Dog Park Etiquette
Once your dog learns just how fun the dog park is, you can barely whisper the word before they’re tearing around the house, tail wagging, ready to go. But what kind of decorum is expected from dogs at the p-a-r-k? What is proper dog park etiquette?
While the rules themselves may slightly differ from one dog park to the next, it helps to familiarize yourself with basic dog park etiquette. This will help ensure you, your dog, and the people and pups around you have the best possible experience.
The pros and cons of dog parks
Before you and your dog pack into the car and head to your nearest off-leash park, we recommend weighing the pros and cons of dog parks to determine whether it’s a suitable, safe fit.
Dog park pros
- Physical exercise for you and your dog
- A change of scenery from your daily walk
- Can be enjoyed with friends or family
- Mental and sensory stimulation
- Opportunity to socialize with other dogs and people
- Meet other dog-loving humans (and their good boys and girls)
- A secure environment for dogs to roam off leash
Dog park cons
- Intact (not spayed or neutered), in-heat, and aggressive dogs can cause issues like dog fights and unplanned pregnancies
- Increased chance of exposure and spread of diseases and parasites
- Dogs who are overstimulated or lack impulse control might react negatively to the environment
- It can be unsafe to have small and large dogs together (many don’t realize their size!)
- People may not closely monitor their dogs or will leave them unsupervised
- Location may cause noise and smell concerns (traffic and dog barking, for example)
- Potential liability if there is a significant injury from a dog fight, or if a human is bitten
Keep in mind that the outcome may change as your dog ages, receives additional training, or either warms or cools to others. If you decide now isn’t the right time to try a dog park, that’s okay—there are plenty of other ways to socialize and stimulate your dog!
When can my puppy go to the dog park?
There is one more variable to factor into your decision as to whether or not the dog park is right for you: your dog’s age and vaccination status.
Puppy dog park etiquette is different from adult and senior dogs because they should have at least one distemper-parvo vaccine (if not more) based on where you live. Always ask your vet for their recommendations, both on vaccines and on spending time at the dog park as a puppy.
If your puppy is now an awkward adolescent who is transitioning into adulthood (6-12+ months, depending on your pup), it may be best to wait until they’ve been spayed or neutered. Even if they’re otherwise a well-trained, good-natured pup, their sexual maturity might be a trigger for other dogs at the park. Not worth the risk, in our opinion.
Dog Park Etiquette: The Essentials
Sometimes referred to as off-leash parks, dog parks are purposefully designed (a bit like our Waggle Mail dog subscription boxes) to offer dogs a safe, controlled environment to exercise and interact.
To keep these spaces safe and neutral, there are things all park-loving dog parents should know and do:
Master basic commands
Have you and your dog nailed down the basics like come, sit, and lay down? If so, great!
For your dog’s safety (and the safety of others), recall is another important skill—arguably the most important skill—to have down pat. Here’s why:
- Less likely to be an escape artist. Without reliable recall, some dogs might interpret having their leash removed as an invitation to head for the hills, or to head in the opposite direction when you tell them it’s time to go home. Plus, you can spare yourself the embarrassment and exhaustion of having to chase after a dog who might be able to outrun you.
- Less likely to get into dangerous situations. In this case, out of sight does not mean out of mind. If you don’t have eyes on your dog, there’s virtually no way of knowing where they are or what they’re up to. Some dog parks back onto rivers, other dangerous topography, or even busy roads. There is also the risk of a run-in with an overly excitable dog; if that excited energy turns to aggression, the ability to call your dog back to you can help keep them safe.
Your dog should be properly socialized around strangers (dogs and humans) before venturing to the dog park. Off-leash play is fun, but it’s harder for dog parents to intervene should things get out of hand… especially when the area is, well, the size of a park.
If your dog tends to get anxious around exuberant, well-meaning dogs, you don’t want to trigger a fear response and turn them off parks altogether. Ideally, all parties should know and respect that if someone doesn’t want to play, it’s time to move on. If your dog is reactive to others or is very particular about who’s in their social circle, the dog park may not be right for you… and that’s perfectly fine.
Mind the toys and food
Although many off-leash parks don’t have an explicit rule against bringing in toys, often they’re not recommended. Chances are another dog will be just as excited by the toy as your dog is. Some dogs are happy to share, but others tend to guard their toys and can become pretty upset if they believe another dog is being sneaky and trying to steal.
The same can be said for bringing in food, but the other factor to consider is how many dogs have food allergies. Even if a dog flashes you the biggest set of puppy eyes you’ve ever seen, don’t give them a treat unless you have verbal consent from their parent. Nobody wants to come home from a play at the park with an upset stomach.
Intact and in heat? Best to stay home
A good show of dog park etiquette is that if your dog is intact and in heat, you pick another time to visit. Many parks will have signs posted indicating that dogs in heat aren’t allowed. These signs are written with the best intentions; a female dog in heat can cause a scene at the dog park, especially if they’re around male dogs who themselves are still intact. All the swirling hormones can send dogs into fight mode.
Determining whether your dog is in heat can be harder said than done. Many females are very particular at keeping themselves clean when they’re in heat and do a good job of hiding it. Some things that you might be able to pick up on include:
- Peeing more than usual
- Watery or bloody discharge
- Behavioural changes (e.g., seems “off,” reduced or increased appetite
EXPERT TIP: Do your parkmates one better and take your dog in for regular deworming.
Scoop the poop
As a courtesy to other park-goers, make sure you clean up after your dog. Not only does this preserve the space, but it also reduces the amount of intestinal parasites that may be lurking.
High-traffic areas like dog parks are more likely to contain pathogens like parvovirus and bordetella bronchiseptica (AKA kennel cough). Just like us humans, keeping your pets up to date on vaccinations is one of the best ways to protect them.
Your dog’s rabies vaccine is, in our opinion, a must. Should your dog happen to get bit during an altercation, being vaccinated takes rabies off the potential hazards list.
Leave kids at home
As tempting as it may be to schedule a family dog park outing into your weekend itinerary, it’s best not to bring children to the dog park. There are a few reasons for this:
- Kids can pick up bacteria and other yucky things by playing in contaminated soil
- Kids can be knocked over by a pack of playful pups horsing around
- Some dogs find kids scary and unpredictable and may have an adverse reaction to being approached by a small, smiling stranger
EXPERT TIP: Keep your dog’s leash at the ready; don’t clip it to the fence at the dog park entrance. You may need it in case of an emergency.
Pack a collar or harness
Even though the leash is off, it’s a good idea to keep a collar or harness with updated tags on. Not only are these handy handles (should you need them), they’ll also help identify your dog should they decide to take off.
Monitor body language
Being able to read your dog’s and other dogs’ body language will help you know when and how to intervene. If you notice a dog looking anxious, fearful, or stressed, it’s time to end the interaction.
Here’s what to watch for:
- Licking lips
- Exaggerated yawning
- Flattened ears
- Whale eye (eye looking at a threatening objected with a turned head, revealing more of the white of the eye)
- Hackles up (the hair along the shoulders and spine stands up)
- Trying to avoid the other dog
- A tail that is tucked/down, straight out, or there are short, choppy wags
What’s proper dog park etiquette if a dog fight breaks out?
If your dog is not involved in the fight, call them back to you and clear the area. Some dogs will instinctively try to help another dog out or break up the fight, but ultimately end up making a bad situation worse. (This is another reason good recall is so important.)
If your dog is involved, there are a few things you can do:
- Create a distraction. A loud noise, some water, or even a jacket may provide sufficient distraction to break things up.
- Use an object to create space. A stick or a garbage lid placed between the duelling dogs can give the necessary physical space to deescalate the situation. No matter what, do not hit your dog (or another dog) and be conscious of keeping a safe distance between your body and their mouths.
- Use the wheelbarrow technique as a last resort. Have one person approach each dog from behind, grabbing the back legs and lifting them up and into a wheelbarrow position. This should give you leverage to gently pull the dogs backwards and away from one another. We advise this as a last resort tactic because some dogs may turn around and go after the humans trying to break them up.
Once the fight has been broken up, it’s best to leave the park and check for injuries once your dog has calmed down. Remember: wounds are often deeper than they appear. If there is active bleeding or exposed muscle, fat, or bone, call your vet clinic immediately.
For minor wounds (anything that hasn’t pierced the skin or for which bleeding quickly stopped), clean with a disinfecting solution.
Hopefully with this information in hand, you and your dog will have nothing but happy park days ahead!
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO