15 min read

What You Should Know Before Heading To The Dog Park

Make sure your doggo is a good boy and follows proper etiquette 🐕⚾

For pet owners, dog parks are an invaluable resource. They provide a safe place to exercise and socialize a pup, while connecting you instantly with a local community of pet parents. You can have a coffee and chat with fellow dog lovers while your pet socializes in his own way — running free, making friends and generally enjoying the park ...

… Sometimes even a little too much.

But along with the fun and excitement, new pet parents heading to the dog park for the first time may find off-leash play daunting. To avoid any issues, it’s important to understand dog park etiquette before setting foot within the gate.

To have the best possible time at the park, follow these simple do’s and don’ts of taking your pup to the dog run:

Do: take your pup to the park often

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Pet parents should make plenty of room in their schedule for quality time at the dog park, notes Anthony Newman, certified trainer and founder of Calm Energy Dog Training. When a dog is physically and intellectually engaged, troublesome behaviors at home tend to decrease — but a once-a-week jaunt won’t cut it.

“It is crucial to socialize your dog outside in a natural park environment with lots of other new dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds, consistently — every day, ideally multiple times a day,” Anthony Newman tells The Dodo. “So often I see problems caused on weekends by dogs who’ve obviously been pent-up all week.” Just remember: A busy dog is a happy, healthy dog.
 

Don’t: assume long walks are equivalent to time at the park

When it comes to exercise and socialization, unfortunately a walk won’t offer the same benefits as time spent in the park.

“The biggest misconception among owners I see nowadays is that walks are all that’s needed for exercise,” Newman explains. “First of all, they don’t tire most dogs out — even two-hour treks. Second of all, they don’t let the dog socialize — even pack walks, which I equate to being in an elevator with strangers.”

“I’ve never seen a behavior problem that isn’t dramatically helped by increasing what I call ‘exhausting and fulfilling mental, physical and social release,’ outside, off-leash, in the park with other dogs.”

Do: let your dog play

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While it may be hard to let your pup loose in an unpredictable environment, dog owners should try to leave their overprotective tendencies at home, advises Newman. “I always say fighters need to play fight, growlers need to play growl, hunters need to play hunt, guarders need to play guard ... you have to let it happen!”

Certain types of play may look more aggressive than they actually are, so it’s important to know what kind of behavior is (mostly) innocent. “‘Reciprocal’ play is always acceptable — first he chases, then she chases; he puts her neck in his mouth, then she does,” Newman says. “Humping or mounting isn’t even as bad as it’s reputed to be, unless it’s one dominant fighter humping another.”

Don’t: let your dog hide

“Too many owners with shy or anxious dogs allow their dogs to hide under benches or right behind/in front of their feet,” Newman says. This shy behavior can lead to socialization problems down the road, especially if the owner assumes that their dog doesn’t enjoy the park, and stops bringing them altogether.

Surprisingly, allowing a dog to hide near you could even make issues with other dogs worse. “Fearful dogs who are reactive/aggressive are much more likely to react when within what I call ‘leg perimeter’ of their owners, because they feel protected — far more often than they’re actually protecting their owners, which is what most people think,” Newman says. Instead, owners should encourage their dog to start having positive interactions with other pups at the park.
 

Do: bring your (vaccinated) puppy

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While you may have heard that the dog park is no place for a puppy, Newman insists that’s simply not so. “Don’t believe the fear-mongering!” Newman exclaims. “Obviously if there are aggressive dogs or dogs playing too roughly, and if the puppy is extremely tiny, we want to be careful for safety’s sake. But frankly, problems are extremely rare with well-socialized dogs, they help puppies out of their shells and teach them social norms and manners.” The sooner puppies can interact with a wide range of dogs, the better.

Certified dog trainer Yuruani Olguin has similar advice for dog owners with a new puppy at home. “I recommend bringing puppies into the dog park after 6 months of age and making sure to make the first visits brief as to not overwhelm them, ideally at an off-peak hour when there are not too many dogs,” Yuruani Olguin tells The Dodo. To prepare your puppy for the dog park, Olguin recommends starting them out with puppy social hours, puppy kindergarten classes and one-on-one play dates.

But keep in mind, interacting with other puppies instead of a diverse group of dogs will only help to a certain point. “Puppy playgroups are most helpful when unvaccinated pups can’t do otherwise according to the vet’s recommendation,” Newman explains. “Otherwise they’re like having a bunch of kids together with no adult supervision, no teachers.”

Don’t: be afraid to break up play

Your dog doesn’t have to have an obedience school diploma to do well at the park, as long as he knows the most important command — “come.”

Olguin recommends that owners watch their dogs carefully at the park (instead of looking at their cellphones) so they can break up play frequently, calling their dogs back for a quick check-in. “Play that has lots of breaks usually does not result in dog fights, as situations are de-escalated this way,” she says.
 

Do: come prepared

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“Pet owners should make sure their pup has a collar on with tags and bring a clicker if their dog is clicker-trained,” Olguin says. “Bring poop bags and water, as your pup will likely be thirsty after playing at the park.”

For the dog owner, it’s a good idea to dress comfortably and wear closed-toed shoes — you (and your dog) can really work up a sweat playing fetch!
 

Don’t: bring treats

A high-value toy or treats can prompt other dogs at the park to swarm you and your dog, notes Newman, so it’s best to leave food and special toys at home.

If you do bring a toy, try to keep games of fetch short, especially if your dog is ball obsessed. “It tends to promote antisocial and obsessive guarding, while excluding needed social releases like butt sniffs, chasing, wrestling and generally hanging out,” Newman explains. “The biggest source of problems in dog parks comes from an overemphasis on edible treats and a lack of understanding of how to communicate boundaries and rules to dogs to keep them submissive and peaceful.”

 

Do: learn how to identify aggressive body language

At the park, analyze your dog and his playmate’s body language to make sure they’re not showing signs of anxiety. Healthy, relaxed play is fairly easy for dog owners to spot. Look for “loose and bouncy behaviors between the dogs with lots of back-and-forth movements, almost like a game of tag,” Olguin explains. If things get a little too rough, one dog may let out a yelp or give their playmate a signal to give them space, but this is generally nothing to worry about.

Troubling body language often looks the opposite — tense and alert. “Aggressive body language usually involves a stiff body, carrying the bulk of the weight toward the front of the body, ears perked up, tight jaw, possibly a low growl or baring teeth and likely a high wagging tail,” Olguin says. “If the dog is showing these signs of being on alert and not loosening up when other dogs approach, it would be a good idea to leave the park.”
 

Don’t: come between dogs who are fighting

There are a number of techniques pet owners can use to break up a fight, though it can be hard to do without putting oneself in harm’s way. To separate a dog attacking another dog, Olguin recommends approaching the dog from behind, and in one motion grabbing their hind legs near the hip area and pulling them away. When you let go, immediately move away, as the dog may redirect their bite toward you — and never place your hands between two dogs who are fighting.

Other helpful methods include a loud whistle to startle the dogs, or spraying the dogs with a hose, Olguin says. If fighting seems to be a regular occurrence with your dog, it’s best to seek help from a professional dog trainer or vet behaviorist and get to the root of the issue.