I can't begin to count the amount of times I've seen well meaning dog owners take their best friend to the off leash park only to leave in anger when their fun loving pooch doesn't listen. A trip to the dog park takes prep work with obedience skills and requires a great deal of control without a leash.
One of the many reasons positive training is a great choice for pet owners is because the focus is teaching your dog to listen without any contact! I don't have to correct my dogs with a snap of the leash to get them to sit, down, stay, come, etc so when their leashes are off I still have the same control.
Nothing will replace taking working directly with a trainer to get your dog off leash ready but here's a few tips to help out the wonderful dog owners who want to give their dogs freedom and some play time.
Teach your recall word on leash to start: practice calling your dog clearly in the house. "Rover come" or "Rover here" and reward with an awesome treat. Back up a few steps and start again. What you're doing is building a positive association with your recall word. You need to start in a place with no distractions and practice over and over. Do not repeat your word. If your dog doesn't come try running backwards, clapping your hands or squeaking a toy. The idea is to teach your dog to come when you say the word the first time.
Up the Ante: Grab a leash or long line (a piece of rope about 20 feet long with a secure clip) and head out to a small, non-busy park. Practice your recall word and make it fun. Use toys, great treats and lots of praise. Slowly incorporate practice sessions to busier and busier locales.
Ready for Off Leash? Try off leash practice in a small, fenced park to start. Baseball diamonds work well! Also invite your friends to come and practice with their dogs to add distractions. Once you have a dog that is responding quickly and reliably try taking your dog to the dog park. Time your recall for moments when you know he/she will be successful. If your dog is ignoring snap the leash on and head home.
Key tips for long term success:
1. Always ensure that recall is something fun for your dog and reward it!
2. Never call your dog when the fun is over (aka only calling when you leave the park or for bath time, etc)
3. Bring tasty treats with you but also incorporate toys and games so your dog learns that you are also fun
4. Don't forget to keep practicing, this skill is too important to not keep fresh and reliable