Is your local dog park a great place to take your dog for exercise and socialization, or is it a place where your dog could be traumatized or get injured? The answer could be – both. Dog parks can be a great place to take your dog, provided they are well constructed, well maintained and well monitored. Proper etiquette (for both humans and dogs) and common sense is important in determining whether or not your local dog park is a safe and enjoyable place for both dogs and people.
1. Prior to taking your dog to a dog park, it’s a good idea to visit the park first, without your dog. Become familiar with the layout, park rules, park setup, cleanliness, and the behavior of the dogs and people at the park. It’s a good idea to observe on the day(s) time(s) you would want to take your dog to the park, but the first couple of times you do take your dog to the park, try to do so when there are fewer dogs so that it will be less stressful for your dog.
2. Small dogs should not be in the same area with large dogs. A safe environment for your small dog is to have a separate area designated only for small dogs. Small dogs might look like prey to a large dog. Even if the large dog is appropriate toward small dogs, he may inadvertently injure the small dog just by putting his paw on the little dog, or when he is running and jumping.
3. Ideally, every dog park should have at least two entrances into the play area(s). This will help reduce the ambush that happens when a new dog enters the park. If there are two or three entrances, this will drastically reduce potential problems.
DOGS AT THE PARK
1. There are many dogs that are not good candidates for dog park play. Many dogs don’t actually like meeting dogs they do not know. This is more likely to be true for more mature dogs (older than two years of age), those that have had limited interaction with unknown dogs, or may have genetic/breed tendencies that influences behavior toward dogs. A dog park is not an appropriate place for dogs that have serious behavior problems toward dogs or humans. Dogs that have these kinds of issues should not be taken to dog parks.
2. Please do not bring females in heat or intact males to the dog park. Unaltered males are much more likely to be aggressive, particularly if they are adolescents (between eight and18 months of age).
3. Dog park dogs should be friendly and outgoing without being overbearing, obnoxious or bullies toward other dogs. Your dog should be fairly confident and sociable toward other dogs. Reactive, fearful or aggressive dogs are not appropriate for dog parks.
4. Your dog should be responsive to some of the basic commands, such as sit, come and leave it (or other verbal/sound interruptive) so that you can gain control of him if needed or to prevent him from harassing others while in the park.
5. Incessant barking or barking with a serious or aggressive intent should be curtailed.
6. Any dog visiting the park should be healthy. Dogs should be current on vaccines and parasite free, without any infections or other communicable illnesses or diseases. Puppies under 4 months of age should NOT be brought to a dog park as they are not fully vaccinated. Dogs visiting the dog park should also be structurally sound. If a dog has hip dysplasia, arthritis or other structural problems, this is usually painful and is a high risk factor for causing aggressive behavior when a dog is hurt or stressed by the anticipation of being hurt.
HUMANS AT THE PARK
1. Read the posted dog park rules and follow them. Even if you don’t agree with them, they are there to keep both dogs and people safe and to create a positive atmosphere within the dog park.
2. Small children are best left at home (under age nine). Dogs that are playing roughly and running around will accidentally run into people. Large dogs can sometimes knock down a full grown man! If these dogs run into a child, the result could be serious. There are always some dogs at the dog park that have not been socialized to children. Some dogs have a strong predatory drive, which may be set off by a small child running around and making noises.
3. It is very important to keep an eye on your dog at all times. If you are doing this, you can prevent problems or situations that might otherwise occur if you are not paying attention to what your dog is doing. Be prepared to interrupt – whether your dog is the perpetrator or the victim.
4. Be especially careful when entering the park, as this is a highly charged area. Dogs will crowd around, which can feel very overwhelming to the newcomer. If your dog is already in the park, do everything you can to move your dog away from the gate to avoid overcrowding the newcomer. Be sure to gently and slowly move your dog away from the gate. Always take the leash off your dog when in the park.
5. Remove your dog’s leash prior to entering the park. When dogs are leashed entering the park it may cause stress and could lead to aggression. Also, carry your dog’s leash with you at all times in case it is quickly needed.
6. Avoid pushing dogs into each other while moving them. If a dog is put into another dog’s personal space without invitation, this could cause problems.
7. The potential for dog fights increase if the group of dogs crowd around people or into a tighter space. It is important to avoid doing anything that will cause the dogs to gather closely to one another.
8. All food should be prohibited in the dog park area. This includes food people are eating or dog treats/food of any kind. Food, along with other valuable items (such as pig ears, rawhide and toys), increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior in the group. Much of the time there isn’t a problem when a dog is going after his/her own ball or Frisbee. However, if other dogs do intervene, it is best to either stop playing this game with your dog, or to take your dog to an area designated for individual dogs.
9. If your dog is not having a good time (i.e., cowering, strongly avoiding other dogs, etc.) or is the cause of others not having a good time (i.e., bullying, obnoxious, excessive mounting or barking, etc.) it would be best to remove your dog from the dog park. Some dogs prefer a small circle of friends and don’t care for crowds of unknown dogs. Many dogs enjoy playing at the park when they are young, but less so as they mature. You can try again another day to see if things go differently. Sometimes it’s just the group of dogs that are present that can influence how your dog behaves at the park.
10. Dog parks are NOT the place to work on your dog’s behavior issues or problems.
11. If someone complains about your dog’s behavior, be willing to consider his perspective before becoming defensive or not listening to what the person is saying. Apologize if your dog has been inappropriate, and leave the park if your dog is being too rough.
12. Please do not let your dog wear choke, prong or shock collars as these can have adverse side effects when used during play with other dogs. All extra gear (harnesses, collars other than plain buckle collars) should be removed before entering the park.
13. If a human or his dog is behaving inappropriately, assume they don’t know any better and do your best to educate him/her gently and politely. The positive approach generally works better with humans as well as for dogs! If the actions of other people or dogs puts you or your dog at risk, and the other dog owner isn’t receptive to education, take your dog and leave the park.
If you and your dog follow dog park etiquette and enjoy the dog park experience, you have found something great for both of you to enjoy!
For further information or answers to specific questions, contact the Sacramento SPCA Behavior Helpline at (916) 504-2848 or visit our Pet Behavior page.