Pack walk dogs, from left, Molly, Koda, Kash, Lyo, Watson and Frankie

Safety prompts dog trainer to pack up, walk away from off-leash parks

'But we were still committed to socializing our dogs in a safe way,' says Kari Haliburton, who leads 'pack walks'

It started as a routine trip to the off-leash dog park.

It ended in tragedy.

“[The dog] had its chest completely ripped into,” emergency veterinarian Dr. Norm Nasser said, recalling a particularly nasty case.

The damage was done in a fight with another dog.

“Unfortunately we had to euthanize it because of the extensive degree of the wounds,” Nasser said.

Toronto dog trainer Kari Haliburton knows of too many stories like this, including one that hit close to home. Her long-haired Chihuahua Lyo was attacked at one of these parks.

She decided to boycott them altogether, which led her to start running “pack walks.”

“It became a safety concern going to off-leash parks,” Haliburton said. “But we were still committed to socializing our dogs in a safe way.”

Every Saturday Haliburton’s pack of owners and dogs meets up in a designated forest, field or park. As many as 15 dogs walk alongside each other, but there has never been an issue.

“It takes them back to their rituals of when they were wolves and would migrate together,” said Joe Hand, a walker who brings five dogs to pack walk. “It’s a balanced pack, one that’s not unstable.”

The reason these pack walks have been more peaceful than trips to the off-leash dog park isn’t because of the dogs but because of the owners, Haliburton said.

“A lot of times at dog parks people aren’t supervising their dogs or paying attention,” she said. “Sometimes they think the dogs will work it out on their own. We don’t believe in that. We stop any obnoxious behaviours before they escalate.”

Part of the problem, she said, is a lack of proper attention paid to the dogs.

“A lot of people take their dogs to those parks because they can’t control them on walks, and they want to burn them out,” Haliburton said. “Their dogs receive no other stimulation and end up becoming way too excited and getting in other dogs’ faces. That’s when fights start.”

Haliburton’s pack walks are structured to avoid the problem, Hand said.

“We start them off with a walk on leash — no one leads, no one follows,” he said. “This way, when we let them off to play they don’t have too much energy.”

Providing a safe alternative to off-leash dog parks for her clients to socialize their dogs without the fear of a dog fight breaking out is something Haliburton takes pride in, she said.

“The theory behind dog parks is good but the application isn’t,” she said. “If they were supervised we might know who’s vaccinated, aggressive and who has control of their dogs. But we don’t and that’s scary.”