Dog parks are fun for dogs and people. You can bring your dog to these fenced areas to socialize, play off-leash fetch games, play with other dogs or whatever else you and your furry companion might enjoy doing. Dog parks are a great way to add some variety to your dog’s routine and help with their biological fulfillment, which results in a happier dog.
However, most of us have probably seen how one single, misbehaved, hyper-active or simply very dominant dog can change the entire atmosphere at a dog park in an instant. Whoever brought that dog in usually earns nasty looks from the other dog owners but more importantly, it turns what should be a fun time for people and their dogs into a stressful situation for everyone involved.
Let’s review a couple of simple tips on how you can do your part ensuring that dog parks are fun for everyone and remain as safe as possible for all people and dogs.
Before You Go
A key ingredient for a great dog park experience is the state of mind your dog is in before he even gets near any dog park. Take your dog on a nice, long walk or exercise him riding your bike, rollerblading, using a treadmill or whatever your routine might be. Get your furry friend tired before you reward him with free playtime.
Then once you are ready to head to the park for some fun playtime, be sure you’ve installed your 4Knines car seat cover before loading fido up (it takes less than a minute!). 4Knines rear car seat covers protect your seats from fur, mud, nails… and anything else your dog might try to bring back from the dog park!
Before You Go In
Ideally, you should be walking through the gates of the dog park in front of your dog and he should be behind you. Ideally, have your doggy sit outside the gate (on leash of course) and wait for you to ask him to enter while you walk in first and then call him in. Have him sit down again and wait while you remove the leash and only then release him to begin his play time.
If you walk into the park first, your dog looks at the dog park more as an area that you control versus him running the show. It will result in a better-behaved doggy and a better dog park experience. If there are two gates to pass through (there usually are) make sure you pass through each of them first in this manner, not just one of them.
This might not be that easy to accomplish the first time you try this, especially when there are many excited dogs inside the park curiously checking out the newcomer. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while in the beginning to enter the park in an orderly fashion; just be patient. Wait for your dog to calm down before you move on. It is good practice to make your dog wait like that going in to or out from any area, room or door no matter where you are. You can practice this pretty much anywhere and it really makes a big difference in how your dog looks at you.
While You Are There
Always keep an eye on your dog. You are still responsible for what your dog does, even if you are in an off-leash dog park. Check if he is behaving properly and step in if he isn’t. If he is showing dominant behaviors (i.e. tail above medium, head over other dogs, mounting, etc.) step in and communicate your disagreement with the behavior to your dog within a second of the behavior, otherwise your dog won’t understand what he did wrong. The other dog owners will be grateful to see you keeping an eye on your dog.
This of course also goes the other way. If you see another dog misbehaving and an owner not doing anything about it, don’t judge. He or she might not know that their dog is doing something that can lead to trouble. Strike up a friendly conversation and offer some tips to keep everyone safe. Most dog owners are usually very open to listening and learning more; just be nice about it.
Dog parks are a great environment to watch your dog being a dog amongst his own species. It is so educational and fun to just watch them play. Leave that cell phone in the pocket, chat with some fellow other dog owners and always keep an eye on buster.
Most dog parks usually have water fountains of some sort. Make sure your doggy gets enough water while you are there. If he runs around a lot, he needs to drink a lot as well. If you are unsure about the water supply situation, make sure to have enough water in the car so you can get it if necessary. Of course, you shouldn’t leave your dog unsupervised to do that. If you’re by yourself, you might have to take your buddy with you to make that trip. It is also a good idea to invest in a foldable water bowl you can stuff in a pants pocket and carry with you. Even if there is a water fountain, it can still be out of commission at times.
And of course, adhere to all dog park rules. They are posted outside the park and are designed to keep everyone safe; more on that below.
Leaving the dog park should also take place in the same orderly fashion outlined above for entering. Call your dog to you instead of running after him trying to catch him. If he doesn’t come when called it might be good to train him to do so; it makes things a lot easier. Have him sit down, put the leash on and walk out, ahead of your dog, the same way you came in. Again, take your time. It is more important for your dog to learn to do it right than to do it fast. If there are two gates to pass through make sure you pass through each of them first in this manner, not just one of them.
Dog Park Rules
The dog park “rules of conduct” are usually posted outside the park and it is a good idea to read them the first time you go there as not following them can lead to being asked to leave. These rules are designed to keep everyone safe and ensure the dog park remains a peaceful, fun place for all. There are many incidences of dog fights in dog parks each year and all of them are usually a result of either not following the posted rules or not keeping an eye on and correcting your dog as he engages with the other dogs.
Many of these rules circle around dog registration, dog tags, spaying and neutering, vaccinations, flea and tick prevention and age restrictions; all very reasonable things that make a lot of sense when dogs get together. Let’s first look at some important rules you will encounter and then at some more questionable ones (you will still need to follow those as well if you choose a park that has them posted but it is always good to know what is important and what not so much). If you have a perfectly behaved, well-balanced dog with no issues of any kind many of these rules can seem over-protective, but keep in mind, most dogs are not perfectly behaved, and these rules are designed for the average visitor.
Keeping Large and Small Dogs Separate
Most dog parks have separate areas for smaller and larger dogs. Make sure you go to the right area. If you have a puppy, the small dog park might be more appropriate to get started while the puppy is little even if you have a large breed dog that eventually should go to the large dog area.
Keeping large and small dogs separate is important for several reasons. Larger dogs, especially working, herding and hunting breeds tend to have a stronger prey drive and might look at small, furry things that move and make noise as, well, prey. If your dog takes an interest in chasing cats, squirrels or rabbits and you haven’t been able yet to explain to him that such behavior is not desired, he will probably not care much for small dogs either, especially if they behave in a dominating or challenging way.
Also, keep in mind that at any dog park fights do happen regularly. If the dogs involved are of comparable size, any damage will probably be less severe than if that were to happen between larger and smaller dogs. Especially owners of larger dogs will often get blamed by the owners of smaller dogs in such cases, even if the smaller dog started the fight. The fact that he has little chance of winning a confrontation against a ten times larger dog doesn’t stop him. To dogs, size doesn’t matter as much as each other’s energy.
Limit the Number of Dogs per Owner
Most dog parks limit the number of dogs anyone can bring into a dog park at the same time to 2 or 3. That is a good rule as it is pretty hard to keep an eye on 2 dogs already and what would you do, should both of your dogs get into trouble at the same time at different ends of the park. I personally recommend only bringing one dog per person; it’s the smart thing to do. No matter how well your dogs are behaved, there are always other dogs you must also consider. If you have more than one dog, consider bringing some friends.
As good as it is, to being able to keep an eye on all dogs you bring, this is usually not the reason dog parks have this rule. The reason this rule was established was to prevent dog walkers from just taking all the dogs they pick up to some dog park, instead of walking them. It is a valid point, as it directly links back to the above.
Dogs Can’t be On Leash Inside the Dog Park
This is a rule at some dog parks and the given reasoning for it is usually that dogs being on leash when surrounded by other dogs supposedly become more aggressive. This is a highly questionable claim that is not supported by any facts. It is most likely based on some people’s incorrect interpretations of why dogs are pulling on leashes when meeting other dogs. The leash pulling has more to do a lack of clarity about the environment than anything else and establishing this as a dog park rule seems ill-informed at best.
However, this rule does not exist at many dog parks and walking a dog around on leash inside a dog park, where other dogs approach, is a highly effective way of socializing a dog more safely. Also, when you take your dog to the park for the first time, a leash allows you to introduce him to other dogs while maintaining full control. For this reason, this rule seems counterproductive for a dog park and given a lack of evidence to its benefits, somewhat strange. I recommend you look for dog parks that don’t have this rule if you want to leash your dog in the park for whatever reason; there are plenty dog parks where you can.
No Treats in the Dog Park
Something equally strange are restrictions on bringing any food into a dog park. I heard this being reasoned as “dogs will follow you around and not play with other dogs.” This, however, is hardly supported by what dogs do in a dog park when treats are present. They might sniff the treats out and try to get one, but if they don’t succeed, they will just move on and do something else – remember, dogs can only focus on one thing at a time and are easily distracted. There is really no reason for such a restriction, but it does exist at more and more dog parks. It also hinders performing any kind of treat-based training activities, like teaching your dog to come when called inside a dog park, which is really a nice place to train for that with distractions once your dog learned to do it without distractions.
That’s it. These are the basic rules dog park safety and making the experience a positive one for all participants. I hope you find these tips useful and if you need help with getting your dog ready for socialization, you know how to find me.
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine certifications, author of the dog behavioral book: "If Your Dog Could Talk" and owner of the dog training company Happy Dog Training. Ralf works with clients in Southern California and can be contacted through his website at HappyDogTraining.info.