Exercising Etiquette at the Dog Park

By Caroline Squires >>>

It seems as though dog owners are on the fence about going to the dog park. For those who venture out to the canine corral, it’s a way to drain their dog’s energy and to keep their dog social with other dogs.

However, even with the best intentions, dog owners can run into a variety of challenges especially because dog parks bring all levels of dog owners together. It’s important to remember that not every dog owner follows the rules, knows dog behavior, or is experienced enough to control their dog in an open setting.

For many dog owners, they need to see proper etiquette and common sense being displayed in order to determine whether or not the dog park is in fact a safe and enjoyable place to continue visiting.

After spending an afternoon at Central Bark in Saugus, I experienced the good and the bad of dog parks. Dog owners spoke with me about the etiquette they follow in order to maintain a safe and fun environment for everyone. However, I also saw firsthand what happens when dog owners don’t follow the rules or follow simple etiquette.

Dog Park Tips:

Unleash your dog in the double gate area before entering the park. A dog often feels vulnerable being on leash while other dogs around it are off leash. The leashed dog knows that it cannot maneuver freely and cannot get away if it wants to. This sense of vulnerability may lead to aggression.
Users already inside the park should call their dogs away from the gate until the new arrivals have entered. It’s difficult for a new arrival to enter the park if a wall of dogs is blocking the gate. Dogs are territorial creatures, and the boundaries of a territory are flashpoints for aggression. Once the dog is inside the territory, the chances for conflict are much less. If people are not calling their dogs to them when you are about to enter, you may ask them to call their dog, or stand there until their dog walks away.
If your dog displays nervous behavior or wants to stick by your side, walk around the park and don’t sit on a bench and console your dog; this is because your dog might try to hide under the bench or become too protective of its space, which could cause aggression. It’s better to walk around and have your dog get used to the park. If your dog doesn’t relax, you might need to keep the trips short and try again, or the dog park might not be a place your dog will ever be comfortable.
Know your dog’s play style. Some dogs like a very rough-and-tumble style of play, with lots of growling, grabbing, tackling, and wrestling. Some dogs have a daintier style, with bowing and chasing but not much physical contact. Some dogs like to herd other dogs and may bark or nip at the other dogs. The important thing is to know what is normal for your dog and what the warning signs are that your dog may be getting over-stimulated and may be in danger of crossing the line into aggression. You should always watch your dog closely and be prepared to intervene if the interaction seems to be getting out of hand or becoming too uncomfortable for a particular dog. If your dog seems to be “pestering” another dog who seems to be growing stressed or annoyed, you should intervene and direct your dog’s attention elsewhere.
Understand canine communication. Dogs that enjoy rough play may growl and snap as part of that play. Dogs may also snarl and/or snap to “set their limits” with other dogs. For example, a dog might growl to let another dog know that it is being too rough or too pushy.
Dogs are programmed to be part of a pack. Some dogs are higher in the pack hierarchy (dominant) and others are lower in the hierarchy (submissive). Dogs have various ways by which they communicate their dominance to other dogs. This may include a stiff-legged posture with the head held up and back; raising the hackles on the back; raising the tail, or laying the head across another dog’s shoulders or back. If you see two dogs exchanging dominant gestures with each other, watch carefully and be ready in case a fight is brewing.
Mounting (“humping”) is often a way by which one dog expresses dominance over another. Do not allow your dog to mount another dog, as this behavior is very likely to lead to a fight. Even if your dog means no harm, the other dog is very likely to take offense. Sometimes this can be done in play; watch carefully to see how each dog is feeling.
Respond promptly to aggressive behavior. Deciding what constitutes aggressive behavior is sometimes a matter of judgment. It’s important to know your dog and to know what is normal and safe for your dog.
Dogs displaying significant aggression toward other dogs, or any aggression toward humans, must be leashed and removed from the park for the day. This is not only for the safety of other park users, it can also help with the dog’s own education. A dog soon realizes that aggressive behavior earns it a one-way ticket out of the park and many dogs quickly learn to mind their manners.
A dog that repeatedly displays aggressive behavior with a variety of dogs is not a good dog park candidate and should stop coming to the park.
It is recommended that dogs be spayed or neutered before coming to the dog park. Be aware that unneutered males in particular are much more likely to get into fights with other male dogs. ** Females in heat may not enter the park.

Dog Park Etiquette:

Clean up after your dog.
Call your dog away from the gate while other dogs are entering or leaving.
Pay close attention to your dog and keep it out of trouble, which means stay off your phone and don’t get too wrapped up in conversation with other owners that you aren’t paying attention to your dog.
Always be aware of your dog’s location and the body language of the dogs your dog is interacting with.
Acceptable or unacceptable dog behavior depends on the age and temperament of your dog. Dogs will bark, snarl, and even snap at each other as part of their normal socialization. Interfere and stop the interaction if it appears to be escalating into a fight.
Be responsible for your dog’s behavior.
Do not discipline someone else’s dog.
Do not bring in people food to eat; Do not bring dog treats.
If your dog gets into a fight with another dog, leash them and leave the dog park.
Make sure your dog has a collar on; you need to be able to hang onto your dog if needed.
You should be physically able to control your dog; don’t go to the dog park if you aren’t able to react quickly.
Follow the posted rules.

I posted “What do you do when you encounter a problem at the dog park like a dog is being too dominant with your dog, or an owner isn’t paying attention to their dog and it causes concern?” on a SCV Facebook pet page and waited for responses. Here are a few that I received:

Chris Dunne of SCV replied, “Dog parks are a complex system of social interaction and personality… and that’s just the owners.”

Tori Pulkka of SCV posted, “When somebody is being a problem I leave, I rarely try to talk to them. Every rare once in a while I see somebody that is clearly a new dog owner who is just trying to do right, but doesn’t understand dogs well yet, and I then engage and see if they are receptive to some ideas. I don’t usually find it worth my time and effort to engage.”

Haley Faerber of SCV posted, “If a dog is being too dominant or controlling towards my dog, I myself will body block the their dog and then I will walk towards the other side of the park. If it continues, or I feel it will escalate, I will leave. I should add I rarely go to dog parks; I don’t trust other people’s dogs to be polite.”

If you decide dog parks aren’t for you, like some owners mentioned, another option is to schedule play dates with owners whose dogs are social with your dog. If you want to try a dog park because you want to see if you dog is good with other dogs, you might want to first try testing your dog with a dog trainer who has dogs he/she knows well and can properly introduce your dog to in order to assess your dog’s behavior. After you know how your dog is with other dogs, a dog park could be an option to keep your dog socialized.

Overall, dog parks can be an excellent way to help keep your pup active and social, but it really takes everyone being vigilant, following etiquette, and using common sense to help keep it enjoyable and safe.