By Dr. Becker
Taking your canine companion to an off-leash dog park can be a great way to let him blow off steam, burn up excess energy, and socialize with other dogs and people.
Unfortunately, one irresponsible pet owner can ruin an afternoon of fun for everyone else in the park -- and it happens more often than you might think.
The following do's and don'ts for using the neighborhood dog park can go a long way toward making the experience enjoyable for you and your favorite furry friend.
15 Dog Park Etiquette and Safety Tips
- Dog owners should realize dog parks aren't appropriate for everyone.
If your pet is fearful of other dogs, aggressive, or if you have little or no control over him, taking him to a dog park is asking for trouble.
In order for the dog park to be a good experience for your pet and for you, your dog should enjoy interacting with others in a friendly way.
If he doesn't go near other dogs due to fear, or if he approaches most unfamiliar dogs aggressively, this behavior should be addressed before you attempt a visit to a dog park.
- If you've never taken your dog around other dogs (for example, if you've just adopted an older pet), I recommend before you try your luck at the dog park you first introduce her to a few dogs belonging to friends or family members to see how she interacts with them.
Some training facilities also offer adult 'meet and greet' gatherings.
This will give you an idea of what to expect in situations where she's meeting unfamiliar dogs. It will also let you know if your dog is a candidate for some behavior modification training.
- Before you actually enter the dog park, take a few minutes to observe how the dogs already there are behaving. If they are mostly milling around, or fetching balls, or playfully chasing after each other, it's probably a safe environment for your dog.
But if there's a lot of rough play (especially among large dogs) or intimidation going on, come back later in the day or some other time. There's often one dog at the park making life miserable for several others with bullying, aggressive behavior. Keep an eye out for that guy as well, and avoid subjecting your own pet to a potential 'incident.'
- If your dog is going to the park for the first time, or if it's a different park than he's used to, let him greet the other dogs gradually -- either through the fence while he's still in the entry area, or if possible, walk around the outside of the fenced area and let him sniff dogs who come to the fence to greet him.
- When you're ready to enter the main area, avoid opening the gate if there are a lot of dogs standing there waiting to greet your dog. This is often a tense situation for the incoming dog, and there's a good chance fur will fly.
If you're faced with a crowd of dogs at the gate, just wait with your dog on the other side until they either begin to disperse, or their owners catch on that your dog needs some space to get comfortably through the gate.
- If your dog is on the timid side and seems fearful of the other dogs at the park, or if she seems to be a target for more assertive dogs, don't assume she'll get over it or 'toughen up' with repeated or prolonged exposure. What will likely happen instead is she'll grow more fearful with each encounter. If the dog park bully won't leave your pet alone, and his owner isn't supervising him, remove your dog.
Again -- the dog park isn't the best place for every single dog. A timid or traumatized pet is often better off having play dates with one or two familiar, friendly dogs.
- Conversely, if your dog is being threatening or aggressive -- even if he just seems overly excited -- remove him from the park and try another visit on another day. Don't assume your dog -- no matter how docile he has always seemed -- would never attack another dog or human. It happens. Know your dog. Know his moods. And know you can't with complete certainty predict his behavior 100 percent of the time.
Don't put others at risk. The safety of other dogs and people is just as important as your own safety and the safety of your pet.
- If the dog park you frequent doesn't have a separate area for small dogs, be extremely careful of big dogs around little ones. If your dog is large, do not allow her to frighten or intimidate smaller dogs.
If your dog is small, I recommend finding a dog park with a separate small dog area. Aggressive dogs come in all sizes, but your little guy has a much better chance of surviving an act of aggression by a dog his own size.
- Supervise your dog at all times. Many people at dog parks seem to think the goal is to entertain themselves. They're chatting with other dog owners, or using their cell phone, or buried in a book or e-reader, while their dog is running amok through the park, stealing toys, humping legs, terrorizing man and beast, and pooping with abandon.
Ideally you're engaging with your dog at the park in some fashion. Short of that, you should monitor her activities to be sure she's not misbehaving or being annoying. If your dog is stealing another dog's tennis ball every time the owner throws it, it's your job to prevent your dog from interrupting the game.
- I don't recommend bringing dog treats to the park. I like to reserve treats mostly for training, and the dog park isn't usually conducive to training. Also, most dogs need only walk by you to realize you're packing treats, so unless you're prepared to provide an afternoon snack for every dog there -- and referee any food fights that may erupt -- you're better off just leaving the treats at home.
- Pick up after your dog. Her poop isn't magically absorbed into the soil a moment after she deposits it, and pretending you didn't see her squat isn't fooling anyone. Grab one of those free poop bags when you enter the park so you'll have it on hand when your dog does her thing -- or bring your own if the park doesn't supply them. Pick up the poop and dispose of it in the proper container. You can bring along a little bottle of antibacterial spray or an antibacterial wet wipe to use after you've properly disposed of the poop bag.
Other dogs should not have to run through your dog's excrement. Other dog owners should not have to risk stepping in your dog's excrement. Your dog's poop, like your dog, is your responsibility.
- Study dog body postures, the ways they communicate, and their social behavior. Learn to recognize when a dog is stressed, tense, frightened, playful, threatening, aggressive. Learn to distinguish between rowdy play and threatening behavior. One of my favorite books is Canine Body Language by Brenda Aloff1.
- Also research the best way to break up a dog fight. The automatic response of many people is to scream, yell, pull at the dog's collar, or put themselves physically between the dogs -- all of which can escalate the level of arousal in the dogs and increase the risk of serious injury.
- Bring your cell phone with the number of animal control programmed in. Call the police or animal control if you witness any aggression on the part of a dog or dog owner who won't leave the park. It's unfortunate, but serious injuries to both dogs and their owners are not uncommon at dog parks.
- If you arrive at your favorite dog park one day and it's locked up tight, know that it probably became a public health or safety hazard thanks to irresponsible dog owners. Most dog parks close due to unsanitary conditions or because an excessive number of injuries have occurred as a result of unsupervised dogs.