Dog parks: friend or foe?

Off-leash dog parks can be a great place for you to take your dog to run around and expend some energy in a yard that is more than likely much larger than your own. The concept is great, and as long as the park is filled with like-minded dog owners you have a day guaranteed to be fun. However, the phrase “one bad apple spoils the bunch” can be all too true when it comes to dog parks, but with a few park etiquette guidelines everyone can have a good time.

Dog Park Pros

Dog parks can be an excellent place for dog socialization. Some cities even have a separate small-dog area. The physical exercise advantages are obvious, and the “dog education” that dogs get by learning from each other by observing and reading cues they just can’t learn in any training class from a human. When well trained dogs frequent the dog park, it is an opportunity for both dog and human to interact with others and “pass on” their knowledge. From a community standpoint, an off-leash dog park encourages citizens to not let their animals off-leash elsewhere.

Dog Park Cons

The most obvious is the danger of aggressive dogs. The secondary concern is the dog owner that is not knowledgable enough about his/her dog and doesn’t understand whether or not the dog park is appropriate for their pet (and it isn’t). Or equally damaging, the owner that isn’t knowledgable and doesn’t understand what behavior is appropriate in a dog park atmosphere. I find that this is the number one, most common, and potentially most dangerous situation. More about this later. There are community annoyances such as noise, dog waste, and potential liability issues. Dog illnesses can be higher as well if you frequent the park a lot. Intact dogs can be an issue, particularly if there are a large number in the park.

Dog Park Etiquette

So to have a great time, regardless of who else is in the park, here’s how to be a good park-goer.

  • Rule #1: Recall

Make sure your dog has good recall. He needs to come when called. Unless you plan on going to the park when no one else is there, ever, there will be a lot of activity going on. This is sensory overload for a dog (and a human too). There is always a lot of activity at the entrance gate; you don’t want your dog rushing other dogs as they enter the park as this can be a source of fights. You wouldn’t want to be rushed as you are trying to enter, would you? Recall also applies to any situation in the park. If a scuffle breaks out, often dogs will run and join in. You want to make sure that your dog recalls to you and not joins in to the scuffle. If recall is a serious problem you can still enjoy the park by keeping your dog on a very long lead (a training lead).

    • Rule #2: Resource Guarding/Bullying

Is your dog a bully? Does she run up to other dogs that are playing and over- enthusiastically introduce herself whether or not the group wants to play with her…and keep on antagonizing? Dog park bullies are a problem. And they can start fights. This is what I was referring to earlier about owners that don’t know what is appropriate behavior. Dog parks are big, and it is perfectly acceptable to play with your dog in an secluded area by yourself and expect not to be bothered. It is not appropriate to let your dog run wild all over the park, run up to people, other dogs, bum rush every group in the park while you casually take a seat at the picnic table and yell out “it’s ok she’s friendly…”. She is not friendly. She is over stimulated and lacks impulse control and in that state of mind with no leadership from her owner she is at a minimum a nuisance and at most a danger to everyone else in the park. Read this great article about dog park bullies.

    • Rule #3: Engaging Your Dog

The park is a great place, but that doesn’t mean you walk in, let your dog loose and have a seat at the nearest picnic table. You need to keep an eye on your dog (seems obvious but, well…) and you need to engage your dog in activity. No dog is perfect. Reggie is super friendly, to dogs and people. But he has serious resource guarding problems with tennis balls. No other toys but tennis balls. I would just avoid taking Reggie and tennis balls into a situation such as a dog park, but if it happened to occur I would keep to a corner by ourselves to play catch. If another dog ran over to us I would need to have treats or another toy on hand to distract Reggie to get his attention for recall, to pay attention and come back to me and not the other dog before a problem started. You need to have this kind of vigilance with your dog in the park. You need to know your dog’s body language, triggers, bad habits, and flaws well enough to know a problem before it starts.

Being a responsible, dedicated dog owner means involving your dog in activity and being responsive to their cues. An easy way to remember is to equate the behavior with your kids. If you wouldn’t allow your kids to behave that way, or you wouldn’t behave that way relative to your kids then it’s not appropriate for your dog either. Print out this poster from Dr. Sophia Yin as a reminder of the “rules”. Happy playing!

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