Getting out of your breed (or mixed breed) box

It is not unusual for me to hear, “I’m a (fill in the blank with random breed) person.” Many times owners have chosen a breed that is a good fit. However, I also do see owners who choose a breed that they have fallen in love with that in reality does not actually fit their lifestyle. They may have grown up with that particular breed, or they love the way the dog looks, or simply out of habit they keep getting the same breed over and over.

I used to say to people “I’m a husky person” because I loved – and still do love – the way Siberian huskies look. I had two huskies, one a purebred and the other a mix and loved them both. However, the truth is, that is not a good fit for me. Siberian huskies, like most nordic breeds are very independent. I love dogs that can perform well in activities like rally and obedience. While certainly huskies can be trained, they tend to be easily distracted and it can be difficult to obtain reliable performance. A husky is a great breed for someone who appreciates their independent spirit, it is not as great a breed choice for a control freak like myself.  It took me a couple of huskies and a lot of time to step out of my Nordic breed box and collies have been a perfect fit for me.

I sometimes see people who are stuck in their breed box and the results are frustrating for both the dog and the owner. The hard reality is that some breeds are just flat out not good matches for seniors or people with health problems. Active, energetic, powerful dogs require athletic, active owners. I have not met a pet owner who changed their lifestyle and started jogging daily just because they got an active dog – but I have met pet owners who spent a lot of money in dog daycare and dog walkers in an attempt to meet their active dog’s needs. Similarly, if it is important to you to have a dog that can peacefully go to the dog park on a regular basis, a terrier or a guard breed is probably not a good bet (though yes there are exceptions – but again the key word being exceptions).  More often than not, the breed someone has in their 20′s and loved, is not the right fit for the same person in their 50′s, 60′s and 70′s.

This goes for mixed breed dog owners as well. Because temperament and behavior are strongly influenced by genetics, it is hard to predict how a mixed bred puppy will mature. Some owners don’t mind because they do not have specific goals for their future dog, however, if an owner really wants to stack the odds in their favor of ending up with say, a therapy dog candidate for example, then a purebred dog from a breeder with a long history of breeding successful therapy dogs is a safer bet.

If you are in the process of thinking about your next dog and you have always had a particular breed or mix, take an objective step back and look at your choices. Was your choice the best fit or do you need to look outside your box?

 

 

 

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Off Leash Training

Dream of taking your dog on a long hike in the woods off leash or for a run on a beautiful beach? He stays close to you, comes when you call him right away, and you are both having a great time. Sounds fun right? Well for many dogs and their owners this could happen with training and a great relationship. However, here’s the real scoop on off leash control: not all dogs are appropriate to be trained and worked with off leash. Individual dog’s temperaments, training and maturity all play a role in a dog’s behavior.

To some extent, common sense is involved, dogs that have a history of exhibiting aggression to people or dogs really don’t belong off leash in areas that are not physically fenced in and they also don’t belong in dog parks or other similar uncontrolled settings. It’s not responsible to put other people and other dogs at risk and it’s a liability to boot.

Maturity plays a big role when it comes to off leash control. Because adolescent dog behavior is difficult to predict, most dogs between the ages of 6 months and 2 1/2 really cannot be trusted off leash – not even if you are a fabulous trainer.  I often have puppy owners tell me, hey my 8 week old puppy is wonderful off the leash. Well, yes, at 8 weeks even independent breeds like huskies tend to stay close. Don’t assume that your dog is going to behave the same way at 4 months, 5, months or age 1. Young puppy behavior and adolescent dog behavior are two completely different things!

Genetics plays a big role in off leash behavior as well. Sight hounds, terriers and nordic breeds may not always reliably come when called when there are distractions like deer, rabbits or other similar things. This does not mean you should not train your independent breed not to come when called, in fact the opposite is true. You will want to work on training your dog even more in case you accidentally dropped the leash or your dog managed to get out of your yard. All dogs should be trained to come when called, however, if you have a breed or individual dog who may not come when called don’t put your dog in an unsafe situation.

Now I can hear clients in my head “but I knew a Jack Russell Terrier that always came when called when off leash in the woods.” Yes there are exceptions to every generalization made about a breed. But the key word here is these individuals are the exceptions.

Even if your dog is a member of a breed that tends to stay close, that does not mean that your individual dog has the right temperament characteristics to safely hike in the woods off leash. There are a wide range of temperaments within each breed. Some individual dogs may be able to be worked with off leash safely with relatively little training while others may require years of ongoing training. The owner’s willingness to spend time training the dog, genetics, individual difference and the environment are all important factors in off leash control.

Some owners resort to harsh tools such as electronic collars. I routinely receive calls when dogs ignored the shock and chased the deer or dog anyway. I’ve even worked with members of “easy to train” breeds who ignored an electronic collar correction in the face of a very strong distraction. Additionally, there are behavioral risks to using shock collars and dogs that are appropriate to train for off leash control can be effectively trained to come when called via reward based methods without taking a behavioral risk.

Remember that your relationship with your dog is what is most important when it comes to off leash behavior. In fact, the dog I grew up with, Inky, was nearly always off leash and I did not formally train him. He had a naturally low-key temperament and was very closely bonded to our family. He did not actually come when called that well, but he never left far away from us either. His tendency to stay close to us was more a result of his genetics and our relationship, than it was a reflection of training per se.

Of course, do obey local leash laws. In most public places in Northern Virginia and the DC metro area dogs are not permitted to be off leash. Also choose your locations carefully, just because your friend’s farm is a great place for your dog to run off leash, if there is a lot of wildlife, it might just be too risky. No one has 100% control of their dog. Ultimately, as you think about working your dog off leash, keep in mind that your dog’s safety is what is most important, dogs can have lots of fun on a long leash and in fenced in areas too.

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Warm Weather Fun in NoVa

I’m always telling my clients that the more they find ways to include their dogs in their lives doing activities that both they and they dog would enjoy, the more likely that their training efforts will stick over time. All too often, people mention “the dog park” as the main place they go. There is a whole world outside of the dog park and as I’ve written before, the dog park is not the right fit for all dogs.

As you think of ways that you and your dog can both have fun, think about what really is fun for your dog. If your dog loves interacting with lots of unfamiliar people, urban activities, farmers markets and other crowded environments would be great for him. If your dog tends to be overwhelmed in crowds then hiking a quiet trail or visiting some gardens during a non-busy time may be more fun.

Here’s a short list of places to go and things to do that may be fun for some dogs and food for thought as you think of what you and your dog would like to do:

Parks – there are so many of them, look at the “off the beaten path” trails such as Scott’s Run Nature Preserve, Balls Bluff Regional Park and hey, if you are a Northern Virginia native, fess up, when’s the last time you went to the Bull Run Battlefield - it’s beautiful out there! If your dog does not like crowds, Mason Neck park  has quieter trails and beautiful water views. We love Great Falls National Park but it can get crowded, going really early or during the week is the best way to beat the crowds.

Historical sites – Mt. Vernon is dog friendly. No you can’t go into the house but you can tour the grounds and gardens. Because you know your dog’s complete education is important to you, you and your pooch can learn about canine life at Mt. Vernon via a special tour for dog owners.   On beautiful weekends go really early to find parking.

Shopping – Many of shopping venues have dog friendly shops. You’ll often see a water bowl outside of a shop’s door as an indication that the store welcomes dogs. Old Town Alexandria is well known for having many pet friendly shops, but you will see dogs out and about in Reston Town Center and the Mosaic Development in Merrifield as well as many parts of Arlington. These areas are crowded so these can be fun for very social and confident dogs but are no place for retractable leashes, excitable dogs or for a dog that has fear or aggression issues with dogs or people.

Many restaurants have outdoor eating areas all over Arlington, Vienna Town Green and Church St., City of Fairfax and Clifton. Again these are for the confident dogs that love people and tolerate other dogs in close proximity.

Out of the box-what about fruit picking at Hollin Farms or a winery on a weekend? The National Arboretum is a gorgeous place to visit and I’m sure I’m not the only DC native who only recently realized it was there.

So much to do, so little time. Now of course, make sure your dog is super well behaved and you are equipped with water, and clean up supplies for your dog. We want to keep encouraging dog friendly venues and well-mannered pooches and considerate owners are a big part of making sure that happens!

Any other ideas? Please chime in, I’m always looking for fun stuff to do in the area with my own dogs and to recommend to my clients.

 

 

 

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The Power of Silly!

The coolest thing about my job as a dog trainer is that every dog is different. There are those dogs that the usual routine doesn’t work for. Then we have to get creative. Some of those challenging canine pupils have helped remind me that sometimes, you just have to get silly.

Most pet owners quickly realize that their emotions are contagious. This can make changing behavior and training challenging for a new dog owner who is confused about the technique – now both dog and owner are confused. Fortunately, once you become aware of this, the solution is simple, blow it off and act silly. Laugh, be happy, training a dog isn’t a chore. Change gears, make funny noises, sing a goofy song. I promise, your dog won’t think less of you.

Acting silly can be especially helpful for fearful dogs, or for convincing dogs that hey, this really is a fun thing to do. With puppies, acting silly is a great way to build confidence and get your puppy to follow you around. It’s easy, in an enclosed space, use a happy tone of voice and encourage your puppy to follow you around.

You do not have to be super loud, crazy or hectic to be silly. You just need to convey happiness, fun and joy to your dog. Your version of silly may not look the same as the other person’s and that’s ok. The important piece is whether you feel happy and your dog feels it too.

For some people acting silly can actually be hard. Set yourself up to be relaxed when you practice if this is the case. Realize you probably won’t master this in training class or a public venue so practice it at home. Think funny thoughts, do funny things and go with it. You really need to feel happy as you do it. May be using a fun dog toy will help you get into it. Dogs are masters at reading our emotions! I know this sounds goofy but this is an important skill. All the great dog trainers I know of are naturals at silliness and they can do it anytime, anywhere. You’ll see silly playful behavior at many competitive venues by top performers – often just a few minutes before they get in the ring and right after.

Now am I saying acting silly is all it takes to fix hard core issues, absolutely not, but it can make a big difference. Also all too often, silliness is completely forgotten about…and what’s the fun in working with your dog if you aren’t actually having fun!

 

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100% Reliable

Every so often I’ll have a new client request that they would like their dog to be trained so he listens to them “all of the time.” Usually they don’t really mean that literally, they mean they want their dog to respond more reliably. Often they have a teenage dog that is behaving in a bit of an annoying way and they would like their dog to improve. However, sometimes the owner really wants their dog to do something all of the time. For instance, come when called off leash 100% of the time. This is where my job becomes harder.

I’ve trained dogs to really, really high levels. I’ve trained service dogs for people with various types of disabilities, I currently compete with my dogs in rally obedience and I’ve competed in AKC obedience as well and scored very well (first place ribbons are pinned up around my office). I deeply love my dogs, and work with them nearly every day. They are super highly trained –but in spite of all this, I would not claim that they would respond 100% of the time to a particular cue. Why? Well, because they are dogs, not machines.

Here’s the reality, even highly trained dogs are not infallible. This is why there have been legal questions about the use of narcotic detection dogs, and even a few news stories about bomb sniffing dog errors and occasional false alarms. I am not saying that working dogs are not wonderful at these jobs, but just like people who may be wonderful at jobs they are trained to do, occasional mistakes can happen.

Does this mean that a pet dog cannot be trained to be amazingly obedient, of course not. Simply put, we need to be realistic. We can’t expect a dog to live up to a standard that we, ourselves, could not live up to.

Ultimately, while great training is impressive, developing a great relationship is even more impressive and it involves more than just training. A great relationship requires understanding and being empathetic to what your dog feels, needs and wants too.

 

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Enjoying your Wild and Wacky Teenage Dog

Do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? I’m sure you can think of many times when your parents thought (or even said) “I never thought you would ever do anything like that!” In thinking back on my teenage years, I really hope no one holds some of the things I said and did against me permanently – especially some of my 80′s hairstyle and fashion choices.

Just as our teenage period is both fun, wacky, awkward and sometimes just plain old “yeesh!” this is true for our canine companions as well. The one really nice part when it comes to dog ownership, is that unlike for human parents who deal with their children’s adolescence for years, for dog owners this all happens comparatively quickly.

Individual dogs mature at different rates but for most dogs, they are “teenagers” at about 5-6 months and fully mature close to age 3. I can hear my clients with teenage dogs gasping –”is it really that long?” Well, yes and no. The toughest part for most pet owners is right around that one year mark. And many times, by 1 1/2 the most challenging period is over. But each dog is an individual so these time periods are generalizations. I’ve certainly met canine “late bloomers.”

For teenage dogs, just like their human counterparts, adolescence is a time of experimentation. Teenage dogs often push buttons, may seem to have “forgotten” their previous training, and often exhibit new behaviors like jumping up. Statements that start with the phrase “my dog would never” are almost always proven incorrect during adolescence so do use your crate, leash, baby gates and supervise your teenage dog or be prepared to replace that expensive rug.

“Doesn’t he know better by now?” my clients often ask. Short answer, “no.” It really is the owner’s responsibility to manage their dog safely and prevent unwanted behaviors, or those annoying behaviors will become life long bad habits. And absolutely, training is very important during adolescence. Just remember to be patient, realistic and understanding. You will want to keep your practice sessions short and fun. Provide lots of outlets for your dog’s energy and be ready to go back and do refreshers on the basics.

Now, lest I put a total damper on dog ownership, I have to say more and more I’m completely loving teenage dogs. It’s important to enjoy this period. Have a sense of humor about it. Yes, it might be embarrassing  to have the dog you worked so hard training completely blow off a basic like “sit” in front of visitors. But one day, when your teenage dog is an elderly senior dog who has an unsteady gait, you will remember the days when he would leap and bound and decorate your work clothes with muddy paw prints and you will smile.  Just as your dog became an adolescence surprisingly quickly, dogs become seniors much faster than we want them to too.

Enjoy your canine wild child this New Year!

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A Barking Nuisance

Fairfax County is adopting a new sound ordinance that impacts pet owners. Barking is normal dog behavior, but excessive barking can be a nuisance and may create problems with neighbors. There are a number of strategies that can help keep the peace:

1. Supervise your dog if you leave him in your yard. Yards in Northern Virginia are simply not large enough-and the sound of a bark will carry. There are lots of other reasons to supervise your dog when he’s outdoors including for his safety but in terms of barking, supervision allows you to redirect your dog and interrupt unwanted barking.

2. Provide interesting activities for your dog to do in your yard. Set up some agility obstacles for fun, hide toys and treats, rotate the toys you leave available.

3. Block your dog’s view of the street and passers by if possible.

4. Use tools that help dogs be calmer and quieter. A body wrap such as a Thundershirt may help some dogs be quieter. Soft classical music may also help.

5. Exercise your dog, the cliche about tired dogs also can apply to barking.

6. Examine why your dog is barking. Is he tired? Stressed? Anxious? Frustrated? Some dogs are just more likely to bark than others but sometimes there are underlying reasons. If your dog has a behavior problem, separation anxiety or another issue, find a qualified behavior consultant to fully address the underlying cause.

I empathize with people who complain to me about barking dogs. I have three collies – a breed known for being vocal. I do not just use one strategy to keep the barking to a minimum. I find I often have to do a combination of providing exercise, rotating toys, supervising my dogs and interrupting them and bringing them back indoors if they bark. I also manage indoor barking by closing shutters and blinds to windows if there is a lot of activity in my neighborhood.

Notice one thing I do not do–I do not resort to an electronic bark collar. There are behavioral risks of using collars like this and having lived with multiple members of a very “barky” breed for well over 15 years now, I’ve always found other, gentle, less risky and effective ways to manage barking.

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Welcome Home!

Woohoo! You are so excited and happy, you just adopted a new dog! Time to celebrate, throw a party, take your dog out on the town to meet all of your friends right? Wait–not so fast. Getting a new dog is so exciting and your friends and family are sure to want to meet him. However, the period of transition to a new environment is really hard for the dog. Even if your dog is coming from a “bad” situation into a wonderful new home with you – he doesn’t speak English. Your dog has no idea what’s going on and just knows his living situation has changed dramatically. Take it slow! You will find that your dog’s behavior changes quite a bit over the first few months after adopting him/her. Here are a few quick tips for those first weeks with your new pet:

1. Don’t assume anything about your new dog. Yep, nothing. You are still getting to know your dog and he’s still getting to know you. Even if your dog came from a foster home where they told you that he loved all the other dogs and was house trained this does not mean that these behaviors will automatically transfer over to your home. I get calls all the time when new adopters tell us, “why does this dog growl at other dogs when he loved dogs in foster care?”  There are many reasons why this might happen but the simple reality is that takes time for a dog to show it’s true temperament and personality. Most rescue organizations do not have the resources to have dogs temperament tested by a qualified and experienced behavior professional. Even if the dog has been temperament tested, no one can guarantee that the temperament observed in the challenging shelter environment will hold up over time.

2. Keep things low stress and low key. Complex environments and situations (i.e. lots of people, traffic, animals) are stressful for most dogs. For the first few days in your home keep routines simple. For instance, try a walk in a quiet park or play in a fenced in backyard, just one or two visitors. Take safety precautions, we receive many phone calls when the new dog slips out the yard or front door the first day or week after being adopted.

3. Incorporate strategies that help dogs relax. Soft classical music, the scent of lavender, long lasting chews or dog toys that can be filled with dog food (i.e. KONG) may help some animals relax.

4. Supervise. Take your dog outdoors to relieve himself/herself very frequently. Do not assume your dog knows not to chew up furniture or not to house soil. Prevent problems rather than react to them. Your dog is under stress from the transition to a new environment and is still learning to trust. Yelling and getting angry are never good training strategies but can certainly do lasting damage to a relationship with a dog that is still getting to know you.

5. Create a warm, supportive and relaxed home environment. Yes, dogs do pick up on the emotions of people around them.

Many times adopters call me and share with me their plans for their new dog. They want it to become a therapy dog, an agility dog or visit the local dog park. It’s great to be excited about your future with your new dog, but keep in mind that your dog may have different ideas for what he/she enjoys. Not all dogs enjoy interacting with lots of unfamiliar people, running up and down obstacles or playing with unfamiliar dogs. It’s much better to view your first weeks with your new dog as an exciting opportunity to learn about what your dog would really enjoy doing.  Respecting your dog’s needs is a surefire way to start building a terrific relationship with your new dog.

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Teaching Your Child How to Behave Around Dogs

When I grew up, most of my friends had extensive experience around animals. I didn’t grow up on a farm, I was in a suburban setting. However, there were often stray dogs and loose dogs, we walked to school and encountered dogs on a regular basis. We all knew what to do. I never remember seeing a child try to touch a growling dog or even approach a stray. I also never saw children running away from animals nor did I see children squeal excitedly at the sight of an animal. We all knew it was important to be calm around dogs. Yes, bites did happen but adult’s reactions to them were also different. People would simply say “dogs are dogs” or scold the child “I told you not to mess with that dog!”

Times have changed dramatically! Now expectations for dogs are extremely high and often unrealistic. Some people think dogs should tolerate behavior from children that no human would tolerate without becoming very angry. Even more challenging is that many children and adults have had limited experience around animals and do not know how to interpret animal behavior. I also see parents sometimes at a loss about how to effectively communicate to their child how to behave around the dog. As an elementary public school teacher, I worked with children with very diverse needs and behaviors for seven years. Here are a few tips from my classroom experience:

1. Set expectations up clearly immediately. If you are adding a dog/puppy to the home, conversations about how to behave around that dog/puppy need to happen before the dog/puppy arrives. A new dog/puppy is a living sentient being, that will be under stress from the transition to the new living environment and will need quiet and calm in the new home.

2. Please do not surprise the kids by suddenly showing up with a new puppy. That might be fun for you but will create too much excitement in the home and risks scaring or over-exciting the puppy. Also it sends the message to the children that the puppy is an object for their entertainment – not a living being with important needs. Instead get a large box and gift wrap a leash, collar, training book and food bowl and surprise the kids with the news that a new dog/puppy will be joining the family in a few weeks. This allows you to prepare your children and home for a calm reception for the new arrival and sends a message that a puppy is a living being that has needs everyone in the family will take time to learn about and respect.

3. Emphasize the importance of understanding, empathizing with and respecting the dog/puppy’s needs. Children need to wait for the dog and puppy to indicate that it wants to interact. No hugging/kissing dogs! Model this behavior yourself for instance say, “the puppy is taking a nap, I’m going to use a very quiet speaking voice and give him space to rest.”

4. Keep instructions simple and brief. The younger the child, the shorter instructions need to be. For instance: “Wait for Rover to come to you.”

5. Phrase things positively – instead of saying “do not run around Rover,” say “walk when you are near Rover”

6. Use multiple modes of learning to help children learn how to behave around the dog. Have children repeat back to you expectations to ensure understanding. Write one or two reminders and post on the refrigerator. Or better yet, have your child create a poster with a short list of reminders on how to behave around the dog himself/herself. A young child could also draw a picture of himself/herself behaving appropriately around the dog/puppy. Role play challenging situations – take turns with one family member pretending to be the dog/puppy. The more different modes of learning you incorporate, the more likely it is your child will remember!

7. Notice and praise when children are doing the right thing. If your children are calmly ignoring the dog/puppy as they arrive home from school and focusing on their homework, notice that and praise them.

8. Plan and set up the environment to prevent difficult to control situations. Have leashes, chews, crates and tethers ready and easily accessible. Also guide your child on how to behave pro-actively. Anticipate challenges rather than waiting for a problem and reacting.

9. Remember lots of noise and movement agitates animals and triggers unwanted behaviors. Give kids and dogs breaks away from each other. Make sure the dog’s crate or confinement area is in a quiet part of the home away from lots of noise/activity so he gets enough sleep.

10. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Yep, trainers tell owners “say your cue one time only.” That’s right for dogs but for children the more you repeat your expectations the better.

If you have trouble controlling your child’s behavior, then for your child’s safety and for the dog/puppy’s welfare, address your child’s behavioral needs first, before bringing a dog or puppy home. Ask your child’s teacher, pediatrician, school guidance counselor or other qualified professional for support or local parenting resources if needed.

There are a number of resources online for parents and children that can help. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Be a Tree Program – helpful information on dog behavior, reading dog body language and preventing bites to children

Living with Kids and Dogs – parenting information with guidance on dog training, managing the dog safely and much more

Family Paws - Dogs and Storks and Dog Baby Connection program for new parents

Doggone Crazy – Board game on dog behavior and body language for families and children

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Beyond the Dog Park

Dog trainers hate being the “bearer of bad news” but sometimes I find myself in the position of telling pet owners that their dog is just not the right fit for dog park play. There are many reasons this might be the case for instance:

1. The dog may show aggressive behavior to other dogs.

2. The dog may show aggression to people (there are people in the dog park too!)

3. The dog may be fearful and easily overwhelmed by the dog park environment.

4. The dog may be exhibiting some overexcited behavior around other dogs when on leash and the dog park visits may be contributing to this behavior.

5. The dog may be too small, delicate, and easily injured.

6. The dog may simply not be enjoying dog park visits.

7. The dog may be practicing bad manners at the dog park and may need more training.

Regardless of the reason, this really and truly is not bad news. Why, well simply put, there is a whole wide world outside of the dog park and many things to do. Here is a short list of dog park alternatives that, depending on your dog’s behavioral needs, may be appropriate for your dog:

1. Go on a hike, in Northern Virginia, there are many, many options for great hikes with your dog.

2. Use a long line, you can get long leashes of various lengths to give your dog more freedom in an open space. Of course be aware, if your long leash is very long, make sure you aren’t in a situation where you could lose control of your dog.

3. Go out on the town, there are many dog friendly shops and even outdoor dining areas. If your dog is well trained and calm when in close proximity with people and dogs, this may be fun for you and your dog.

4. Set up a play date with  a dog your dog interacts peacefully with.

5. Play games with your dogs, for instance fetch, or hide a toy, or teach your dog scent games by hiding treats in containers and letting your dog figure out where they are.

6. Massage your dog and relax together.

7. Set up an “at home” agility course and teach your dog to run it.

8. Train your dog a cool trick.

Think of something else fun to do? Please feel free to share and have fun exploring the big wide world outside of the dog park!

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