Most dogs are well-mannered and sociable making the interactions fun for the dogs and owners alike. Sometimes, though, situations can arise which ruin the fun so picking the right dog-park and following dog park “etiquette” keeps the dog park fun for everyone.
Pick a park which is away from traffic, well-fenced with a six-foot fence and which has double gates so people entering and leaving do not accidentally let a dog out. Double gates also help avoid having dogs congregate at the entrance and overwhelming a dog entering the area. The park should be spacious with a variety of features so dogs can play chase and hide games and escape the attention of one another if they want to.
Great dog park features include a water play area, obstacles to climb on or hide behind, and separate areas for small and larger dogs. I like separated areas so that chase games between a very small dog and a larger dog in pursuit are avoided. A concept known as “predatory drift” can occur when the pursuing dog is larger than the dog being pursued, and the dog being pursued acts more and more like prey (zigzagging while running and making high pitched noises) resulting in an attack by the pursuing dog.
There should be fresh drinking water available. The park surface should be comfortable and safe. Some parks have a variety of surfaces like grass, asphalt trails, wood chips, mulch and pea gravel and there are benefits and drawbacks to each type of surface. There should be plenty of shade.
There should be clear signage outlining the rules and relevant contact information posted at the park.
Dogs attending a dog park should be well trained and respond to their owner’s cues, well socialized and interact nicely with other dogs. The dog park is not the place to try to socialize an aggressive, fearful or socially uncomfortable dog! Those behaviors require specific behavior modification exercises for improvement.
Healthy and appropriate play between dogs is reciprocal. By “reciprocal” I mean that one dog offers to be chased and then the roles are reversed.
Appropriate play might also include “self-handicapping” where dogs play at the level of their play partner, taking the partner’s size and abilities into account. Dogs who do not follow the rules of play are often ostracized by dogs who are playing politely.
Dogs at the park should be observed for signs of stress (stress signals include licking their lips, yawning, turning the head away), attempts to leave the playgroup and/or efforts to avoid the attention of another dog. Stress signals attempts to leave and/or avoiding another dog or dogs are signs that indicate the dog needs a break from the dog park.
There should be no bullying (bullying is when one dog or a group of dogs is persistently pursuing another dog). If an owner isn’t sure whether there is some bullying going on, walk the suspected bully away from the other dog. If the second dog returns to or follows the dog being walked away, they are doing fine together.
Dog parks should be kept clean and should be equipped with waste bag dispensers and waste receptacles for owners to use. Many bacteria and parasites (E.Coli, salmonellosis, parvovirus, giardia, round and tapeworms) that affect either dogs or people are transmitted via dog feces so cleaning up helps everyone.
Have fun at the dog park but take steps to make sure it is enjoyable for dogs and people alike.