Dog Park Etiquette: Dos and Don'ts from a Trainer
Dog parks are popular places for owners to try to address their dogs' needs for social interaction with other dogs alongside physical exercise in a safe, off-leash environment. While my feelings on dog parks are very mixed, if you and your dog enjoy using them, you should set firm rules to ensure everyone has a fun, safe time.
Here are a few suggested dos and don'ts to help you set a positive (and safe!) example for other dog park attendees.
Do exercise your dog well before you go to the dog park. Dogs arriving with an overabundance of energy, many having had no exercise whatsoever since last week's visit, tend to come in like freight trains and either cause or be on the receiving end of dog park drama.
Do leave kids at home. The dog park is a park for dogs. Bring your children to the playground separately -- small children at the dog park are often a danger, or in danger.
Do leave your dog in the car for a minute while you scope out the scene -- while you may visit this park daily or weekly, there may be times when the arousal level of play is too high for your comfort level, or when you notice the dogs are bullying or playing in a manner that would make your dog uncomfortable. If it doesn't look like the kind of play your dog would enjoy, consider going for a walk instead and trying the park another day.
Do educate yourself on the signs of healthy play and how to read dog body language. If you can observe and respond effectively to gradually increasing signs of arousal, you will be well-equipped to intervene and keep your dog safe before things get out of control.
Do remove your dog's leash upon entering the park, and keep it with you while you are there.
Do leave your cellphone and other distractions in the car -- you should focus on your dog the entire time you are at the park. If you want to chat to a friend at the park, keep at least one eye on your dog and do not allow him to get so far away that you cannot intervene and control the situation when necessary.
Do interrupt play frequently with short and fun training sessions. Dog park time should never be a free-for-all. Practice calling your dog to you (provided you have established good foundation response skills), rewarding him, and releasing him to play again immediately. If you call your dog only when he is over-aroused, chances are your recall signal will not work and he will learn that ignoring you has big-time payoffs when it comes to fun!
Do clean up! I think the ultimate dog park etiquette is that if you see a pile, you pick it up. It doesn't matter which irresponsible owner neglected her obligation to clean up: Taking initiative to keep the park clean will increase the likelihood that the park stays open and protect both your dog and all other attending dogs from communicable illnesses. Bring more poop bags than you think you'll need, just in case!
Do bring your own water and water bowl, leaving them in the car. Removing your dog from the park frequently for mini-breaks is a great idea, and I worry about the safety of community water bowls and their potential as vehicles for illness transmission (and resource guarding, especially on hot days when there are far more thirsty dogs than there are bowls of cool water!). Better to be safe than sorry -- bring your own water and bowl.
Do think carefully about your decision to bring your dogs favorite treats or toys to the park. It is best to use them only when there is plenty of distance between your dog and other dogs. Be aware that the risk for possession aggression is high, which is why treats are banned in many parks.
Do a brief physical warm-up before and after. Because play at the park can be very strenuous, a 5-to-10-minute walk before and after can reduce the risk of injuries to your dog when enjoying the park.
Do keep your small dog in the small dog section, even if he likes playing with big dogs. Small dogs in the large dog section of the park can easily be injured even in regular play, but are also susceptible to a seldom-seen but dangerous type of interaction known as predatory drift that can quickly become deadly.
Don't allow your dog to drag you into the park. Entrance to the park, for dogs that enjoy the experience, should always be a reward for desirable behavior and should never reward pushiness, lunging, barking, or other demand behaviors. This is a great chance to practice loose-leash walking and focus techniques with real-life reinforcement.
Don't allow your dog to bully other dogs or be bullied by others. Be proactive, and remember your job is to be your dogs advocate. If another dog is bullying your dog, ask the owner to control it so you can remove yours to safety. Similarly, do not be offended if another owner asks you to temporarily restrain your dog so that she may remove her own.
Don't allow your dog to enter the park with a collar, unless it is a breakaway one. Collars can get caught in teeth or on fencing and cause choking incidents -- a breakaway collar or harness that does not fasten around the neck are safer bets for dog park attire.
Don't bring an intact female in heat to the dog park, no matter how well socialized she is. Youd think this would be common sense, but I've seen it! This is dangerous for both the dog in heat and all other dogs at the park.
Don't expect the dogs to work it out. It is always better to intervene first -- humans are responsible for maintaining peace and order at the dog park.
Don't bring your dog to the park if he is suffering from any sort of communicable illness. Find other ways to provide your dog with exercise until he is no longer contagious.
Don't think of the dog park as a great place to socialize a dog with issues (reactivity, aggression, fear, etc.) toward other dogs or people. One of my biggest gripes about dog parks is that theyre actually much more popular than they should be -- they should be for well-trained, well-socialized, tolerant, and savvy dogs. Don't assume that the dog park is fun for all or even most dogs -- if you study up on canine body language, you will be better able to determine if the dog park is enjoyable or a scary, overwhelming, stressful experience for your dog.
Know your dog's play style. Does your dog like to chase and be chased? Does he like to play bitey face with other dogs? Does he enjoy rough, physical, high-contact wrestling play, or does that make him uncomfortable? Encourage interaction with dogs with similar play styles, and remove your dog from the situation if there are no compatible playmates.
Readers, what are your best tips for keeping the peace at the dog park? What do you like or dislike at your local park? I'd love to learn more about your experiences if you'd like to leave a comment!
About the Author: Casey Lomonaco graduated with distinction from the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior, and is a member of the following professional organizations: APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), CGC evaluator - AKC (American Kennel Club), TDF (Truly Dog Friendly), and the No-Shock Collar Coalition.