Confident Canines

By Roseanne Conrad

For dog lovers, one of the best places to take their dogs for exercise and socialization is a dog park. For people lucky enough to have a dog park in their neighborhood, off-leash dog play in a safe environment is a dream come true. People and their dogs look forward to these outings and make visits a priority in their lives.

One of the challenges facing dog park managers is keeping the interest and excitement alive for both people and their dogs. While it’s fun for dogs to run off-leash and burn off some energy while socializing with other dogs, people can soon tire of the same old routine. Some dogs may get bored after a while, too. Smart managers (whether employed by a governing municipality or working as a volunteer for a park) realize that organizing special events such as “Yappy Hours,” “Poochie Picnics,” and seasonal events like “Barktoberfests” can keep the momentum going. While these events may spark interest for a day or a weekend, long-term activities will keep current users coming back and will attract new patrons as well.

Most dogs love the challenge of exploring new places. Climbing up, over, and through obstacles can be particularly delightful to them. Creating a “confidence course” is one sure way to keep dogs and their owners coming back time and time again.

What Is A Confidence Course?
A confidence course is similar to an agility course, but the objective is not competitive, and the elements are built to be safer, lower to the ground, and sturdier in order to endure year-round outdoor use.  According to Charlene Dunlap of Canine Horizons, who has built many types of equipment and configurations for her Standard Poodles, “Safety has to be of most concern. Most pieces in the confidence courses we build would probably not be appropriate for a dog park as it takes training, skill, and confidence for most dogs to be comfortable using various pieces. Also, they could draw children to a dog park, which could result in injuries and liability issues for the park.” Dog parks should have a posted set of rules to address these concerns. Private dog parks have more control as they are open to those having paid memberships and have access by way of a key or combination lock.

Confidence-course equipment does not have to cost a lot of money. By recycling materials, such as used tires in various sizes, empty metal or plastic barrels, wood planks, pallets, large wooden spools, flat benches and crates, large concrete pipes, PVC pipes, sheets of metal roofing, and even fence sections, an excellent and attractive course can be built.  If there is access to materials such as large boulders, large tree stumps, and even large fallen trees, a natural course can be created in both large and small dog parks. Note: Be sure that recycled items do not contain any toxic liquid or materials that might pose dangers to dogs and people.

Confidence-Building Obstacles
If there are separate areas for dogs, build smaller obstacles for the little dogs and larger obstacles for the large dogs, always keeping safety in mind.

Five to 10 tires bolted together side-by-side make a great tunnel. Attach them so they lie straight or have a slight curve. Bury the finished piece into the ground about 6 inches, then cover the inside run-through area with shale. Paint the end tire lime-green with large yellow spots and two large eyes to make it look like a gigantic caterpillar! Tires can be used to create many of the pieces. Several ideas can be seen on Pinterest.

When placing the equipment in a park, remember to keep enough distance between each piece (15 to 20 feet), arranging them for variety. For example, do not place two ramp-type obstacles next to one another; instead, a ramp could lead to a tunnel made of tires, and so on. It’s good to have a plan beforehand for the placement of the equipment.

Don’t forget the shade. If there is not adequate shade, dogs can get hot and tired going through the obstacles. If there are no mature trees, install some pergolas, shade sails, or tarps.

Getting The Work Done
Gather a group of volunteers who can help with rounding up the materials and building the individual elements; in this way, the course can be built in a short amount of time. People with carpentry skills and those who know how to use various hand tools will be particularly valuable. This can be an ongoing project, adding pieces to the course as they are completed.

Inform the community that a confidence course will be added to the dog park. There may be many people interested in helping with the project. Some may be willing to donate money for buying materials. After completion, contact the local media to request they do a story on it, and don’t forget to post information and photos on Facebook. This will bring renewed interest and attention to the dog park.

Roseanne Conrad is president of the National Dog Park Association, corresponding secretary of the Blair County Dog Park in Martinsburg, Penn., a member of the National Dog Writers Association, and owner of AlleyRatz Lit’l Dog Daycare. She lives in Martinsburg, Penn., with her four Keeshonden (Kyra, Cat, Harlow and Smooch). Reach her at videorose