

Keep in mind that if he rises up out of his sit or down as you reach for the door, you will need to make the training easier and only move your hand part way toward the door handle to find a point where your dog can be rewarded.

After a couple of successful repeats, make the behavior of staying in position more difficult by starting to turn the door handle. If your dog remains successful after a couple of tries, make it more difficult again by opening the door a crack. Should your dog break his sit or down, simply shut the door and reset him in position, and go back to an earlier step in the training if needed.

The goal is to have the door wide open before giving your dog the release word, such as “OK,” to step through. For my own dogs, the sit or down is actually a stay position that is always released with an “OK,” thus the behavior of waiting in a sit or a down doesn’t need another word to go with it — the signal of being asked to sit and the sight of a door is enough. For other dogs, you may need to add in a “wait” word to go with the new behavior, which should be added as soon as he gets into position and you start to move toward the door.

After this behavior has been practiced at an unexciting door, move to a door your dog is more likely to dash through, such as the front door. The wait at the door should then be added to waiting at the car door. Practice first with the dog waiting in a sit or a down as the car door is opened and he is released inside. Also practice clipping on your dog’s leash as he is in the waiting position, so that he is relaxed. Then practice with your dog waiting in a sit or a down on the car seat or in his kennel before he is released to come outside the car.

Practice the car exercises in the garage or driveway, and then move to more distracting situations as long as the dog stays successful. It’s easiest to teach the behavior with treats, but eventually the reward of doing the behavior becomes getting to go through the door.

Waiting at the door sets the stage for the dog being calm and listening to his pet parent, even as he waits at the door before being loaded up, and walks out of the house to the car. The waiting at the door is especially beneficial when getting to the dog park because it protects the pet from dashing out the door while his leash is clipped on and also prepares the dog to listen to his human before he sets one paw out of the car.

Teach Your Dog to Turn and Sit

The second behavior to practice with your dog in a low-distraction environment is turning around at the sound of his name and going into a sit or a down. This is a fairly simple behavior that has numerous benefits.

The easiest way to practice this is on leash in your yard. As soon as your dog turns his attention away from you, such as walking in front of you to sniff, call his name and take a step or two back to coax him to follow. As soon as he turns toward you, mark with a “good” or a click and treat immediately. Once your dog turns back toward you, ask him to sit or down and mark with a “good” or click and treat.

Once you get the hang of it, the sequence should look like this: Your dog should immediately turn to face you at the sound of his name, and you should immediately ask him to sit or down. He should remain sitting or in a down until he is released with an “OK” or other release word.

Practice this in increasingly distracting environments, like on walks or before your dog greets someone. Also have this become your dog’s default behavior whenever he gets out of the car. Once this has been successfully practiced, it can then be added to the dog park good behavior repertoire. Not only will your dog wait in the car until he is released, but when he gets out, he will immediately turn and face you when he’s called and go into a sit or a down on your command. This cuts down on the dashing for the fence line by helping the dog return his focus to you.

Teach Your Dog to Heel on Leash

Heeling on leash will be the final invaluable element for good behavior when you walk to the gate. This behavior should be practiced first at home; as your dog gets better at it, you can gradually move to more distracting areas. Front-clip harnesses and head halters offer more control over your dog during the initial training sessions. For specifics on teaching this behavior, check out this video on how to teach your dog to heel.

Once your dog has learned to heel in increasingly distracting situations, it’s time to practice this behavior while approaching the park. When you first start heeling as you approach the dog park, avoid walking in a straight line toward the gate, which is where your dog has repeatedly practiced the racing and pulling behavior. Rather, do back-and-forth, heeling in zigzags parallel to the fence line as you make gradual progress toward the fence. This will make your dog more likely to be successful when he first practices approaching the fence in the heel position. As your dog successfully demonstrates his heeling, you can gradually begin to make a more direct approach to the park.

As soon as you get to the gate, practice having your dog sit at the gate in his “wait at the door” behavior before he is allowed to go in. This also helps your dog to be motivated to demonstrate calm behavior to get what he ultimately wants: play and interaction with other dogs.

Not only will you have a better-behaved pet when you enter the dog park, but these techniques can be applied to any situation, including trips into the pet store, doggy day care, a training class or a trip out of town.