Dogs experience many benefits from playing at the dog parks. They get a chance to socialize, expend some energy, interact with other pets, and fine tune their social skills. In most cases, your dog will come home content and relaxed, sleeping through the night.
But, there is also a dark side to dog parks. You are taking a chance of injuries or coming home with parasites, increased exposure to disease, and a chance your dog may pick up some bad habits.
So, what’s the best option for you and your dog?
To begin, it’s important to know there are two types of dog parks: On-leash and off-leash. Both have vastly different “rules” and you should know the etiquette of both before you go.
Off-leash Dog Parks
Off-leash dog parks can range from, “here is a fenced area where dogs can run and play in a controlled area,” to “here’s 1,000 acres where your dog can run and play in the wild.”
These types of off-Leash dog parks tend to be more laid-back on the “rules,” are popular with higher energy dogs and frequented by dogs who tend towards rougher play. You should never take a smaller breed dog to an off-leash dog park that doesn’t observe strict play group rules. Usually off-leash parks have specific days for large breeds and small breed dogs.
They can be fun for dogs who get along well with other dogs (aka, never bully or fight other dogs). They are also great if you have a well-trained dog who responds well to commands. If your dog does not have a good recall, the off-leash park is probably not for you.
Off-leash dog parks are only as good as the people who frequent them. Just because your dog listens and comes when calls and never fights, does not mean that other dogs will do the same. If you take your dog to an off-leash park, they could easily fall victim to any of the casual packs that form or to another dog who is not well-trained.
On-Leash Dog Parks
These parks tend to be far more regulated and are often common areas for people without dogs. The dogs tend to be more well-mannered (largely due to being under control) and the owners are a bit more aware of their surroundings.
In these cases, off-leash play is not allowed. You’ll need to find some fun things to do with your pet while they are leashed. Always be courteous to the other patrons because sadly, non-dog people will always have priority over dogs.
Whether you choose to visit an on-leash or off-leash park, just one bad owner can ruin the experience for dogs who have been coming to a park for years. So today we’re taking a look at some common dog park etiquette you should observe.
Finding the Perfect Dog Park
PetFriendlyTravel offers one of the most extensive lists of dog parks throughout North America. You can search by state or country. But, there may be closer pocket park near you. Ask around on NextDoor or Facebook for the dog park that might work best for you.
There is also a new app called the Dog Park Finder, which lists every app in a 20-mile radius of your current location. This is ideal for people who travel with their dogs or work as pet professionals. The information is fielded from DogGoes.com, another great resource for finding dog parks.
Dog Park Essentials
Whether you choose to visit an on-leash or off-leash park, it’s important to know the ground rules. These are some good starting points:
- Leave toys and treats at home or in the car. Unfortunately, bringing toys to the dog park can create anxiety and maybe even a little jealousy with the other dogs. So it’s best to leave these things in the car.
- Know the hours: Dog parks are only open at certain times of the day or night. Be sure you know what those hours are and don’t harass park employees into opening early or staying late.
- Never leave your pet unattended. It’s not doggie daycare. No one is there to monitor your pets and it’s very rude to drop your dog and go.
- When in Rome… If you’re at an off-leash park, don’t leave your dog’s leash on. It can create lots of problems and even result in leash aggression. No matter what type of park you’re at, extendable leashes are a no-no. There is just too much potential for injury to you, your dog and the other animals.
- Clean up after your dog. Nothing chaps my hide more than a person who says, “Don’t worry, they have people for that.” It’s arrogant, it shows a sense of entitlement, and it is unpleasant to see in people and pets. Not only that, it’s not very hygienic. So, pick up after your pets wherever you are.
- Pay attention to your dog, not your phone. Leave your phone on camera mode or leave it home. Make sure that any photos you take are only posted with the owner’s permission – it’s best to treat dogs the same way you might treat their child.
- Exercise your dog before the park: This may sound akin to “cleaning the house before the housekeeper comes over”, but the same premise holds true. If you give a housekeeper a good basis to start with, they will do an even better job by focusing on the areas that may not be your strength.
Commands Dogs Should Know
In a perfect world, every dog who visits a park would understand and respond to every command. But just as people are people, dogs are dogs. However, they should know (and usually respond) to the following commands:
- Come – this is the most important. You should be able to retrieve your dog with a word and always have them under voice control.
- Leave it.
- Settle down – be sure your dog understands when enough is enough.
Understanding Body Language
At the very least, you should know a little about your dog’s own body language, but it’s also important to understand the body language of other dogs.
For example, a dog running up to your pet does not mean the world is coming to an end and your dog will be consumed in a vicious fight. Sometimes the approach of another dog is awkward (just as humans are sometimes awkward). Let your dogs be dogs.
Good play usually consists of a play bow, pawing, rearing and pawing, and maybe even a playful nip to the shoulder.
Bad play includes slow, calculated movements: arched backs, sideways walks, stiff gaits, or repeated “attacks” on a dog who is clearly not having fun.
You also need to understand human body language. Every park has a different vibe. Some cater to large dogs, others to herding dogs, some are designed specifically for dogs who love water, others prefer the small dogs park. Some parks prefer positive reinforcement, in others they don’t. Find a vibe that works for you and your dog. It will make the difference between a great experience and a potential catastrophe.
Know your Dog
This is especially true if you’re planning to visit an off-leash park. Never, never ever bring an aggressive dog to a dog park. Never bring a fearful dog to the park. Never bring an unsocialized dog to the park. The dog park is not a place to learn these things, it’s a place to celebrate the achievement of overcoming these things.
Some of these places have had the same people coming, with the same dogs, twice a day for the last few years. As the newcomer, you need to respect their seniority. It’s a good idea to visit the park first and talk to a few of the veterans. They can give you some valuable tips on getting along with the other patrons, and it’s a great way to meet people.
- Dogs in heat.
- Unneutered dogs, especially males.
- Unsocialized dogs.
- Packs of dogs.
- Dogs that haven’t been fully immunized.
- Dogs that are ill.
- Puppies under 12 weeks old.
- Dogs that are socially inappropriate (humping other dogs or people).
- Dogs that nip or bully others.
- Dogs that resource-guard.
- Dogs that don’t recall (come).
- Dogs that the owner clearly has no control over.
- Dogs that bully other dogs do not belong in a group environment. They belong in training.
Owners who don’t belong in parks:
- People who constantly check their phone rather than checking on their dog
- Owners who are irresponsible (don’t visit vet, don’t train, don’t vaccinate and don’t care)
- Owners who drop the dog off and leave the park
- Owners who are bullies
With a little preparation, we can make dog parks a very fun place to be. In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to have a place to take our pets for some socialization. But, it’s important to know your dog, yourself and the vibe of each dog park before you go.