When we first got our two Australian Cattle Dogs, it was a learning experience. We'd owned dogs in the past but none with so much energy.
They were brother and sister and they had a tendency to form a defensive pack when walked together which made socialization difficult. Our first forays into the dog park were not what we expected - we made our fair share of faux pas that could have been avoided had we known what we know now.
We ultimately overcame these difficulties and have decided to outline what we've learned about dog park etiquette along the way. As we come across more useful tips we'll add them to this post.
It's important to remember that, as with any social setting, many of these points are situation-specific and ultimately discretion is left to the owner as to how to react. With that out of the way, let's get started!
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Thou shalt pick up after your dog! It's the #1 rule of dog parks. Not touching on owners who intentionally renounce this duty, sometimes we simply forget to bring poop bags with us - I know I've had this happen a couple of times myself.
If this occurs there's no need to beat yourself up about it - don't be afraid to ask for some from a nearby owner - people love playing the role of the hero! Failing that, some parks have free waste bag dispensers. If neither of those are nearby then try and remember where the mess is and pick it up next time.
A dog with a yellow ribbon indicates that it needs some space. Such a ribbon does not necessarily mean the dog is aggressive. It could also mean that he is undergoing rehabilitation, is shy, may have health issues, or is being trained.
Always ask the owner if it's OK to approach first. These ribbons are usually affixed to the leash or collar but may be also be attached to a piece of clothing the dog is wearing such as a winter jacket. Learn more by visiting The Yellow Dog Project.
A parking lot is a high-energy area - dogs arriving are excited to get out and see their friends and dogs leaving are usually bunched up near the entrance. Couple that with cars constantly entering and exiting the lot and you have a recipe for disaster.
I've experienced this myself a couple of times when my Cattle Dogs tried to bolt toward their buddies as soon as they left the car. If you have a high-energy dog it's best to put them on leash until they are safely inside the park.
Dogs don't have quite the same social frameworks as us humans - if they see something they like they just take it! If your pup has a toy that they're especially attached to it may be wise to leave it at home in case some other dog accidentally destroys it.
In addition, some dogs are territorial with their toys. In such a scenario do not pick them up and try to prevent your dog from picking them up.
Only the dog's owner knows their dietary needs - dogs can have allergies just like humans so it's best not to assume they can handle whatever you give them. Ideally it's best to not bring any food with you at all as the smell can distract other dogs nearby.
If you do choose to bring treats make sure to keep them in a plastic bag to prevent the spread of odor and conceal it when not giving out food.
This is usually a hard and fast rule at most dog parks. A dog in estrus will tend to attract intact males and may also make them aggressive around each other. Instead just take her on walks outside of the park until her cycle is over.
This one requires some discretion - if your smaller dog gets stressed out around larger dogs it may make sense to take them to a dog park with an area designated for smaller breeds. The motivation for such areas comes from the fear of activating the prey instinct of larger dogs. To a Doberman, a Chihuahua might not look that different from a cat or squirrel.
If panicked, its high-pitched bark might activate a larger dog's prey instinct which could lead to a nasty altercation. While an owner with a small dog has the choice to go to either area, large dogs should never go into small dog areas.
Dog parks are not just for canine interaction - they're a great place to get to know the people in your community. People love getting the chance to talk about their pups so don't think you're being a bother by starting a conversation. It will also be a good way to socialize your pup as it shows them it's OK to approach other humans.
A good rule of thumb is no more than four dogs to a group - any more and the chance of a fight increases. A way to prevent this is to move around regularly, taking breaks from play, or doing some light training (sit, stay, etc.).
If you have more than one dog it might make sense to take them to the park individually. This is what we ended up doing to discourage this behavior in our dogs.
Do not equip your dog with a spike or chain collar when going to the park. If another dog accidentally gets pinched or scratched by such a collar it can cause them to panic which could lead to a fight.
In the heat of the moment dogs won't have time to make distinctions between play and aggression and will usually assume the latter.
A dog park's primary function is to socialize dogs, not exercise them. To reduce the risk of a fight breaking out it's best to take your dog when they're in a low-energy state.
If they're naturally hyper this might mean taking them out for a run or playing with them at home prior to leaving for the park. If you're short on time consider taking them at off-peak hours so they don't get overly excited by all the other dogs.
Puppies under 4 months should not be brought to the park as it can be hectic and confusing for them. They have not yet learned how to behave around large groups and are still learning their social cues.
Instead they should be socialized outside of the park during their first few months. Children under 12 should also not be brought to the park.
When you leash your dog at an off leash area you are impairing their ability to communicate effectively with other dogs. This is critical to keeping tempers cool and preventing fights from starting.
Specifically, a leash brings the dogs head up and chest out in what looks like a show of dominance. There is nothing wrong with this per se but if the situation calls for a submissive stance they won't be able to adopt it and thus may send the wrong social cue.
It's important to emphasize that the owner does not play a passive role at the park. They are there to facilitate their dog's playtime and should take an active role in steering them away from problem dogs, calming them down in case they get too rough, and clean up after them when they do their business.
If the owner is on their phone, listening to podcasts, or checking their mail their dog is not getting everything they could be out of the dog park.
To know when it's safe to approach and when it's time to go it helps to know the basics of dog body language. You should be able to understand when they are feeling shy, are becoming aggressive, or are eager to play.
Other owners will appreciate knowing that your dog is up to date on their shots. This protects your dog and everyone else at the park.
Your dog will most-likely work up a healthy thirst from all the running and, while some dog parks have communal water bowls, I personally avoid them because of sanitation issues.
It's best to bring along a bottle of water and your own water bowl with you so your dog doesn't have to wait until you get home to get a drink.
No one wants to have to deal with fleas; if your dog has them it's a courtesy to other owners to forgo walks in the dog park until they go away. All the close contact and playing make transmitting the critters very easy in such a place.
You should reliably be able to recall your dog if a situation is getting tense. It also helps if they know additional commands such as 'sit'.
A dog park is a dynamic place and, just like any social setting for humans, your dog's comfort level will depend on the company present.
Take a couple of minutes to scope out the scene before entering - if there are some problem dogs that you know you won't be able to avoid it would make sense to avoid the park that day and just take your pooch for a walk in the neighborhood.
Every time you enter the dog park you take on a risk, however small, that your dog could get involved in a fight. In the unlikely event that you need to contact the vet, you don't want to be scrambling for this information. Similarly it might not be your dog that needs it but someone else's.
You might have noticed that most of this advice centers around controlling the signals your dog is receiving, whether from you or from the surrounding environment. One signal we haven't touched on is your voice.
Dogs may not understand the exact meaning behind words but they understand intonation and volume. Shouting commands is likely to excite nearby dogs thus increasing the chances of altercation.
Ultimately much of dog park etiquette comes down to common sense - treat others as you would want to be treated. Given the communication gap between dogs and people it's better to play it safe with most decisions as the price for incorrect judgment can be high.
Do you agree or disagree with any of the above points? Leave a comment below and thanks for reading!