Dog Parks (love ‘em or don’t)
True, dog parks can be a place for dogs to play, burn off energy and build and maintain social skills. They can also be a place where non-constructive habits are born and get reinforced, or worse, a traumatic event occurs.
Being knowledgeable, responsible and observant, you can increase the likelihood that you, your dog, and those around you have a safe, fun and constructive experience.
Most veterinarians recommend that puppies be at least 16 weeks of age before they are exposed to a multiple-dog environment (consisting of unknown dogs). This would apply to any park or neighborhood, not just a dog park. The immune system of most puppies prior to 16 weeks of age simply isn’t mature enough to readily fight off common viruses and bacteria found in places where dogs congregate.
Puppies (greater than 16 weeks of age) may be overwhelmed psychologically by a dog park experience, especially the first exposure, and should therefore be introduced gradually over a period of weeks or longer—much safer to begin with puppy classes and known-dog gatherings.
Look for a park offering separately contained areas where smaller, younger dogs can be thoughtfully paired rather than a park where your puppy will be exposed to every dog in the park.
Puppies and juvenile dogs, early in their social development, typically approach other adult dogs with too much exuberance (fooling around or jumping onto another dog, making direct face-to-face contact and other shenanigans); adult dogs often take offense and may treat puppy with disinterest or take it upon themselves to put puppy in his/her place—sometimes subtly, sometimes harshly. You may be thinking, well, I’d like another dog to put my pushy puppy in his place—although much wiser to choose a known, well-socialized dog to do it rather than risking a traumatic, likely lifelong memorable event with an unknown dog.
Size and Predatory Drift
Small dogs are at a disadvantage when combined with dogs that are considerably larger and they make up the highest percentage of dogs that have been injured or killed at dog parks. You must watch not only for dogs that might have aggression issues, but for those that may have predatory habits—dogs that have enjoyed pursuing squirrels, rabbits and cats are more likely to take equal interest in a small dog running through the park. Keep an eye on your small dog and observe other dogs’ behavior when your dog is nearby.
A dog park that is not well maintained or where people fail to clean up after their dogs can present health and safety hazards. Consider the benefits of taking your dog to a safer, cleaner environment. Contact local government to inform them of the problem and look into alternative parks, elsewhere.
A healthy immune level is essential to maintaining your dog’s good health, particularly when exposing your dog to any multiple-dog environment. Keeping your dog’s vaccinations up to date or monitoring your dog’s immunity levels with titer tests will help guard your dog from common viruses and bacteria. Regardless of how infrequently your dog may need vaccination, maintaining regular well-checks with your veterinarian is always a wise choice to head off potential problems in the early stages. Ask your veterinarian about the Bordetella vaccination which can help protect dogs against some strains of canine infectious bronchitis (similar to the human cold; in dogs often referred to as “kennel cough”). It is inadvisable to take a sick dog to a dog park for obvious reasons. It is also inadvisable to take dogs that are in physical or emotional discomfort as they will be more susceptible to temperamental behavior toward other dogs.
Avoid community drinking troughs or bowls; bring your own!
Neuter or Spay
Hormones of an intact dog may contribute to an increase in the dog’s capacity for protectiveness, possessiveness and aggression. These are not traits that are conducive to peaceful mingling in dog parks. Many dog parks have rules that prohibit intact dogs but dog owners don’t always follow those rules. Dogs altered later in life are more likely to retain some tendency to exhibit established behaviors that could create problems in a multi-dog environment. While some intact dogs get along well in most circumstances with other dogs, this should be taken as the exception rather than the rule.
Many people think a dog park is the right place to start socializing dogs and some have actually been successful, but dogs should be well socialized before they have their first dog park experience.
Your role in your puppy’s socialization begins the day you bring puppy home. The most critical window for socialization actually occurs from birth to age 16 weeks, but continues at a lesser degree between ages 4 to 6 months. During this window, one exposure a week is generally not enough to establish a pattern of good socialization skills whereas four times a week or more is increasingly likely to garner desirable results. While it is unsafe to take an 8 to 16 week old puppy into a multiple dog environment of unknown dogs, you are encouraged to pursue a relationship in a private environment with a healthy and well-socialized adult dog. An adult dog can do a much better job of teaching your puppy social etiquette than another puppy or juvenile dog can.
People who have more than one dog in their household may think their dogs are well socialized because they get along well with each other, but it is crucial for dogs to socialize outside of the pack.
A good relationship is one where the adult dog will play with, but not bully, the puppy. The adult dog is well-socialized and can teach puppy the fine art of dog-dog communication such as subtle calming signals (a head turn, a sit… these signal to the other dog or puppy, “calm down please”). The adult dog may also discipline the puppy when the puppy pushes too far. Acceptable forms of discipline may include a growl, a snap or pinning the puppy on the ground without doing injury. If puppy persists in being a pest in spite of these warnings, an adult dog would be justified to exhibit a harsher response, but should never maintain a prolonged attack, attempt to seriously harm or even pursue the puppy, and it should be preceded by less harsh attempts to calm the puppy.
Teach your dog to wait quietly in the vehicle while you put her leash on. It may take several minutes for your dog to relax—be patient. Your dog should wait for your release cue to exit the vehicle. An excited dog allowed to bolt from the vehicle is likely to bolt from any door any time she gets excited; and therefore, at risk of getting lost and/or injured.
Your dog should be able to walk politely on a loose lead before taking him/her into the dog park. A dog that pulls you to the gate is a dog that is being rewarded for pulling. Stop, deny forward access until the leash is loosened, and/or turn around every time your dog starts to pull. It may take several minutes to get to the gate, but your persistence will pay off in the long run.
And, your dog should have a history of demonstrating a reliable recall, coming when called, so that you can call him away from potentially hazardous situations before he gets into trouble. Ideally, he should also be able to reliably sit, heel, down and stay. These controls can help your dog feel more secure and therefore less likely to react when trouble arises. It’s a good idea to train your dog to do all of the basic commands reliably around distractions. Teaching your dog tricks can help increase his responsiveness, too. A good dog training class can provide you with the knowledge and tools that your dog will need for life and offers a constructive atmosphere in which to teach a dog to listen around distractions. It is frustrating, and sometimes hazardous, chasing a dog around the dog park that doesn’t listen when there’s a crisis or when it’s time to leave.
If you’re taking more than one dog to the park, it’s helpful to have one able and knowledgeable person for each of the dogs. Check the equipment; secure fitting collars and/or harness(es) with ID and sturdy (no compromising tears or frays) 6-foot leads. Note that your dog should NOT be on leash once inside of the contained dog park play area where other dogs are off leash. There are valid arguments both for and against leaving collars on dogs while they are in dog parks. Dogs have been known to get their teeth caught in the collar of another dog, unable to free themselves. On the other hand, owners have had difficulty regaining control of their dogs when they didn’t have a collar to grasp onto. (Personally, I prefer my dog wear his collar.)
Bring along bags for picking up and disposal of stools. If you bring treats for training, be cautious of creating competition between dogs in the park; some dogs get overly-competitive in the presence of food, quickly changing the behavior dynamic between dogs. The easiest water solution is the portable dog water bottle; much more sanitary than a community bowl. Secure your phone so it can’t be knocked off of you. A cross-body walking bag can be handy in that it allows you to securely keep items in one place and go hands free. As always, maintain a first aid kit in your vehicle, for dogs and humans.
Better to escort your dog from the car to the dog park on a loose lead, don’t just open the car door and let your dog take off. Dogs frequently get very excited when they recognize where they are going. If your dog is red-zoning (over-stimulated), don’t release him from the lead. Walk him around first to burn off some of that initial energy and enthusiasm. The highest percentages of conflicts arise immediately upon entry into the play area. If the dog park is fenced, let your dog familiarize himself with the other dogs from outside the fence, first. If you see any aggressive responses from the dogs inside the play area, come back later when there’s a different mix of dogs. If your dog responds to other dogs aggressively, then it’s time to go back to work on socialization and skip the dog park. If your dog remains calm, walk him into the area on lead using loose lead training until he calms down again. Try to enter the play area when there isn’t a pack of dogs waiting to greet your dog at the gate.
Watch all of the dogs in your area. Be on the lookout for body language that may be a precursor to more serious trouble. Look for fixed stares, stiff posture, a strut, an elevated head position, hackles raised or an upright “mechanical” tail wag. These signs may be precipitating a problem. Catching, redirecting or preventing a potential problem is much easier than addressing one that is already in progress. Try some sort of a “happy” distraction to see if you can break the cycle, no matter whose dog it is. If you suspect a problem may be brewing, call your dog away from it.
In spite of everyone’s best efforts, a scrap or a full blown fight may break out and sometimes it can involve a number of dogs. People running toward the fight screaming will only intensify the conflict. Approaches should be made calmly and every effort should be made to control the instigators, first, as the other dog(s) may break away if the main instigator is controlled. Attempting to grasp a dog in a melee of gnashing teeth is inviting a nasty bite for yourself. Try creating a sudden loud distraction and then quickly redirect the dog’s attention; but sometimes no distraction is distracting enough. A can of “Direct Stop” (a citronella spray) may provide enough distraction and deterrent to stop the dogs from fighting, at least long enough to get them apart. If water is nearby, you could try hosing (spraying) or throwing water on them. If you have access to a flat panel or chair you can use it as a barrier to separate between them. You could toss a blanket over them—but who has a blanket at the dog park—perhaps a large jacket? Anyway, these things offer to temporarily break their focus, perhaps giving you and/or the other handler enough time to remove the dog(s) from the situation. After an altercation, quickly and safely secure your dog away from any other dogs and look him over carefully for injuries and tend to them as needed. Make every attempt to gather information about the other party(ies) involved and exchange information; you may need to ask for assistance in gathering information while you attend to your dog.
Dog Park Etiquette & Safety Tips
Know your dog. Be realistic about your dog’s ability to reliably respond to commands and politely socialize
Supervise your dog at all times
Adhere to your community’s dog leash and licensing laws
Bring only a healthy, pain-free dog (consider any recent medical or prescription introductions/changes)
Follow posted park rules
Clean up after your dog.
Familiarize yourself with dog stress signals (canine language) so you can better advocate for your dog and help thwart problems before they occur
If someone else’s dog is creating a problem, politely ask them (or wait for them) to remove their dog. If they don’t cooperate, remove your dog. If your dog is the problem, accept responsibility and take your dog out of the area immediately.
Observe, be on the lookout for potential problems, before introducing your dog to the park; such as, at the entrance gate area. If you see a problem, strongly consider coming back another time.
Never bring a female dog that’s in season (estrous).
Respect other handler’s and dog’s spaces.
Avoid letting your dog bully or rough-house with someone else’s dog.
If your dog appears to be afraid and overwhelmed, remove them from the park and continue constructive socialization work outside of the park
Whatever damage your dog does to property, people or another dog is your responsibility.
Watch out for ponds where there may be fishing hooks and lines around the shores or in the water. Pay attention to posted warnings.
It is much safer for children to remain outside of the fenced areas at dog parks. Children can get caught in the middle of a dog scrap or easily knocked down by over-exuberant large dogs. Some dogs that are taken to dog parks are not well socialized with children and can act aggressively towards them.
Avoid feeding your dog treats when other dogs are nearby as food can trigger aggressive behavior and some dogs may be on strict diets or have other health issues. Toys can create unwanted behaviors, too!
Don’t throw sticks or rocks to retrieve as dogs can swallow them, get splinters or get these objects lodged in their throats.
In a dog park, you are interacting with the general public where ideology about dog behavior and skillsets cover the entire spectrum from: the wild thing “my dog is free to do what she pleases and I don’t give a rip what you think about it” to never been socialized and zero control, to the expertly trained obedience dog. Share these tips with other dog owners and help them become responsible dog-parkers, too. Working together, we can help make dog parks a fun, safer and constructive environment.