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Sam Dobson Writes: Dog Park Etiquette

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Dog Park Etiquette

Years ago, before my dogs were lucky enough to have their mom working at a doggy daycare facility, I used to take my oldest boxer to my local dog park. Achilles is a happy boy by nature and at the time he was only a year old. With tons of energy to burn, I thought a dog park would do him some good. So, we frequented this particular dog park at least a dozen times before I decided to give it up.

You see, the troubling thing about dog parks is that there is no one person in charge. This may not make sense to some of you; isn't free play (and free of charge) a good thing? Free play is a good thing, but there are little to no rules at the dog park. No one is regulating behavior, health, sanitation, or much of anything really. Now don't go get your panties in a bunch. I'm not saying dog parks are bad, I agree that they can be a ton of fun and beneficial to your dog. I'm just saying there is an etiquette for the dog park that many owners are oblivious to.

Dog Park Etiquette
All photos were taken by my friend Jessie and feature her German Shepherd, Axel, enjoying the dog park.
Follow them on Instagram @thataxeldog


Dog Park Etiquette

1. Be realistic when it comes to your dog's temperament. 

Dog Park EtiquetteMany dog owners have a slightly skewed opinion of their dog's general behavior. I can't tell you how many times a dog does better or worse in group play than their owner thought they would do. If your dog is reactive on leash (you know, barking and growling and lunging) it doesn't necessarily mean your dog is aggressive. A trainer will tell you that this could just be your dog's way of voicing his frustration at being unable to sniff the butt of a passing dog. If you aren't sure of your dog's temperament, you shouldn't take him to the dog park. Hire a trainer or get assistance from a local doggy daycare to assess your dog's socialization level.

If you know that your dog can't tolerate puppies, hates intact males, does better with smaller dogs, always seems to get into scuffles with labs, or whatever the particular behavior is, let your fellow dog park visitors know. Keep Fido on leash until the puppies have had their fun. Come back later if the park is filled with a breed your dog has trouble with. Avoid putting your dog into an unsafe environment.

2. Neutered is better. 

When I used to take Achilles to the dog park, our biggest adversary was an intact German Shepherd named Bear who always seemed to be there when we were. Bear constantly attempted to mount Achilles and one day when Achilles tried to wriggle away, Bear attacked him. All the while, Bear's oblivious owner was at the far end of the park talking on his cell phone (See #5 below). I was left to try to break up the fight myself, prior to having any dog handling experience. Of course, now I understand why this happened but at the time I just thought Bear and his owner were jackasses.

Dog Park EtiquetteI know for some people, this is a hot button debate item. To spay and neuter or not to spay and neuter. I'll admit that I, as a director of a small rescue, am pro-spay/neuter, if for no other reason than the overpopulation of cats and dogs that leads to excessive euthanization. Another benefit for spayed and neutered dogs is better social interactions with other dogs. Of course this isn't true for all dogs. Some altered dogs will still have socialization issues, while some intact dogs can be social butterflies. But the reality is that most intact males often have issues in large groups of play, whether or not the behavior issue is theirs or the other males in the group. In fact, most doggy daycare facilities do not allow unneutered dogs into large play groups after a certain age (usually around 7 months). 

Dominance can become a bigger issue when one or more male dog in the group are intact.
If your dog isn't neutered and you don't plan on doing so, but you still want your pup to play with other dogs, your best bet is a pack of spayed females. Unspayed females often get constantly accosted by unaltered males (and sometimes by altered males). This behavior can lead to a fight when enough is enough for the poor girl. In general, keep your female dog out of large groups when in heat.

3. Scoop the poop. 

It absolutely blows my mind when people don't pick up after their dogs, no matter where they are. It's particularly pathetic when this happens at the dog park. How lazy do you have to be!? The dog park is stocked with bags and has a proper receptacle specifically for dog poop. It's common courtesy, people. I don't want my dog to step or roll in poop and nor do I want to sit in a dog park full of flies. It's simple really, scoop the poop.


4. Bring treats and toys with caution. 

Dog Park EtiquetteIn the few handful of times Achilles and I went to the dog park, I often saw owners bring in treats and/or personal toys. Good intentions with a possible disastrous outcome. One lady would always come with a pocketful of treats. Once Achilles figured out where those treats were coming from, he trotted over, sat down next to her dog, and waited patiently for his treat. At the time I thought it was adorable. Look at how sweet and smart my dog is! After years of experience supervising group play, I understand that this was a very bad idea and that lady with the good intentions and I were both very lucky. Many dogs will guard resources (food, treats, a tennis ball, other toys) and will aggressively protect that resource. However, many people do bring a ball to throw and it's usually not a problem, just don't do so if Sparky would kill to get his chops on that bright yellow ball.



5. Pay attention!

Just like Bear's owner, many owners step inside the dog park gates, let their dog off leash, and then whip out their cell phone, iPad, or even a book. While it may be tempting to catch up on some work or do some light reading, the only thing you should be doing is watching your dog play. It's your job to make sure that your dog is playing nicely. It's your job to make sure the other dogs are playing nicely with your dog. It's your job to pick up after your dog when all that running has given him the urge to pass his earlier meal. It's your job to watch your dog. Dog fights can happen in a split second. Pay attention so that should any troubling behavior arise, you can act before any altercation can take place.

6. Don't spread germs.

Just as you would keep your kindergartner out of class when he has a cold, you should skip the dog park when your dog is sick. Whether its a cold, a stomach bug, or some other contagious ailment, avoid spreading it to other dogs. If your dog has recently been vomiting, has diarrhea, green boogers, coughing, etc., wait until the symptoms subside before another visit to the dark park.
Dog Park Etiquette
The bottom line is that dog parks can be a lot of fun, for you and your dog, but owners have to be responsible for their dogs. Make sure your dog has the right temperament for group play, assess the group to see if his play style matches up, pick up the poop, and always pay attention. These basic etiquette rules will make the dog park a happier and safer place for your pup to play.

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