Many of us, particularly those of us in urban areas, love being able to take our pups to the dog park to play and romp to their heart’s content. Dog parks can be a great and safe way to get out some of your pet’s energy and let them learn to socialize with other pups. However, dog parks aren’t always the safest place for all dogs. Owners may not recognize or be able to fix unwanted or problem behaviors that could result in dangerous situations.
In order to keep yourself and your pet safe, there are some dog park etiquette rules that must be followed.
1. Know your pet.
Dogs are social creatures but not all dogs love all dogs. Dr. Susan Nelson, DVM, states that “a dog park is a great place for dogs to get some exercise and learn social skills…[but] if your buddy is aggressive or has issues that could make him hostile toward another dog playing with a ball or Frisbee, the dog park is not the place to teach him to make friends or share his toys.” Those issues should be addressed by a trainer first.
Dogs have different types of play styles. The Whole Dog Journal lists a few different types, including the social butterfly and the fetch-aholic. You should know how your pup likes to play to determine if a dog park is right for your dog. For example, is your dog a rough-and-tumble pup or does he or she enjoy the chase? Does your dog prefer a calmer one-on-one play style? Consider what your dog likes to do and watch for play that could stress out or scare your dog. If your dog does not play the way others in the park do (either too rough or too fearful) do not allow your dog to interfere in others’ play. An overstimulated rough-houser can cause an aggressive response from another dog or a fearful dog may become the target of a group of rough-housing dogs.
Above all, before you go to the dog park, for both the safety of your own pet and others in the park, be sure that your dog is consistently responsive to basic commands including “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and “leave it.” Here are a few ideas of when your pup should NOT go to the dog park:
- If your puppy is under 4 months of age then it has not had all of its vaccinations and should not be exposed to other dogs
- If your adult dog does not have a rabies vaccination you may not be allowed in the park; some parks allow for rabies titers but not many. Rabies vaccinations are required in the USA so your pup should have one anyway, especially if you have licensed him or her with your town.
- If your female dog is in heat do not bring her to the dog park. You do not want to risk an accidental litter or cause a fight between male dogs vying for a female.
- If your pup does not have consistent recall, you should not bring them to the park. If you cannot retain control over your pet (even if they are friendly) your dog can create stressful situations that could lead to aggression and you cannot remove them from a suddenly dangerous place.
- If your dog shows any kind of aggression do not bring them to the park. Some dogs play well with little dogs but are afraid of or stressed by larger dogs or vice versa. Some dogs don’t like people in hats. Some dogs refuse to share toys or food. (While you should not bring toys or treats to the dog park, be aware that others will and your dog will need to cope with that.) Whatever your pup’s trigger(s) might be, if your dog can become threatening or aggressive, do not take them to a place that will cause unnecessary amounts of stress for them and those around them.
2. Know your park.
Pick the right dog park for your pup. Before entering the park, scan the inside and look for too many dogs, inattentive owners, too much dog waste left lying around, or aggressive or pushy dogs. If you see any of those, consider trying a different park or type of exercise. Ideally a good dog park will have:
- A double-gated entry, preferably with multiple points of entry to separate dogs, sturdy fencing, and posted rules
- Well-stocked poop bag dispenser(s) and trash cans for disposal
- Large spaces for dogs to run and spread out and separate areas for large and small dogs
- Dog-friendly water fountains, make sure it’s not just a bowl on the ground but there’s running water to refill dishes
- A sheltered area for shade, either from large trees or manmade
- Follow any posted rules, including those banning toys or food.
- Consider dog parks that require a membership or entrance fee. Those are often better maintained with enforceable rules and more conscientious owners.
3. Go at an “off” time.
If your pup is just getting used to dog parks or if he or she tends to be shy, consider going when you know the dog park won’t be crowded. Your dog will appreciate the extra space and lower numbers of other dogs and you will be able to breathe easier knowing you haven’t submitted your pup to a stressful situation. If your dog is a ball-hog and they just need to bring their ball, consider going at an off time so there are fewer dogs to interfere in fetch.
Going at off times can also be great in the summer as a way to stay out of the heat of the day. Your dog can easily get overheated if you go to the park after work. Instead, try to go early in the morning, before 10am, or later at night, after 6pm, for playtime.
Remember, you can always leave early or not enter if the park is too crowded. It’s better to try something different than put your dog in a stressful and potentially scary situation.
4. Bring necessary supplies.
You should be aware that there’s always a chance your pup could get hurt or overheated at the dog park. Be prepared with necessary supplies either on hand or in your car. When you go to the park you should always have:
- Your dog’s collar with ID tags on your dog at all times
- A leash to remove or restrain your dog if necessary
- Poop bags to clean up after your dog (some diseases can spread through feces so it is important to pick up after your pet)
- Fresh water in case the park does not provide any
- Your cell phone with your veterinarian’s phone number and the number for Animal Control programmed into it
- Some form of animal deterrent for worst case scenarios. You don’t want to get in the middle of a dog fight but an air horn or animal deterrent spray can help break up a fight before too much damage is done.
5. Be vigilant.
It’s not necessary to stare continually at your pet, but it is important to be observant and know where your dog is at all times. Here are a few ideas for what to be aware of in the park:
- Keep an eye on your pup and the dogs in the area. Be watchful of the dogs playing with or near your pup, especially if they seem to be overly excited or aggressive. If your dog seems overwhelmed, call him or her back to you to create space from the stressful situation.
- Don’t enter the park if there are any dogs hovering near the gate. Wait until they’ve wandered or been called away to enter with your pup. Entryways can be a source of contention with some dogs and it is easy to get bottlenecked if you aren’t careful.
- If there isn’t a separate small dog area be careful with your pup playing with dogs of different sizes. If your dog is larger, make sure they aren’t overwhelming the smaller dog. If you have the smaller dog, make sure he or she isn’t intimidated by the larger dog. In a worst case situation, a dog is more able to survive an attack from a dog their size.
6. Know the difference between play and aggression.
Some dogs have a rougher style of play than others. It can be difficult for both you and your dog to know when another dog is playing or becoming aggressive, especially when they have different play styles. Here are a few ways to tell the difference between play and aggression.
- A playful dog will bounce around another dog with a loosely wagging tail. He or she will have a relaxed posture and a relaxed or gently smiling face. The playful pup will often play bow to the other dog before continuing to bounce or initiate a chase.
- An aggressive dog will have a stiff posture with either raised hackles or tightly closed mouth and a hyperfocused stare. Often the tail will be wagging but it will be a high and tight wag that signals stress. Staring, crouching, stalking, and charging are all undesirable behaviors. For some very good descriptions of potential issues with dogs at dog parks, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers has compiled a list here.
- If one dog is being chased by or ganged up on by a group of dogs, even if it began as play, it is a potentially volatile situation. Remove your dog (either the chaser or chasee) from that environment to de-escalate the play.
- If your dog or another dog begin to growl at each other, stay calm and call your dog to you. Move to another spot in the dog park (or leave if your dog is overwhelmed) to allow stress levels to decrease away from the situation. Do not attempt to drag your dog away by the collar because that could ratchet up the aggression levels in either dog and instigate a fight. Do not get between dogs in a fight; use the air horn or deterrent spray.
7. Know when to leave.
Have you ever seen an overtired toddler? Happy play can immediately turn to temper tantrums. A similar thing can happen with dogs, especially in a dog park environment. Instead of staying for hours, leave before your dog gets to that point. Even if your dog starts out playing well, if he or she becomes overexcited, threatening, or is misbehaving in any way, it’s time to take your pet home and try another day. Overstimulated dogs that are not removed from their environment can easily cause problems for themselves or other dogs. Know your dog’s temperament and moods and leave before your dog can reach a snapping point. It is foolish to assume that your dog, even if he or she is normally passive, will never attack another dog or person. “He’s never done that before!” is a common refrain and a preventable one.