Basic dog park etiquette every owner should know

How to be a really good guest at your local canine hang.

How to be a really good guest at your local canine hang

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

In theory, a dog park is an ideal place for our most social pets to play with others while we also get the chance to connect with our community. In practice, however, using these idyllic off-leash environments isn't as easy as just showing up with any dog. Well-behaved dogs — and owners — are required to make this environment a pleasant and effective one. We talked to Maggi Burtt, CPDT-KA (certified dog trainer) and owner of Tailspin Petworx, about the etiquette of your next visit to the dog park.

Entering the dog park

The dog park can be a little over-stimulating for some dogs, making them overly excited and hard to handle. Burtt recommends you exert a little control first. "Your dog should be as calm as possible before entering," she says. "If this means going for a short walk first, then do this." Starting off with a relaxed dog makes it easier to control them should anything get out of hand. 

If the park has an "airlock" entrance of double gates, that's the best place to remove your dog's leash, but always be mindful of those around you. Burtt cautions to be courteous of those entering and exiting the park and "making sure you move out of the way and that you always close the gates properly behind you." Likewise, it's best that you and your dog stay away from the gates at all other times, and ask others to do the same, so those entering and exiting have a clear path, without the chance of anyone suddenly escaping.

Spotting aggressive behaviour

Dogs can have some very weird behaviours, but it's important to be able to distinguish between what's quirky-but-harmless and what you should keep a more serious eye on. Firstly, it's important to be able to observe, recognize and learn to control your own dog's behaviours, which you can learn more about online, as a good start. "Normal dog play," Burtt says, "is with loose bodies, some gentle panting and occasionally some growling and barking. The most important thing to watch for is escalation of speed and vocalization." Burtt also notes that most dog fights occur not out of true aggression, but "when playing becomes over the top because of over-arousal." She says that when your dog, or those they're playing with, become a little too rough, territorial or timid, "It is ultimately up to you to work on a recall out of play or how to break up a session to move on."

Should you keep bigger dogs away from smaller dogs?

Just because the dog park is for everyone, doesn't mean all dogs are on the same playing field. With such a variety of sizes, abilities and temperaments, mismatched dogs can be dangerous to each other, even if they have the best of intentions. "If you have a large, young, active dog, it is best to avoid the older, smaller and more delicate dogs when you can," advises Burtt. Keeping your dog amongst those similar to their level can not only lead to better play, but greatly reduce potential consequences in the event of an accident.

Toy stealing

When your dog shows up to the park with a toy in its mouth, it's natural that others will want it. While it's fine to let other dogs in on the fun, what happens if one gets too possessive and won't give your toy back? Burtt suggests you come prepared by bringing a second toy, taking the stress off you and your dog. Burtt says that you can while your dog is occupied, you can ask the owner to give back the toy when their dog is done with it. "Don't create conflict over the toy. The other owner is likely embarrassed it happened." If you can't find the owner of the possessive dog, it's a little trickier. "In the end," reasons Burtt, "it's best not to get bitten, so do not try and take a toy away from a dog you don't know (or your own! Instead, teach them a solid drop!)."

What should you do if your dog gets harmful?

In the event of your dog harming another dog or owner, not only should you apologize, Burtt says, "You should also give your accurate information to the owner in case the owner finds wounds later on and needs your vaccine information, etc. The best way to do this is to ask to call their phone. This way you have their number and they have yours." You should ask for the same if the situation is reversed. Stepping up and taking accountability, as if you were a driver in an accident, is the most effective way to handle such scenarios.

Exiting the dog park

Just as when you entered, exiting the dog park requires the same amount of caution. Burt says you should leash your dog before leaving and "make sure there are no other dogs trying to get out of the gates", even if you have to wait for some space to do so. It's also important to leave the park the way you found it, taking your poop bags, disposing of them correctly, filling any holes your dog may have dug and ensuring the gate is properly closed for the next visitors.

Should your dog ever be off-leash?

Some areas don't have the funding to upgrade their parks to off-leash versions, while others have compromised, beginning to permit them seasonally. "Leashes create restrictions that can cause some dogs to be reactive or stressed when approached by other dogs," says Burtt. "Dogs who are not dog-friendly, or fearful, should not be in dog parks, but should also be able to walk — leashed — anywhere there is a leash law, without the fear of being approached by an off-leash dog." Burtt highlights the point that, though the dog park is for everyone, that environment is not best for every dog. "We need to have a good mix of both on-leash and off-leash areas. Not all dogs are park dogs." She says, "Dog parks are for socialized, safe dogs, not fearful, aggressive or too-young dogs." 

Do you have a dog park story? Want to call someone out for bad dog park etiquette? Bark away in the comments below.


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