For many dog lovers, a dog park is a vision of paradise: adorable pups romping and playing to their furry hearts’ content!
Yet in order to maintain everyone’s health and happiness, dog parks do have rules, both written and unwritten. That’s right — breaking dog park etiquette can quickly get you and Fido kicked out of paradise!
Before You Go to the Dog Park, Ask Yourself…
Is My Dog Ready?
Dogs that are playtime-ready are:
- At least 6 months old
- Fully vaccinated
- Trained on recall (“come when called”)
- Spayed/Neutered (or at the very least, not in heat!)
Vaccinated dogs keep the entire canine community safe, including your own pup. This is the main reason why you shouldn’t take your puppy to the dog park until they receive their last vaccine at around 6 months old.
Also, while it’s crucially important to socialize your puppy, the dog park just isn’t the best place to do it anyway. Instead, arrange small, private playdates with others in your puppy training class to give little Fido the exposure he needs to grow up confident and friendly! Only then will he be ready to play with the “big dogs” (literally!).
An unsocialized dog is likely to be stressed, anxious or possibly even aggressive at the dog park. Taking an unsocialized dog to the park is unsafe, and poor Fido won’t have any fun anyway! Socialize your dog slowly and safely on your own, and you may be able to build up to the dog park.
It’s vital that your dog’s recall (how reliable they are at coming to you when you call them) is rock-solid before you go to a dog park. If your dog only comes to you 50% of the time (or even less when they’re distracted) then your recall needs work.
The best way to do this is to take your dog out somewhere on a long lead (20 feet or more) to practice calling them back to you. Slowly increase the “distraction level” over time; for example, toss squeaky toys or ask a friend to walk past with their dog. Only when you are certain your dog will reliably come to you, no matter what, can you declare them dog park-ready!
Finally, while spaying or neutering your dog is a good general practice anyway, it’s especially important to be aware of your dog’s hormones at the dog park if you do choose not to sterilize them. For everyone’s sake, NEVER bring a dog in heat to the dog park! You’ll become the most hated person at the park in an instant.
What Are the Rules?
Outside of the unofficial dog park etiquette, there’s also formal rules. Find out if the dog park you are scoping out requires any pre-registration or membership fees to participate. Some parks also specify that your dog must be collared at all times, must clearly display their license tags and must have certain vaccinations in order to enter the park.
What’s this Dog Park Like?
When choosing a dog park, don’t bring Fido on the first visit. Instead, go by yourself and check it out. There are ten questions you should ask yourself as you run reconnaissance:
- Is the entrance double gated? Are there multiple entrances?
A double gate is much safer, greatly reducing the chance a dog will catch their owner by surprise and escape out of (or into) the dog park. Multiple entrances are preferred, reducing “traffic jams” and making it less likely over-eager dogs will crowd the entrance to harass incomers.
- Are there separate large and small dog areas?
We’re not saying Chihuahuas and Dobermans can’t be friends — of course they can! But when you’re around so many dogs you don’t know, it’s safer to keep the bigger dogs away from the fun-sized pups.
- Are poop bags and waste pins provided? Is the park clean, or covered in dog poop?
One of the most basic components of dog park etiquette is to clean up after your dog. If the other park visitors don’t follow that guideline, it’s not just gross — it can even spread diseases between dogs. If the dog park you’re investigating looks like a doggy minefield, back away slowly!
- Is water provided, or do you have to bring your own?
Some dog parks provide communal water troughs or fountains. It’s a nice gesture, but it’s also easy for viruses and bacteria to spread that way. Try to bring your own water as much as possible, but note if there is another option for hydration in case you ever forget.
- Are you allowed to bring your own toys or treats?
Some dog parks have an anti-toy policy to prevent fighting and resourcing guarding among the dogs. If your dog park does allow toys, try to visit at low-traffic times and put the toy away if it’s causing too much canine competition.
- Is there a pool, pond, sprinklers or other place to play in the water?
During the dog days of summer, very few pooches would say no to a pool! Water features are fun for dogs, but you will want to bathe Fido when you get home to reduce the risk of disease. Plus, if you don’t want your pup getting wet at all, it’s good to know if the temptation is there!
- Are there any climbing structures or agility courses?
Some dog parks are nothing but an open field, while others have fun structures that you can encourage your dog to climb over and under. Maybe Fido has a secret skill for slalom!
- Does the fence seem secure? Are there any sharp edges, any holes or places where your dog can dig under it?
Some hounds are true Houdinis, and if they can find a way to explore beyond the dog park, they will. Double check that the fence at your dog park can’t be easily scaled and doesn’t have any jutting pieces of metal.
- What’s the ground cover like — gravel, dirt, grass, mud, mulch? Is the ground uneven; are there any dangerous places your dog could twist an ankle or fall down a drop?
Many doggy paws can easily tear up a once-beautiful lawn. Add in the effects of rain and weather, and your local dog park may just become a dog bog! It’s something to consider before you bring Fido and let him loose into the mud and muck.
- How crowded is it, both dog-wise and human-wise?
Finally, how popular is your local dog park? A puppy mosh pit quickly becomes stressful and overwhelming for many dogs, no matter how friendly they are. Plan to visit the park when it is quiet, or at the same time that the most responsible owners tend to go.
How to Follow Dog Park Etiquette
You don’t want to embarrass yourself by being the one schmuck at the dog park who doesn’t follow the unspoken etiquette!
Here are a few of the top ways you may break the dog park etiquette and find yourself a pariah of canine society:
- Not cleaning up your dog’s poop
- Letting your dog harass other dogs that don’t want to play
- Letting your dog steal another dog’s toy
- Feeding someone else’s dog without permission (some dogs have allergies, you know!)
- Trying to pet someone’s dog without permission
- Calling someone’s dog without permission
- Crowding the entrance/exit gate
- Leaving the gates open
- Letting your dog wander outside of your view
The gate is often one of the most contentious places in the dog park. As Dogington Post says:
“Call your dog away from the gate while others are entering and leaving. This rule of thumb is both to make life easier for those trying to enter or exit the park but also helps to avoid some of the altercations that can happen when new dogs are entering. A dog entering the park can become anxious or overwhelmed when greeted by many unfamiliar dogs. A tense or uncomfortable dog is more likely to become aggressive or frightened. Keeping your pup away from the gate will also prevent her from slipping out.”
Sometimes, being a good citizen at the dog park means walking your dog before you enter the park. Yes, you take your dog to the park so they can burn off steam, but if your dog is truly bounding with excitement they’re more likely to cause trouble or not listen to you. Even a brief walk can help Fido calm down enough to be manageable — and your fellow dog owners will appreciate it.
At the end of the day, the number one most important social rule at a dog park is: Always, always, ALWAYS watch your dog! Fido’s energy level and behavior can change in a moment; one second they might be totally fine, and then suddenly they’re overwhelmed and ready to go home.
The faster you step in when your dog’s not enjoying themself, the more confidence your dog will have that you have their back — and the more willing they will be to return to the dog park another time!
Dog Play: Friendly or Fighting?
The three main emotional states you need to be able to recognize in your dog (and in other dogs, as much as possible) are: happy and friendly, nervous or scared, and overwhelmed or defensive.
Happy, friendly dogs have loose, wiggly bodies. Their mouths are often open in a “grin,” with their tongue lolling out. Dogs that are happy together use bows to say “Let’s play!”
You’ll also see that respectful play is reciprocal: one dog may chase or pin the other, but then the roles are reversed. A dog who is being chased and enjoying it will look back and encourage their playmate to follow them.
Be aware that some dogs do get quite vocal as they are playing. If they’re a big dog with a deep voice, the growling and barking can sound alarming — but if you look at the dogs’ body language and behavior as a whole, and you’ll know if that scary-sounding growl is actually all in good fun. That’s why it’s important to look at all aspects of a dog’s behavior when you’re deciding if it’s “good play” or “bad play!”
Of course, this goes the opposite way, too: if a normally quiet dog lets out a little snarl, that one sound may tell you they’ve been pushed too far. It could be time to bail and go home.
Remember that all dogs are individuals, so just because two dogs are both friendly and confident doesn’t guarantee they’ll be compatible as playmates. Different sizes, energy levels and style of play will determine if another dog will be a good playmate for your pup.
But when it’s right, it’s right: two dogs that love to play together respectfully will benefit mentally, physically and emotionally. After all, that’s what friends are for!
Nervous or scared dogs won’t have the same “wiggliness.” Instead, dogs that are uncertain about this whole “dog park” thing may be cowering or tuck their tail between their legs. If you see see the whites of their eyes, known as “whale eye,” your pup is definitely uncomfortable. A nervous dog won’t enjoy being chased, and will be genuinely trying to get away.
Some pet parents don’t pick up on it when their dog is nervous because their dog’s tail is still wagging. But, as Kayla Fratt from K9 of Mine explains:
“Unfortunately, you can’t just watch for a wagging tail! Dogs wag their tails for all sorts of reasons. It’s like when people smile or laugh. Sometimes, people laugh when they’re nervous or being mean. Laughing doesn’t always mean someone is having fun – and a wagging tail is the same.”
Sometimes, a wagging tail is a nervous attempt to appease a scary dog. In that case, the tail wag is basically saying, “I’m nice, please don’t hurt me!”
Overwhelmed or defensive dogs will have stiff, tense bodies. If you see a dog freeze and lean forward slightly with their head high, they’re getting ready to defend themselves if needed. A curled lip or raised hackles are also ways for Fido to say, “Back off, buddy!”
If you see these signs from your own dog, call them to you immediately. If they don’t relax after a few minutes, it’s time to leave the park. Likewise, if you see these signs from a dog your pup is trying to play with, call your dog to you.
Finally, remember that some well-meaning dogs are simply social idiots. They don’t understand or are too excited to notice the cues from another dog that they don’t want to play.
These canine dorks think that if they simply harass the other dog harder, they can force the play they want. It’s a dog saying, “C’mon, c’mon, let’s PLAY! Please play with me, please please play with me, c’mon!!”
Instead, what often happens is the opposite result: the other dog loses patience when their polite-yet-firm requests to be left alone are ignored, and they decide it’s time to throw down.
As soon as you realize that one dog isn’t respecting the other’s signals, intervene! Call your dog, and leash them quickly if you do need to remove them from the situation.
If a true scrap or fight breaks out, the best way to interrupt it is with a sudden loud sound (or, if you have one handy, a water hose!). Never physically put yourself in between scrapping dogs — that’s very noble but may result in a nasty bite for you, so don’t be reckless with your own safety.
If you’re ever unsure how your pup is feeling, the legendary canine behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin created these handy guides to dog park etiquette and reading dog body language.
For some dogs, the dog park just isn’t their jam. But for many others, the dog park is a fantastic place to play and make new friends — as long as everyone respects the proper etiquette.
As long as you’re prepared to clean up after yourself, monitor your dog’s moods and keep an eye on your pup, you and Fido are ready for fun!