10 Tips For Enjoying The Dog Park

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.

10 Tips To Help You Enjoy the Dog Park

#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.

Honey the golden retriever puppy meets a new friend.

Meeting a new friend at puppy kindergarten. I call it training for the dog park.

#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.

Honey the golden retriever comes to the dog park in her bike cart.

Gee, you got me here so early there’s no one to play with.

#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.

Honey the golden retriever at the dog park.

Group of dogs crowded near the table? Check. Oblivious human? Check. Another dog coming up to join us? Check. Yup, my woman should be breaking up the fun any second now.

#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.

Honey the golden retriever plays tug with a hound puppy.

C’mon buddy. Learn to share. Give me that Wubba.

#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:

Honey the golden retriever is sniffed at the dog park.

Y’know I just had my vet visit. I think I’m fine if you want to stop sniffing.

#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.

Honey the golden retriever plays chase at the dog park.

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?

  1. Another great post! While I have taken my guys to a dog park a few times, I know it is not a good fit for us. Wilson will go off and sit by himself and Jimmy is an unpredictable butthead. Being off-leash makes him less likely to snark, but so many of the other dogs are also buttheads that there is always a chance for conflict. I exercise and entertain my dogs sufficiently enough that I don’t think a dog park is worth the risk.

    • OMD! I don’t think anyone could accuse you of not giving your dogs enough exercise and stimulation. 🙂

      And yes, it’s about the dogs. So if they don’t get a charge from the dog park, why take them?

  2. All excellent points! Especially #1! For example, is the park fully fenced? Calgary has 150 off-leash parks, but only 3 are fully fenced. Maybe you need that. But if you don’t, maybe best to consider another park. Because there are lots of people that need that. Or that take a fence in lieu of training/recall. Which means here, the 3 fully fenced parks are where you can find some of the poorest displays of dog and owner behaviour. (My friend recently saw a guy let his dog into the park and then go back and sit in his car and talk on the phone, watching from the parking lot. PEOPLE. Ugh.)

  3. We have one favorite one that is about 40 fenced acres with a fenced off pond. We go weekdays when it isn’t real busy. We like to just walk the trails around and through it. Sometimes we meet a dog and play, sometimes we just ignore them. We have another park we go to we don’t like much as it is smaller and people just stand there and expect the dogs to play. We used to go to our favorite one a lot, but now that we are older we haven’t gone as much. We need to go a bit more with Bailie, though as she really enjoys it.

    • I’ve never been to such a large dog park. But I love the idea of having such a large area just to wander around with Honey off-leash. Every dog should have time to just follow her nose without constraint.

      I’d love to see video of Bailie at the dog park. I can’t imagine where her nose would take her.

      • We haven’t been in a while as we have had so much rain it is most likely really muddy in spots. Mom wants to go again when it is a bit more dry. Good idea with the video, maybe we will do that next time for a post.

    • Thanks, Abby. I do think many people are using dog parks responsibly. It’s just that the idiot stories are so horrendous (and dangerous).

  4. Wonderful tips! It’s just too iffy for us in general, although I’ve taken Ruby to a ball field that is open to the public and their dogs and she’s had a good time with one or two friends in the early morning.

    • Honey is my first “dog park dog.” My first three could not have handled it.

      It’s good that you’ve found some safe places for Ruby to play. And now she has a playmate at home every day.

  5. We don’t visit the dog park anymore because people can’t seem to follow your simple suggestions in our area. No matter the time of day or week, people bring their unsocialized dogs and sit on he side smoking while their dog bullies others. We even had someone bring a female in heat once. I’m really hoping that when we move we can find a better park because my dogs absolutely love going. I just can’t stand the irresponsibility of the owners in this area.

    • It’s definitely true that different parks and neighborhoods have different dog cultures. If you can’t find a dog park where people understand the basics of doggy etiquette, you’re better off staying away.

      Of course, there might be a few other dog people out there who stay away for the same reason as you. If only you could find each other. 🙂

  6. I skip the dog park. B isn’t a fan. I took her a time or two and she’s just not really social. She’s like me- she doesn’t mind being there – but she’s not into the dog on dog or other human/dog interaction and prefers to observe. However, other dogs enjoy harassing her which is the equivalent of people crowding ME and asking me a bunch of questions and trying to hug me. (shudder)

    I totally “get” her. She will sometimes want to approach a dog, sniff and then move on. I’m like that in that sometimes I will want to say hello to someone real quick, but I don’t want to stick around to chat either.

    Although I do get the draw of the dog park – it really does look like most of the dogs and some of the people are having fun. But the majority of the people I’ve witnessed are pretty wrapped up in their cell phones or conversations with other dog owners and absolutely clueless about the dog behaviors going on around them that aren’t all positive. When I had my golden retriever mix, Copper, he LOVED the dog park. And so I would suck it up and take him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time the idiot humans at the double gate actually held BOTH gates open for him to traipse on through into the parking lot. The only thing that saved me from having to put LOST DOG posters up all over was the fact that when he was midway through the parking lot, another dog and its owners were walking towards the park and he jauntily followed them back in. (Crisis avoided.) After that, I stopped taking him as often. As alert as I was – it was a large park and he liked to make the rounds and with my two puny legs I could barely keep up and worried forever after that he would escape through the gate again. I sometimes think that most of the ignorant dog owners live here in my state.

    • You’re making me think about a new post: should introvert people have introvert dogs? Because I can see the dog park being a special form of hell for someone who doesn’t like socializing with strangers but whose dog is a social butterfly. 🙂

      But you give a good example of how anthropomorphizing can help us empathize with our dogs. More people need to look at what happens to their dog in the dog park and ask themselves if they would tolerate the same behavior if it happened to them.

  7. Sadly we don’t really have dog parks here, but I love playing in my normal park with my buddies when I see them so think I would love going!

    • I live in a town where I’d probably get a big old ticket if I allowed Honey to play off-leash in a regular park. You’re lucky to have a place to play with your buddies.

      BTW, you might not enjoy a dog park as much. You’re so pretty that the other dogs would never leave you alone. 🙂

  8. My girl Sophie loves any park. She loves to play with other dogs, but will not allow me to give attention to other dogs. She will fuss until I focus completely on her, then she goes to play with her doggie friends!

    • It sounds like Sophie’s message is clear: “We’re here for me. Now give me some lovies so I can go play.” 🙂

  9. Some brilliant tips, I often see people out walking their dogs while on their phone. Not letting the dog stop to sniff, or pee, or wander. For me when I am walking either BD or Mity I am walking them and I take that time to chat to they about my day, my heartache, or anything else we come across. It’s their walk after all!
    Your bit about body language has inspired my next post – thanks for that!

    • I’ve never understand people who walk their dogs without walking with their dogs. But it’s their loss, isn’t it?

  10. Really good points. I used to go to a dog park in NYC, and my dogs did OK there but I don’t think they particularly enjoyed themselves. I had a very conscientious friend who opened a dog daycare, and soon closed it because most of the dogs she evaluated she felt would not enjoy being there! On the other hand, I pass a dog park on the way to work in which the dogs are always running around and playing and having a blast. So it really depends on the dog, and observance of a few tips like those you outline would make dog parks a lot better and safer for everyone.

  11. OMD….such a loaded subject! I’ve been wanting to try out the dog park in our new neighborhood – but I find myself chicken every time I think about it. There’s so much that can go wrong! I like your idea of checking it out by yourself, first. I may very well do that! Thanks!