Dog Park Etiquette

Once upon a time there was a magical dog park by the sea, where dogs romped and played and owners laughed and hugged, and all was right with the world.

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There were balloons there every day.

My dog park is just like this – sometimes. (Let’s hear it for Alameda Dog Park!) But I have to be honest. Dog parks are wonderful and fun, but they can also be extremely stressful. From naughty dogs to abrasive owners – sometimes the dog park is not the canine utopia we would hope it to be.

So Lady and I have come up with some unwritten rules – now written! – that can help you keep your dog park experience fun and safe.

dog park etiquette

Step 1. Yell “we’re going to the dog park!” in a ridiculous, shrill voice.

Watch the doggie theatrics ensue.

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WE’RE GOING TO THE DOG PARK!

2. Use the entry chute as it was intended.

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Hopefully your dog park has a little area that has double gates – one to the outside and one to the inside, so you have a “neutral zone” to unleash your dog and let her smell inside dogs before letting her in. Make sure you close the outside gate securely before opening the inside gate. Don’t be one of those owners who sloppily close the gate and then watch it swing open in surprise while dogs rush the chute and race out of the dog park. (I’ve seen this happen, I’m sad to say.)

Don’t let other dogs into the chute if you can help it. (But if you do, rest assured that the outer gate is securely closed because you made sure!)

Do make sure you take your dog’s leash off before entering the dog park. When you enter with your dog still on leash, it can cause insecure or protective feelings that can lead to a dog fight. (You know those times when you’re walking your dog and an unleashed dog rushes up and all hell breaks loose? That’s because leashed dogs feel and act differently than unleashed dogs. So even the playing field by taking your dog off leash so she can interact and greet other dogs on her own terms.)

3. Keep calm and monitor your dog (from a distance!)

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Dogs will rush up to your dog because nothing is more exciting than THE NEW DOG who just entered. Observe the interactions but resist the urge to participate by petting the other dogs. Dogs have a very specific greeting protocol that involves sniffing each other and generally sizing each other up. One false move from either dog (or you!) can throw this greeting off and make the dogs defensive and possibly cause a fight.

Keep your attitude calm and neutral because, believe it or not, your dog is very in tune with your emotions and if she senses you are alarmed, it will make her alarmed and feel she must defend you. Remember you are her pack leader, and you set the tone.

4. Note (and follow) the rules.

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Each dog park will have its own set of posted rules. It’s a good idea to know what they are and follow them to the letter. A dog park is a public space, so do your part by keeping it nice for everyone. Since my local dog park is sandy, someone went to the trouble of posting these signs about holes. So you better believe I’m refilling the holes my dog digs out – not only because it’s a rule, but because I’ve seen plenty of people step into a hole there and almost break an ankle.

5. For goodness sakes, clean up after your dog.

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In a place where there are bags, shovels, rakes and garbage cans devoted to this gross but necessary task, you have no excuse not to clean up your dog’s poop. And yet I still see owners casually stroll away from their dog while they are relieving themselves, either not noticing or pretending not to notice. (Guess what – I’m onto you.) It’s not a choice to pick up after your pet; it’s your responsibility – your dog, your mess. And believe me, there are plenty of owners who will call you out if you try to shirk this chore. And I’m one of them. Let’s avoid an embarrassing and unpleasant exchange and just do the thing you know you are supposed to do.

Also make a mental marker when you see your dog poop from afar. Many times I can’t find the poo and feel like announcing to the park, “I’m sorry; I tried!” 🙂

6. Beware the bench.

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This is personal choice but it is most assuredly a fact that if there is a bench or chair at the dog park, it is covered in urine. Just know that before you sit down. Or be like me and wear “adult play clothes” to the dog park you don’t mind being coated in a light mist of urine. Because it’s fun to sit a while at the dog park, even on a pee-pee bench.

7. Monitor dog behavior.

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This is one of the trickiest things to master at the dog park. I monitor dog play professionally and even I make mistakes sometimes. I think the key here is to know your dog, to know the warning signs of an impending fight and to only intervene if it is absolutely necessary.

Watch every dog your dog meets. Is the greeting going well? (Remember, it should ideally be the mutual butt sniff scenario.) You’ll notice one or both dogs trying to take things to the next level by initiating play. Usually it’s one dog trying to get the other dog to chase her.

Lady, for example, loves being chased the best, but will be the chaser if that’s her only option.

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So chasing, pawing each other, doing play bows – those are all good signs your dog is enjoying herself. Sometimes a dog will initiate play with your dog who plays in a style your dog DOESN’T LIKE. I don’t call this a “bad dog,” but simply a “bad match.”

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You’ll be able to tell if it’s a bad match because one of the dogs will start to look wary and a little offended. A good example is one dog trying to mount another one (some dogs tolerate humping; my dog Lady does not, so I always intervene if a dog tries to mount her.) Maybe a dog plays rougher than your dog likes. You’ll hear and see your dog warning the other dog to back off.

Your job is to watch closely for these warning signs and intervene at the critical point before play turns into aggression. If you’ve ever seen a bar fight escalate, it’s very similar. It starts off as joking around, then someone gets angry, warning signs start being thrown (with people, it’s words and sticking their chests out; with dogs, it’s baring of teeth and growling)

If you see the beginnings of aggression, DO NOT reach in to physically separate the dogs. It’s best to REDIRECT your dog to something else. With Lady, if I yell her name in that same shrill, ridiculous voice aforementioned, and tell her “over here!” it breaks the trance and she’ll follow me. Your dog may be different. For example, if you have a ball-crazy dog, grab a ball and get her attention diverted to a game of catch.

8. Keep your leash at the ready.

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The leash is handy because it will allow you to quickly leash up your dog if you see a situation escalating and pull her away. People’s first instincts are to grab their dogs’ collars, but this can be dangerous. If you take the extra second to latch the leash onto the collar, you can get your limbs and hands out of the way and have more control over your dog during a fight. The hope is that other owners are smart enough to leash up their dogs too and then a fight can really be stopped quickly without human flesh being served up for dinner.

9. Monitor your behavior. 

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Remember how I said calm owners generally mean calm dogs? Well the opposite is true too. Anxious owners sweating over every dog who approaches their dog are an absolute recipe for disaster at the dog park. Owners who interpret every sound as a growl, or every play grab as a bite – please do yourself and everyone a favor and don’t come to dog parks. It’s unreasonable to expect no touching at the dog park. Don’t bring your teacup chihuahua into the big dog area and then accuse all the other dogs of playing “too rough.” Use your head, and keep your outrage for situations that truly warrant it.

Conversely, don’t walk around the dog park “educating” everyone. (That’s what blogs are for – ha!) There’s nothing more tiresome and condescending than strangers telling you all about dog behavior, breed types, etc. It’s like talking politics or religion at a dinner party – you can do it, but you shouldn’t. Everyone has come to the dog park to have a good time, not to listen to you. Light conversation is nice. I strictly keep mine to “your dog is so cute!” That seems to be okay with everyone.

10. Watch at the water bowl.

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Generally, dogs at the dog park aren’t bowl-aggressive because the dog park is neutral territory. But if you know your dog can be food-possessive, be careful at the water bowl when another dog comes up to drink. Your dog may react like the other dog is trying to take something away from her.

Lady has many drinking buddies and is a happy drunk.

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That was some GOOD water!

11. Finally, understand you are taking a risk.

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Any off-leash, dog group play situation comes with inherent risks. Your dog may get hurt. Your dog may hurt another dog. Your dog may catch a cold. Etc. The only way you can keep your dog 100 percent safe is to keep them at home (and even then there are risks.)

Knowing this going in is helpful and reconciling with yourself a cut or scrape is minor compared to the major enjoyment and socialization your dog will get at the dog park makes the risk worth it.

I saw a People’s Court recently where a dog got attacked right when he entered the dog park. The owner hadn’t even taken his leash off yet. (Breaking my rule number 2!) Even though it was clearly the other dog’s fault, the judge had to rule that the victim had to assume all the responsibility for the vet bill because the attacker’s owner hadn’t done anything wrong. They were just at the dog park, where it’s allowed for your dog to be off-leash. That really clarified for me that dog parks are dangerous, because you are giving up some control by putting your dog in with dogs you don’t know, and you may very well come home with an injured dog and a big vet bill.

But somehow Lady doesn’t understand all this when I yell “We’re going to the dog park!” And that’s okay. Because it’s my job to think of that part. Her job is to just have fun.

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 What are your tips for going to the dog park?

NEXT TIME: Cat Park Etiquette. Rule one: sit with a box of wine and hope for the best. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Dog Park Etiquette

  1. I’m hoping you can offer some advice because I never know what to do… my dog (Snickers, you’ve had him at WOOF!) is an avid mounter, unfortunately. I think he does it at first to initiate play and attention, but if the other dog is submissive, he won’t leave he/she alone. I never know if I should follow him around at that point and continuously say “leave it”, or let the dogs work it out – after all he’s not being aggressive or hurting the other dog – other than maybe he/she’s ego :-). He listens when I correct him, but only for a moment and then returns. It’s embarrassing. Some dog owners don’t mind, others get mad. Help!

    1. Hi Janet! My opinion is you should only intervene if you see the other dog reacting negatively toward the mounting. It is a dangerous behavior in that it asserts authority over the other dog, and like you said, if that dog is anything other than submissive or doesn’t care, it can definitely lead to a fight. The important thing is that Snickers “listens” when another dog tells him “no” and he stops. (Of course I am not a dog trainer – you might find an expert to help you thwart his humping – I’m sure it involves a lot of diverting his attention, rewarding stopping the behavior, etc. As with any strong urge, it’s hard to break it and make the dog realize he wants to do something else.)
      Maybe you can try things like throwing a ball or initiating some other play that he’ll like even more, and then he’ll associate that play behavior with going to the dog park and forget all about humping.
      As far as being embarrassed, don’t be! Humping is a natural behavior for dogs and they’re not embarrassed so you shouldn’t be either. Anybody who understands and loves dogs recognizes it for what it is. If another owner gets mad, just smile and say “we’re working on it.” And have fun!

  2. Our dog is really shy at dog parks. The part about responsible dog owners filling in holes made me smile because P *will* find the hole and try to escape! So I’ve actually kept him on leash when we enter the park because that’s where the hole is, near the gate. He seems to do well with other dogs (like at Woof! and on walks), but at dog parks he gets really shy. Any thoughts?

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