I have mixed feelings about dog parks.
On the one hand, they’re often the only place people in the city have to let their dogs really run.
But on the other hand, they can be cesspits of disease (giardia, anyone?), dog maulings waiting to happen, and insane asylums for crazy dogs and their owners.
I don’t take my dogs to dog parks, and for the most part, I don’t recommend them to others. That said, I completely understand why people use them—and that’s why I wanted to write this post. There are tons of “doggy etiquette at the dog park” guides out there, and there’s some good advice. But the big point to it all is that you cannot control other people and other dogs, but you CAN control yourself and your own dog. I’m not including the points I think are obvious, like making sure your dog is up to date on shots, and having a good recall. Those are a given. So without further ado, here are my top eight:
- Never go in hot. It’s understandable why dogs get super excited going to the dog park. It’s an opportunity to run around and play, it’s a way to release pent up energy. But a dog that goes into the dog park hot is also a dog that is overexcited…and a dog that is overexcited is a dog that is more likely to get into scuffles. So take your time going in. Walk around calmly before you go in—ideally on a heel. Only when you’re both feeling calm and relaxed should you go in. Because when you’re both calm, your dog is looking to YOU for guidance.
- Know when not to go in. Just because you’re at the dog park doesn’t mean you absolutely have to go in. And let’s be honest: sometimes, you shouldn’t. If there’s a dog your dog doesn’t like … don’t go in. If there’s a dog playing fetch with a ball, and your dog is ball possessive … don’t go in. If there’s a dog already in there that looks like a troublemaker … don’t go in. If you have a small fearful dog and there are a ton of rambunctious big dogs … don’t go in. Ultimately, it comes down to knowing what your dog is like—and how he is likely to interact with the dogs in there.
- Know when to leave. This is related to the above. Just because you’re at the dog park doesn’t mean you have to stay until Fido is all worn out. If your dog gets into a brouhaha, it’s probably time to leave. If there’s a problem dog coming in the gate, same thing. Ditto if your dog is anxious, or just not having a good time. Personally, I also feel that it’s a good idea to leave when the dog park becomes too crowded—energy levels can ramp up really fast when there are too many dogs in a confined space.
- Remember, it’s about the DOGS. I have to admit, people not watching their dogs is one of my peeves: dog parks would be far safer places if dog owners paid as much attention to dogs’ “conversations” as they did to their own. It’s not just about preventing fights, either (though that’s obviously important). It’s also about really getting to know your dog. How else can you know if he’s feeling anxious and you should leave? How else are you going to identify whether she’s bullying others, so you can then work on that in training? The more you work and observe your dog, the more you’ll be able to understand what dogs are really saying to each other.
- Do not take treats with you. Period. Food at the dog park is just a bad idea. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a scuffle that arises from someone pulling out the cookies, attracting multiple dogs, and then lo and behold, one of them is possessive around the food. Or worse, the cookie-pusher’s dog gets irritated that all these other dogs are thronging around its owner and gets snappish. Don’t do it.
- Don’t use the dog park to rehabilitate a dog. If you have a fearful or aggressive dog, turning her loose in a dog park isn’t the way to solve the issue. Yes, socialization is important. But so is safety. Instead, socialize the dog with selected other dogs while on leash, one on one.
- Keep an eye out when the professional dog walkers show up. No, I don’t have anything against professional dog walkers—after all, it’s a service we offer! What I do have a problem with, however, is dog walkers who pick up multiple dogs and then take them all for outings at the dog park. The reason is simple. Dogs are pack animals. When these dogs get to know each other, they often pack up. I’ve seen them pack up against other dogs at the dog park. Be safe, steer clear.
- Don’t make the dog park your only outing. This isn’t technically a dog park tip, but it’s worth saying that dog park runs should never be the only outing your dog ever gets. Sure, running around and socializing is great, but these are not substitutes for daily walks, and getting out in the real world and working on good heeling and obedience. I hear people say that they absolutely have to go to the dog park every day to tire out their dog, because “a tired dog is a good dog.” I completely disagree. Sometimes, life happens, and the daily doggy outing slides. That’s why I say that a trained dog is a good dog. Why? Because that’s the dog that has self-control, and the resilience to deal with it. (Besides, if you really want a tired dog, you can always work on your training. The mental stimulation is just as tiring!)