How to Succeed at Off-Leash Dog Play

Like a doting parent, Anne Hendrickson recalls when her dog, Riley, was just a puppy and she started taking him to an off-leash dog park in Minneapolis. "It was so much fun," Hendrickson says. Riley met a group of playmates. There was Dallas, Zuma and others. "They would meet and run," Hendrickson says, "and wrestle and chase and play."

Hendrickson is convinced of the benefits of off-leash play after seeing how happy it makes Riley and her other two dogs -- and how well behaved the dogs are in the house afterwards. She's started a dog daycare business, Downtown Dogs Minneapolis, where pups play off-leash. She tells clients that off-leash play may help correct many behaviors at home, such as destructive chewing or digging, which could result from boredom or lack of exercise.

Hendrickson is also the health and safety expert of Dog Grounds, a non-profit in Minneapolis that fights for more public land for off-leash play. She's part of an urban movement that has caught on from New York City to Seattle, in which dog owners have answered leash laws by fighting for more off-leash parks. Dog owners also set up "playgroups" where pets can romp and socialize. Whenever you put two or more animals together, however, there are risks. Here's how to make sure that off-leash play is a positive experience for your pet:

Know your pup's temperament Not all dogs are cut out for dog parks, says Robin Bennett, a dog trainer in Stafford, Va., and author of Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun (Dogwise). "The best thing to ask yourself is, 'Does my dog enjoy the company of other dogs?'" Bennett says. "Just as with people, some dogs prefer to have just one or two friends, while others are more like social butterflies."

When starting out at a new playgroup or venturing to a new off-leash park, look for signs of stress in your dog, Bennett advises. "If the dog's body stiffens up, it may be a bit worried," Bennett says. Another sign of stress is if the dog was formerly panting with an open mouth and suddenly stops and closes its mouth. "The dog may be holding its breath and saying, 'I'm not sure of this,'" Bennett says.

Find playgroups in your area There is a growing variety of off-leash parks and playgrounds in communities around the country. Most city or county governments will have information on their websites about public parks that allow dogs to be off-leash. In addition, websites such as "Offleash meetup" allow you to search for groups or locations by zip code. If you can't find an organized playgroup, ask your veterinarian, breeder, or owners of other dogs that your pup sniffs during its walks. If you have a fenced in yard, you might even consider starting such a group yourself.

Introduce your dog to off-leash slowly If your dog has never been to an off-leash park before, avoid peak hours. "The first time you bring your dog, go at a time when it isn't very busy -- usually early in the morning or on a weekday," suggests Hendrickson. "This way, your dog can sniff and explore on its own terms."

Bennett suggests first introducing your dog to another dog, one on one. "Make sure to introduce your dog to another that is relatively calm and isn't going to overwhelm your pet," Bennett says. Look for a positive greeting ritual. Dogs tend to approach each other in an arc and sniff each other's faces and necks before making a beeline for the behind, Bennett says.

Watch for stress or aggression Monitor your pup closely for a reaction to other dogs. Healthy play behavior involves exaggerated and repetitive movements, Bennett says. These may include chasing, jumping in the air, moving quickly to the left or right and bowing down with the front paws.

Be on the alert for dogs that become rough or aggressive. "Any time two dogs are off leash together, there is a risk of injury," Hendrickson says. Cuts and scratches are likely. However, bullying is a possibility at dog parks. It can be difficult to spot because dogs bite and wrestle and pin each other in play. Hendrickson recommends the "Bully Test." Remove the alleged aggressor and watch the reaction of the "bottom dog" to see if it continues to try to play or takes the opportunity to get away. If your dog wants to flee, it's time to leave.

Follow off-leash etiquette A dog trainer or other expert sometimes sponsors dog daycare situations or organized playgroups. At other times, dog owners are on the honor system. You should abide by the following general rules:

  • Never let your dog play with other dogs if they have a communicable disease, such as kennel cough, or worms, experts say. Make sure your own pet is protected and up to date on its vaccinations.
  • Don't take a dog to an off-leash park if it doesn't have basic obedience training, such as coming when called, Bennett stresses.
  • Bring plastic bags to clean up after your dog, Hendrickson says.
  • If your dog shows aggression toward others, take it out of the park, Bennett says.
  • Don't bring food or doggie treats into the dog park, Bennett says. Other dogs may want treats, too. One thing dogs will fight over is food.

Photo: Corbis Images

Exercise Gone to the Dogs

Studies show that working out with a friend increases the odds that you'll stick with a fitness regimen. And who's one of your best buddies, one that could probably use a good workout, too? That's right, your trusted canine companion, the one that that eagerly anticipates spending quality time with you. We all know how easy it is to ignore the willful inner voice that wants you to hit the gym, but it's not so easy to ignore your dog's sweet furry face, pleading whimpers and wagging tail.

Nationwide, there are many dog gyms, spas and physical therapy facilities, as well as dog-specific classes at typically humans-only sports gyms. "Many of the workouts are designed for the dog only, or are rehabilitative for dogs that are in physical therapy, such as the treadmill or water aerobics," says Gail Fisher, a long-time professional trainer and founder of All Dogs Gym and Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire. "You're there and helping the dog, but it's not necessarily an aerobic workout for you. To exercise with your dog, you have to choose activities that take into account your dog's endurance level, age and temperament. Overweight dogs need to start slow and build endurance. Puppies under twelve-to-fourteen months of age of all breeds should also start with slower or shorter-timed activities."

Dog yoga, which comes in many names, such as Crunch Fitness' "Ruff Yoga," typically takes place outdoors and consists of a series of partner moves involving you and your dog. For example, there is tandem stretching of legs and the neck, as well as loosening of the hip flexors through massage-like poses. Your dog does the well-known yoga pose "downward facing dog" every day. That's the pose where the rear is in the air and the front paws/arms are outstretched in front. You can search for a class near you and, once you learn the many varied poses, you and your dog can simply step outside to somewhere flat and, preferably, grassy. Yoga can help the two of you to loosen joints and relieve stress.

  • Watch For:

"If your dog is not a dog that likes to be touched a lot, you may get a bite attempting yoga poses with it," says Fisher. "And remember that the activity is new to the dog, so be gentle, and go slow, and be aware that not all temperaments will allow you to stretch and hold on to them."

Dancing with dogs is actually a competitive sport, but you don't have to get pro-level serious to enjoy a little booty-shakin' with your pooch. "It's a series of moves you do with your dog, gradually building the number of the dog's moves," says Fisher. You can find a class, or just move the furniture in your living room. You start by incorporating the "tricks" your dog already knows, and build from there. "You're working out to music, and your dog should learn to weave through your legs, spin around, and even learn to back up with you. I've seen dog dancing with really fit people and their lean Dobermans as well as heavy people with tiny lapdogs, and everything in between." Don't forget to have small, chewable treats on hand to reward your dog for participating.

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"I doubt that the dog understands a 'beat' and is actually moving to the music," says Fisher. "The value is in the company and the relationship -- you're bonding and dancing; you're a team."

Cross-Country Skiing (Skjoring)
To cross-country ski with your fit, large breed dog, you'll need a pair of cross country skis, as well as a harness and double leash for your pet. The dog is actually going to be pulling you on your skis, so skjoring is not for medium or small dogs, not to mention canines that are older or are not physically up to the task. "I used to go skjoring with my mastiff, and it was terrific fun. Your arms and mid body get a great workout, and the dog is, of course, doing a lot of work. It's great!"

  • Watch For:

"Check with your vet to make sure your dog is capable of skjoring," says Fisher. "It's not for every dog." Examine the coat under the harness to make sure there is no raw rubbing, and check your dog's paw pads to ensure ice and other terrain do not take a negative toll. Some pet stores sell dog booties, such as Ultra Paws, which can help to protect your pup's paws.

For larger breeds, and for dogs bred for endurance such as German Shepherds, a bike can provide a fabulous double workout. "You want something with wider tires, mostly for balance while you negotiate the dog," advises Fisher. "This activity requires training because you can't bike safely if your dog bolts on you. There are also devices you can get for a bike so a dog doesn't get under the tires or too close to the spokes." One such gadget, the Springer dog jogger, prevents leashes from getting tangled in the tires and has a special safety release feature that enables you to quickly separate your dog from the bike. Start with shorter distances, preferably in low-traffic, low-pedestrian areas. Talk to your dog and be in control. And if you can, work to bike with your dog off-leash, running next to you.

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"Young dogs can't be on pavement for very long," explains Fisher. "Their ligaments and joints are not fully developed, and the impact of the pavement is not healthy for them at all. Also be aware of a mature or senior dog's endurance levels, as well as the temperature."

"Hiking isn't a new activity, but I'm always surprised at how many people don't view it as a great workout, because it's maybe the best one for dogs and owners both," says Fisher. "I can't suggest dog-owner activities and not talk about hiking. I think this is the ideal dog-owner workout because you're walking in natural terrain, and (at some places) you can take the dog off leash and let the dog be a dog. It allows the dog to sniff to its heart's content, run and explore -- that's exactly what you want your dog to do." Fisher explains that even if you've never gone hiking or worked out with your dog, you can go for super short hikes, and gradually increase the time and distance.

  • Watch For:

Check in advance to determine whether your desired trail allows dogs to be off leash. Also, don't hike with puppies. "If you're going to take a long hike, your dog needs to be at least 12 to 14 months old," says Fisher. "Likewise for very small dogs. Puppies and tiny dogs can't handle long distances." Take things slow and bring extra water when temperatures are over 85 degrees. Says Fisher: "Dogs can't sweat like we do, and need more water breaks."

New Games to Play with Your Dog

There are myriad reasons to play with your dog, such as weight management or to simply have a good time -- for both of you. "If you play with your dog for five minutes a day, three times a week, you'll have a better behaved and happier dog," says trainer Ellen Poole of Just Tails, a pet training site and service in the California Bay Area.

"Dogs are like you -- you feel better when you exercise and when you spend time with people you love," says Poole. "Play time is exercise time for dogs, and being with you is what your pet wants the most. This is true for all breeds, not just natural herders or retrievers who need 'jobs.' Little dogs love to play, and should play, too."

Poole says there are so many interesting, different games that you can play with your pet that go beyond fetch or tug of war. Although your dog may be used to those classic games, and it may at first turn its nose up to new games, Poole suggests patience is in order. She advises, "Try a few games to see which ones make your dog happiest."

Treasure Hunt
Different trainers have different names for this game, but the premise of Treasure Hunt is the same: hide treats, and then let your dog find them. "You always want to be a part of the game, and you always want to be in control," says Poole. For Treasure Hunt, command the dog to wait. For some dogs, this is a "down" command, while others will respond to "stay" or "wait." Next, hide three-to-five treats -- you want the dog to be able to keep track of where you've hidden each surprise. Let your dog watch you hide the "prize." Then give the command "GO!" and allow your dog to run and find the treats. Poole says if weight is a concern, you can hide toys instead of treats. Good owner!

Hide and Seek
Hide and Seek is similar to Treasure Hunt, but instead of treats, your dog is going to find you! "What your dog wants the most is to be with you," says Poole. "And what your dog likes to do the most is play, so this game is definitely bonding." Hide and Seek could also be the easiest game to play with your dog. Simply have your dog sit and stay, and then you hide. Next, call to the dog by using a name, a whistle or a funny animal sound to get your dog revved up! When Doggie finds you, give lots of praise. And try not to think of your dog's "peeking" when you hide as cheating! Smart dog!

Toy Cleanup
Toy Cleanup is a game that reinforces "return for refund," because your dog will earn a treat for every toy placed successfully in your hands. Give a sit and stay command. Grab your dog's toy basket and scatter the toys around the room. Using verbal and physical cues, like simply pointing at an individual toy, encourage your dog to pick up one toy at a time and place it in your hand. The challenge is for your dog to not drop the toys at your feet. Then encourage your dog to put the toys in a basket, or other storage container, which your pet can access. "Even the oldest dogs can be trained with repetition and positive reinforcement," reminds Poole. Over time, your dog will clean up his own toys at your command. What was once work for you can become play for your pooch.

Go Wild and Freeze!
This is a great game for dogs with a jumping-on-visitors habit and/or canines that get a little over-excited. Take a treat and wiggle it just above your dog's nose so its head moves up toward the treat. This will naturally position your pet's rear to the ground in a "sit." Then command "GO WILD!" and jump around, clap and make sounds like a nine-year-old headed to recess. (This is a great game for children to play with the family dog.) You want your dog to get as excited as you are. Next, give the command, "Stop!" Then you stand tall without moving. Repeat the wiggle-treat-to-sit step. Wait, and resume the entire process as many times as you both desire. Over time, your dog will learn that "stop" means sit and freeze in place, a skill that can come in handy when in-laws drop by.

Nose It
Now it's time to bring toys into the mix. Poole advises that you choose toys that encourage chewing, because it's relaxing for the dog. "I like activities for dogs where they can roll a toy and nose it around," she says. For Nose It, select a toy that can be stuffed with edible treats, such as the Kong. Or, choose one of the new "monkeys in a barrel" type toys that have several little surprises inside a bigger toy. Hide-A-Squirrel and the Iqube II Cagey Cube are two examples. These toys allow your dog to "nose" and pull each of the surprises out while enjoying a good chew on the soft plush "prey." Just stuff the little toys back into the bigger toy for another round. "This keeps the dog busy, and nosing out the treat and chewing is calming for the dog," says Poole.

Your Dog Can Be a Professional Actor

Their names may not draw Brangelina-level attention, but plenty of dogs find regular work in Hollywood, on Broadway, in TV commercials, on fashion shoots and more.

What does it take to be a star? First, as with human stars, looks count. Demand for certain breeds follows trends, says Diane Haithman, whose German shepherd, Heidi, has appeared in “Desperate Housewives” and the Web series “Glen of Glenwood.” For instance, the “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” movies increased interest in Chihuahuas. “Pets get typecast too,” says Jim Leske, a Hollywood-based trainer whose 11-year-old German shepherd, Bear, appears often in police shows.

German shepherds are sought after for “tough dog” or “mean dog” roles, Haithman has found. Golden retrievers win parts for family dogs. Cute mutts also find roles. Some casting is a matter of practicality. A dog with light coloring, for example, will be easier to light on camera.

However, your dog also needs to, well, act. Behavior is a critical element in casting parts for tail-wagging actors, say the experts. Before you begin knocking on doors with 8-by-10 glossies of your best friend, consider this checklist:

  • Temperament “Evaluate your little star’s temperament before subjecting it to the limelight,” says Colleen Safford, a trainer based in New York City. “If your dog is easily startled, not overly interested in mingling with strangers, or spooks easily with different sounds, it’s unfair -- not to mention it can be dangerous -- to put him in this position. Sets are busy, unpredictable places.”
  • Obedience Your dog must have basic obedience skills. It should be able to walk gently on a leash, sit and stay, says Leske. Your dog also will be asked to hit a mark, meaning move to a location on cue. This can be taught with clicker training, offering a food treat, and sounding a clicker when your dog successfully places his front paws on the mark. “Most casting calls only require that dogs do very simple things, but they must be able to do them repetitively, reliably and among the distractions of a busy set,” explains Safford.
  • Time It is not just about your dog’s potential star-power, but it’s about the time you’re willing to invest. “Most pets you see in commercials either belong to a trainer or to a family who can afford to have a trainer on the payroll,” says Leske. For instance, Haithman did pay for some training sessions for Heidi. Also, someone needs to stay on the set or the shoot with your dog, explains Safford. You need to make sure your dog is working in short bursts, taking regular breaks.

Getting Started
You can find casting calls on websites such as Craigslist, says Safford. You can approach talent agencies, but be wary about investing thousands in training on the promise of roles that might not come.

Working with a legitimate trainer can be helpful, though. Casting directors often approach trainers in big media markets, such as New York City and Los Angeles, says Safford. Networking helps. Heidi landed work through someone Haithman’s husband knew at the gym where he works out.

Most importantly, think about whether your dog will enjoy the experience. “Is it for you or for the animal?” asks Haithman. “It’s a hard life, but there are certain dogs who really take to it. Heidi enjoyed our training sessions immensely, learning to hit a mark. It makes her happy to learn something.”

Elite Dog Athletes

You won’t find Zippy the dog marching with the parade of nations at the Olympics this summer, but the perky little Jack Russell terrier is still a proud member of Team USA, representing the United States at the World Agility Open Championships for the second consecutive year.

Zippy is among a select group of four-legged athletes that race, leap and perform at elite levels. These dogs and their owners dedicate hours to training, then pack their bags and food bowls for competitions throughout the United States.

What separates your pet from these elite dog athletes? Not as much as you might think, say two owners of champion athletic dogs that had humble beginnings.

Zippy the Agility Star
Ivette White was sitting on the board of the Talbot County, Md., Humane Society in 2007 when she came across a stray that tugged at her heartstrings. While White had experience with dogs competing in agility, she saw no real spark in the dog she would name Zippy. “He’d been at the shelter 26 days, and he wasn’t super-playful,” says White.

The 1-year-old dog, however, blossomed after a couple of weeks in White’s home. As it turned out, Zippy had just what it takes to compete at a high level in agility. “He has incredibly tight turns,” says White. “He’s able to shave time off because he’s fast and turns very efficiently. And he basically does exactly what I tell him to do.”

Zippy and White’s other Jack Russells, Dasher and Zorro, compete primarily in United States Dog Agility Association events. Zip has received a bronze lifetime achievement award for accomplishments in competition. You can follow White and her agility dogs on her blog, Agility Girl, which includes videos of the dogs in action.

Training includes a group class once a week and some one-on-one time almost every day during the competition season, says White, whose work as a personal assistant for a family allows her flexibility.

When Zippy, Dasher and Zorro see White grab her clicker and treats, “they basically bounce off the walls,” she says. White hits the gym five days a week to keep up with her athletic dogs.

Ace P.I. the Mondioring Star
Ace P.I., a Belgian Malinois, competes in mondioring, which takes dogs through a series of exercises to demonstrate how they protect their handler and themselves. But Ace’s story bears similarities to Zip’s saga. Ace was rescued after being abandoned in a foreclosure, says owner Rich D’Amico, a Las Vegas dog trainer.

Ace was returned to his breeder after a chip scan, and D’Amico happened to meet the breeder that weekend in California. “When I first saw Ace, he was running through tunnels and jumps with a ball in his mouth,” says D’Amico. “He was just a hyper puppy and didn’t know what the tunnels and jumps were, but I knew he’d see these again in competition.”

D’Amico loves spending time training and competing with Ace. They run in the park an hour a day and work on protection training two to four days a week for an hour or two. Since obedience under distraction is crucial to mondioring, Ace joins D’Amico on outings every day to stores and other places.

“He has fun doing obedience, agility and protection. His favorite activity is protection work,” says D’Amico. Their work paid off in a third-place finish at the recent U.S. Mondioring National Trial in Costa Mesa, Calif.

While awards and trophies are welcomed, both owners say the best reward is the relationship they’ve developed with their dogs through these competitions. “It tightens that bond,” says White.