Ah, the dog park. Depending on your (and your dog's) experience, the dog park may evoke happy images of pups romping gleefully through grassy fields, or it may be more akin to a nightmare in - as a trainer friend of mine calls them - a "dirt parking lot." I have mixed feelings about dog parks, mainly due to the fact that not everyone uses them responsibly. Recently, here in Denver, a popular dog park was temporarily closed because people were misusing it, and I've heard discussions about other parks following suit. Even at the parks I really enjoy - ones with plenty of room for dogs to run and have space from one another - I often see people knowingly or unknowingly engaging in behaviors that range from inconsiderate to dangerous. So, in the interest of making a trip to the dog park more pleasant for everyone, and hopefully avoiding future shutdowns, I've compiled some suggested guidelines that we should all take into consideration when visiting:
Pick It Up
It's hard to believe this actually has to be said, but yes, you should pick up your dog's poop, including at the dog park. I'd even argue that because dogs are running around off-leash, they are more likely to step in it and therefore, it's even more crucial to clean up after them. I know of some parks where dogs may run off into chest deep weeds to eliminate and I'm okay with giving owners a pass on those instances, but if you can see your dog go, you should pick it up. It makes the park more pleasant and more sanitary for everyone (dog poop can spread disease!)
Again, it seems that it would go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: don't bring your aggressive dog to the dog park. Take them for a hike on-leash, buy a long line and go to the park, train with them in your neighborhood... there are plenty of other options for them to get exercise, but the dog park is not an appropriate place for a dog that is extremely fearful of or aggressive towards other dogs. Not only are you putting other dogs at risk, but you are further traumatizing your dog by forcing them to defend themselves against what they feel is a real threat (other dogs.)
That said, don't freak out if dogs get into a fight. It happens (although if your dog gets into a fight every time you're at the park, he is not an appropriate dog to bring to the park.) Every once in awhile dogs will have an altercation, and the best thing you can do is stay calm and try to break it up without using your hands. Clap, yell, dump water on them, grab anything you can and try to insert it between the dogs. When you do get them apart, leave immediately (do not pass go, head straight for the exit.) Dogs in a highly aroused state are likely to go off again if someone pushes their buttons - just like people. If you need to assess damage and exchange information, do so once the dogs are safely secured in your car.
You may, however, see the occasional growl and snap, and those are generally not worrisome. That's how dogs communicate boundaries and discomfort to one another. If your dog growls or snaps at another dog (or another dog growls or snaps at yours,) as long as it doesn't escalate to a fight, let it go. Move on if they seem disinterested in playing. If they continue to play without incident, let them.
Leave Your Leash at the Door
I applaud those of you who always leash your dogs in public - off leash dogs are often a nuisance to those who obey leash laws. But an off-leash park is not a place for leashes. You should remove your dog's leash at the airlock, or as soon as you get through the gate. Dogs who are leashed and have off-leash dogs running up to them are more likely to be defensively aggressive - which is not fair to the leashed dog OR the off-leash dogs. If you're worried about your dog running off at the park, train them to come when called, carry treats to reward them for returning to you, or start at a smaller park where they can't go as far.
Use Legs, Not Wheels
In the larger parks you'll often see people biking or pushing strollers through as they follow their dogs. While this isn't typically against the rules, I'd like to urge caution. Some dogs will chase and try to catch bikes, potentially injuring themselves and/or the cyclist. Strollers are less of a problem because they typically aren't going that fast, but they are still susceptible to being knocked over by rambunctious dogs who aren't looking where they're going. I've seen dogs jump on strollers to look inside, nearly tipping them over with the unsuspecting kid still strapped in. Again, please use caution and be alert if you choose to bike or stroll through the dog park. And the same goes with kids - not all dogs are kid friendly, so be very careful about bringing your kids with you. Teach them not to approach or corner the dogs or take toys from them, and that if a strange dog comes up, they should "be a tree" (cross their arms and look up.) This will encourage the dogs to move on.
Keep it in Your Pants
Put your phone in your pocket. I know, I'm as guilty as anyone of succumbing to the allure of the screen, but at the dog park, I put my phone away and pay attention to my dog. I want to make sure they're not being rude or pestering another dog, in which case I'll step in and move them along. I also want to make sure I notice if they poop so I can pick it up. And if I see any sketchy interactions with other dogs, I'll call mine back to me and we'll head in another direction. I also just really love watching dogs interact and observing their behavior. You miss a lot of things when your head is in your phone - don't be that guy whose dog is being a menace to society while he's obliviously texting.
Those are the big ones, I think! At least, these are the behaviors I see most frequently at the dog park that I think diminish the enjoyment for others. How about you? What behaviors do you see at the dog park that you'd like to change?
Have more questions about dog behavior? Does your dog have a behavior problem? Contact one of our certified professional dog trainers today. Not in Colorado? We offer phone consultations and virtual lessons via webcam.