Dog parks are the most schizophrenic issue for dog lovers.
Communities crow about their great dog-friendly amenities. And trainers warning you of violent gladiatorial contests not seen since the death of the Roman empire. Who’s right?
It depends on the park. It depends on the time. And it depends on the dog.
But if your dog is a sociable extrovert who you think might enjoy the dog park, here are my tips for enjoying the dog park and avoiding disasters.
#1 Pick The Park Carefully
The “dog park” sign doesn’t make every off-leash park equal. Ask yourself
- is the area large enough that dogs can avoid contact if they choose to
- are there areas of shade where dogs can relax and cool off
- can small, young, or older dogs play in a special area without being bothered by aggressive play
- do the park rules show a common understanding of polite dog behavior
- does the park have more amenities for the dogs (water bowls, cool-off pools) than for the humans (picnic tables, benches, cell phone chargers)
- do the people who go there pay attention to their dogs
And check out the park yourself first. Without your dog.
#2 Choose The Best Time To Go
One of the reasons dogs and people get along so well is because we’re both creatures of habit. If you scout out a dog park at different times of the day, you’ll find very different crowds.
The same people gather after work every day. Another group gets up early. The self-employed turn up at odd hours throughout the day.
People in my town sleep in. So I find Saturday morning before 8 a.m. to be the best time to visit the dog park. There are only a few people there. And they come for their dogs and not for their own social life. What time of day makes most sense for you and your dog?
Helpful hint: the dogs arriving at the park by car after being left home alone all day probably have an excess level of energy. Which leads to my next dog park tip.
#3 Exercise Your Dog Before Taking Him To The Dog Park
Crazy people think the dog park is how you exercise your dog without doing any work. Ha! And again I say, Ha!
How much do you want to bet the craziest dogs at the dog park are the ones who don’t get any other exercise? Allow your dog to work off a little steam by having a sniffy walk, a game of fetch, or some tug before leaving for the park. I can guarantee you her play manners will be better for it. And she’ll feel more relaxed.
#4 Observe The Activity In The Park Before Entering With Your Dog
One ignorant person with crazy dogs can create a bad experience even in a dog park that works well most of the time.
I remember bringing Honey to our dog park and observing three dogs running along the fence and barking at other dogs getting out of cars to come to the park. They crowded the entrance and focused intently on each dog entering. Their person was oblivious to their behavior and made no move to call them away—I wonder if they would have listened anyway—even after I asked her to.
I wasn’t taking a chance. Honey and I turned around and left. Even if I had been willing to go in, I saw another clue that it was a bad idea to enter the park.
#5 Watch Your Dog’s Reactions Before Entering
I’ve spent years watching dogs react to each other. And I don’t pick up 1/1000th of the signals dogs share with each other.
But Honey speaks dog fluently. And when we saw the dogs running along the dog park fence, she became very excitable. And not in a good way.
Nothing about her reaction to the dogs told me to expect anything but trouble.
#6 Stay Connected With Your Dog In The Park
You don’t need to hover. But you want your dog to care that you’re there too. And to know they can come to you if they have a problem.
Many people who visit dog parks plop themselves down in one spot with their coffee or cell phone and don’t move until they’re ready to go. No wonder their dog doesn’t pay any attention to them. They know nothing short of a hurricane (or losing reception) would shift their person.
When I take Honey to the dog park, I am constantly on the move. As a result, I see her pause while playing with another dog to look for me. Once she spots me, she returns to her play. It keeps us connected. And it means that when it’s time to go, all I need to do is start walking toward the exit.
If your dog doesn’t have that intense urge to be with his human (and don’t feel bad, some dogs are just motivated by different things), use something important to him to keep you connected—perhaps a favorite ball or a dirty pair of socks rolled up in a baggie in your pocket. If your dog knows you have surprises, he’ll be more likely to keep an eye on you to see what you do next.
#7 Call Your Dog Before It’s Time To Leave
How many times have you heard this at the dog park? “Buster. Buster, come. Buuuuussssssssterrrrrrr, get over here.” Usually it’s followed by a person chasing Buster with a leash and pulling him to the exit.
If a dog is having fun, why would he come to you knowing the fun is going to end? Dogs aren’t stupid.
When we’re at the park, I call Honey to me occasionally. Sometimes I want her to take a little rest from playing. But usually I give her a scratch and tell her to go play. Honey always comes when I call her because she trusts me not to end the fun every time she does.
#8 Leave Your Dog’s Favorite Toy At Home
With visiting foster dogs, we’ve had to work on Honey’s natural protectiveness toward balls. When a new dog comes into the house, we put away all toys until we have time to observe how well Honey and our guest dog will share.
That’s why I went nuts when the dog owner I met at the park told me he was hoping the other dogs would teach his dog to share his toys.
Uh, yeah. Great idea. Especially if you like training methods that end with a vet visit and twenty stitches.
#9 Keep An Eye On The Entrance/Exit
The most tense area of the dog park is the entrance/exit.
Some dogs will gang up on new dogs coming in, leaving them little room to move away. We only enter or leave the park when the area around the gates is empty. Once I see a quiet time around the entrance, we leave quickly and quietly to avoid drama.
And finally, the most important tip of all:
#10 If Your Dog Doesn’t Like Playing With Other Dogs, Don’t Go To The Dog Park
Not all dogs like dog parks.
Some dogs don’t enjoy playing with other dogs. Just like some people hate going to cocktail parties or don’t read romance novels. If your dog doesn’t like dog parks, don’t make him go.
You’re not a bad human because your dog doesn’t get to play with other dogs. He may not want to. He probably just wants to spend time with you.
And some dogs who like playing with special friends may still not like the dog park. Arrange a play date for your dog. And leave the dog park to dogs who enjoy it.
Note: I assume your dog is polite at the dog park and you want to protect him from the bad behavior of others. But if you suspect your dog might be rude kid at the playground, check out Dr. Sophia Yin’s excellent illustrated post on dog park etiquette.
Your Turn: Dog Parks – Do you love them or hate them? How about your dog? If you visit dog parks, do you have any tips to add?