A couple of things in my life have me thinking about dog parks a lot lately. One is that I’m dog walking again, and some of my clients love running off leash but don’t have a rock solid recall. One is that I’m on my town’s committee to design a new dog park (more on that in a later post, I’m sure). And one is that recently I was visiting family, who had just gotten a new puppy, and they told me their trainer (who is lovely – I recommended them to her) told them not to go to dog parks with their pup. This is actually relatively common advice in training circles – avoid dog parks. Too many unsupervised dogs, too much chaos. And that isn’t wrong…but I’m going to go against the grain here. I love dog parks. I use them. I think my clients should too.
They can be chaos. There can be unsupervised, badly behaved, or even aggressive dogs. There can be neglectful owners. There can be accidents.
How do we reconcile this with my love and support of dog parks?
By being responsible dog owners, and behaving with good dog park etiquette, and by encouraging and educating other owners to do the same.
Here are my basic guidelines for good dog park manners:
1. Pick up your dog’s poop. Heck, if someone else didn’t, pick up some extra while you’re at it.
2. If you bring a toy for your dog, understand that other dog’s may steal it. Be ready to share, or don’t bring a toy.
3. Engage with your dog. This is a biggy. I cannot emphasize it enough. If your dog is running around and you are sitting on the bench with a coffee in one hand and your cell phone in the other, you are doing dog parks wrong. If your dog is wandering around bored and unsupervised, they are far, far more likely to get into trouble. Trouble may mean wandering off, it may mean eating something dangerous, it may mean getting into fights, it may mean jumping on other dog owners… whatever “trouble” looks like for your dog, the odds increase exponentially of your dog getting into it if you’re ignoring them. Walk in circles with them, throw a stick or toy, practice tricks, have some fun! This is time for you and your dog to bond.
4. Be realistic about what kind of dog you have. Another biggy. Not all dogs are dog park dogs – and that’s okay! If your dog doesn’t like other dogs, is aggressive, is anxious, or just ambivalent, it’s fine! They don’t have to go to the dog park! I promise. So many people have this as a big goal, especially with new rescues who are reactive or anxious; “I just want her to have dog friends!” She may not WANT dog friends. Take your dog to the park because they enjoy it, and others enjoy having them around.
5. Teach your dog manners (but be patient). Teach your dog not to jump on people at the park or bully other dogs…but be patient when someone’s dog inevitably jumps on you. It’ll happen; they’ll feel bad. But it’s the dog park. Don’t wear your nice coat. (And apologize if your dog is that dog!)
6. Scope it out and (7.) know when to leave. Before you go into the park, look around – are there ill behaved dogs in there? Is there a dog you know yours doesn’t get along with? Are there people playing with toys and you know your dog is a resource guarder with toys? Keep right on walking and come back at a better time. Same applies to knowing when to leave. You cannot force other dog owners to be polite or considerate, so if that owner comes in with that badly behaved dog and pulls out their cell phone, just leave. It isn’t worth it.
8. Be mindful if your dog isn’t fixed. I hesitate to say you shouldn’t bring unfixed dogs to the park (although I do teeter on the edge of that sometimes), but if you have a dog who isn’t spayed or neutered, be careful. You don’t want your dog setting all the others off, and you also don’t want unexpected puppies – there are too many in the world already. So this ties into the previous rule; if a dog comes in who isn’t okay with your unneutered male or female in heat, just leave. Try again later!
9. A dog park doesn’t always equal good socialization. Socialization – for puppies or adult dogs – is a whole other topic, but in brief, remember that socialization has to happen at a level that your dog is comfortable at. So if you bring an aggressive dog into the dog park to socialize them and they have a meltdown and bite another dog, THAT ISN’T SOCIALIZATION. If you bring a timid 8 week old puppy into the park and they spend the whole time hiding behind you and shaking, THAT ISN’T SOCIALIZATION.
10. If you bring treats with you to the dog park, be careful to keep them hidden away except when feeding your dog. Some dogs guard food, some lack the impulse control to not jump on you, some have allergies… be sneaky when treating your dog, and if you want to treat someone else’s dog ask first – before you pull the treats out.
11. If the worst happens and your dog hurts someone else or their dog, be responsible. Exchange info, follow up, help cover vet bills if needed.
I’m sure I’ve missed some – got any to add? Sound off in the comments below!