Pet Parent's Guide to Dog Park Etiquette
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
In the past decade, the dog park has become not only the go-to social gathering place for dog owners, but a main method of exercise for city dogs. The dog park can be a place of fun and excitement, but if misused it can be a place of stress and chaos. Here are some pointers to follow to make sure you, your dog and everyone else you meet at the park stays safe and smiling (or wagging!)
Ask Before You Enter
The first (and arguably most important) part of dog park safety and etiquette is communication. When you arrive at a dog park that already has 1-3 pups in it, or someone is about to come in when you are there, ask if they are ok with other dogs. If there’s a large group of dogs there, hang back and watch them play for a moment. Does it look like everyone’s safe and having fun? Though all dogs who enter the dog park SHOULD be dog-friendly, unfortunately not all of them are. Be specific in your questions if you ask how the other dogs are too—especially if your dog may have certain features or personality traits that may make other dogs nervous or uncomfortable, such as being a puppy, very exuberant, or considerably larger/smaller than the other dog(s). A quick, “My dog is a really excitable 6-month-old, is your dog ok with pups like that?” can help avoid conflict between dogs and humans!
Watch the Dogs!
Some people tend to think they can unleash their dogs and disconnect when at the park, but we can’t stress enough the importance of keeping a watchful eye on your playing pup! Like toddlers, dog play needs to be closely monitored, so try not to get so wrapped up in your phone or in conversation with other pet parents that you forget to keep an eye on your pup. Learn about dog body language and what actions and movements mean they are truly having fun, and those that mean they are uncomfortable, scared, being bullied or a bully, or fixing to start a fight. Then make sure to watch the play of the dogs and act accordingly with their behavior. Moreover, listen more to what the dog is telling you they are feeling, rather than the owner, because unfortunately many people misunderstand what their dog is communicating.
What Does Healthy Play Look Like?
Most dog trainers and pet care professionals know that unfortunately, people think all actions of their dogs are “playing”, even when that may not be the case. But what DOES healthy dog play and interaction look like? It should be symbiotic. Dogs should approach from the side and sniff the other’s rear, take turns chasing or being chased, being the “top dog” when wrestling, and back off when their playmates show signs of discomfort or distress. A happy dog who is having fun should have loose, bouncy body language, a tail wagging in a circle or slightly below their spine, and an opened mouth with a possible lolling tongue. Another good thing to see is the dogs taking short “breaks” between play, such as stopping a wrestling match to sniff the ground, or suddenly shaking their bodies as they do to shake off water. To other dogs this says, “We’re just playing, it’s all in good fun and I mean no harm."
Interrupt Inappropriate Behavior
When you see your dog or another engaging in inappropriate behavior—ie actions that are rude, pushy or may escalate into a fight, it’s your job to interrupt to keep the dogs safe. Some examples of inappropriate behavior include humping, chasing of dogs who appear frightened (with a tucked tail or yelping), cornering other dogs, and biting of the neck, legs, tail, or fur. Dogs between 5-18 months especially can sometimes get too excited and overwhelm their playmates and not understand their “stop” signals, such as then showing their teeth or hiding under a bench. If you have good voice control over your dog always call them off if you see them bothering another dog, and physically interrupt and pull them away if possible. Some dogs might need a short time out outside of the park to calm down before they return to playtime.
Along with watching your dog’s body language and looking for the good signs above—and negative ones like hard stares, stiff postures, and fearful dogs who are hiding and tucking their tail, you want to be careful what you do and don’t bring to the park. Many dogs will guard toys or food, and some of the most common fights between dogs may be over a ball or treat. So be very careful and try to avoid bringing any toys or feeding your dog much in the dog park lest a scuffle ensue.
Keeping the Park Safe and Fun
The dog park is a fun and exciting place for dogs and people alike—whether it’s a big city park or a private run on the roof of your building. Everyone just needs to remember to communicate with the people, learn about canine body language, as well as knowing when to stay, take a time out, and leave.