Dear PoPville – Dog Park Etiquette?

Photo by PoPville flickr user idit.

Dear PoPville,

My wife and I are the new owners of a wonderful rescue dog, adopted through City Dogs Rescue. She loves going to the dog park, and we’re wondering if the folks out in Popville can clue us in to any unwritten rules for the park. How much should we supervise our dog? Should we intervene if the dogs start playing rough? What other etiquette should we know? We’d love to hear what people think.

44 Comment

  • Here are two important things to keep in mind…

    – Always be aware of your dog’s location: There are people who bring their dog to the park, set it free, and bury their nose in a book. Don’t do that. You don’t necessarily have to be right next to her all the time, but be aware of where she is.

    – Intervention becomes necessary if you think it is: You know your dog better than anyone else. If there’s rough play that you’re not comfortable with or your dog is not comfortable with, intervene. Don’t worry about whether another owner will be offended. It’s your dog to keep your dog safe.

  • It’s best to be social with the other dog owners, for the most part let the dogs be dogs. Rough play is okay, but IF there’s a fight, and you will know, DO intervene. Nobody wants anybody, getting hurt. DO NOT put your hand between fighting dogs, IF YOU MUST, and it’s likely you will, push (kick) them apart with the flat part of your foot.

    Honestly, make friends with the other owners, every dog park is different, and I’m sure they’d appreciate and be happy to answer all your doggie type questions.

    • Another way to separate dogs is to pick up their hind legs and pull them away from each other.

      • Congrats on your new dog and kudos for adopting!

        Yeah, don’t put your foot in there. Like Anon said, pull them apart by their hind legs.

        Like others have said, don’t be that person who drops their dog in the middle of the park then gets on the cell phone, buries themself in a book, turns their back on their dog, etc. Pay attention at all times.

        Also, you are responsible for your dog’s behavior. If it is jumping all over people, harrassing a dog who appears not open to such harrassement, etc., you need to make sure it stops or remove your dog.

        Lastly, don’t use the dog park as the dog’s sole outlet for exercise. Take the dogs on a brisk walk for 15-20 minutes before you arrive to the park, that will help get rid of the that excess energy that seems to cause a lot of the problems at the dog park.

        • The last rule depends on the dog, I think. I have little ones that don’t need more than a 10-minute walk anyway, so the park is just a bonus.

  • You should keep an eye on your dog at all times. Always pick up after them obviously. I would advise against bringing dog treats. If there’s a toy they’re possessive over, don’t bring it.

    Don’t be too overly sensitive about playing “rough”. It’s natural for dogs to play rough and many times an owner can create a problem that wasn’t there by getting involved. Also, since you’re new to the dog park, it’s important to respond appropriately to your dog’s energy. i.e. if he/she is nervous, don’t coddle him/her, don’t pet and say it’s ok…you’re just reinforcing the nervous feeling. It’s actually better to ignore this behavior and let the dogs teach him/her that it’s all good to be part of their pack.

    Or to take it in another direction, if the energy level is getting too high, it’s time to step in. give him/her a few moments of breathing time. don’t be overly sensitive. as time goes on you get better at recognizing when your dog’s getting too caught up in the moment.

    ummm, i’d also say a good rule of thumb is to not let your dog corner another dog especially if he’s part of a ‘tag team’.

  • Congratulations!

    The most dangerous part of some dog parks is the chance that a dog will run into the street when someone opens the gate. (Some dog parks in the area have double gates but some don’t.) Be very cautious when opening a gate, and don’t open one when another dog is close enough to run out before you can shut it. This also goes to Blasian’s excellent point about being aware of your dog: you need to be able to call your dog away from the gate if someone is entering/exiting carelessly.

    • On that note, for the parks that do have double gates: wait your turn when entering/exiting the park. If someone is with their dog between the gates, do not open either one until that person and their dog have exited that space or given you some sort of signal that it’s okay. Seriously. That drives me crazy.

    • Also, if you have young kids, PLEASE don’t bring them to a dog park. It’s dangerous for a child to be near running, possibly fighting dogs, and it’s dangerous for your dog if you’re primarily watching your kid.

      Also, if you have neither a dog nor common sense, do not try to use a dog park as your child’s petting zoo. (Yes, I’ve seen this, and yes, it went as badly as you might think.)

      • Yeah, I get nervous when kids are near my dog. She’s never hurt anyone, but she’s not used to being around children and you never know when a kid is going to do something mean to a dog that will upset it.

  • I would say that the most important thing is that a dog park is great for social interactions but should not be their main place of exercise. Walk your dog adequately on a regular basis and take the dog to the dog park AFTER a long walk. You don’t want their energy level to be through the roof. A lot of dog owners don’t know the basics about what is aggressive/non-aggressive behaviors are the ones that let situations get out of control. Be alert, learn your dogs signs that it’s uncomfortable or agitated and react accordingly. Sometimes your dog will be fine for an hour and some days it can only handle 5 minutes. Go with your gut!

  • Pick up your dog’s waste. I cannot stand how people come to the dog park, let their dog free, sit on their phone, and don’t bother to notice that their dog has gone to the bathroom across the park. If you have recently rescued your dog, I would keep a closer eye on him/her because you don’t know your dog well enough yet to understand his/her signals that agression is forthcoming or he/she is feeling under attack. You also aren’t going to be that familiar with the other dogs at the park. Trust me, just because someone brings their dog to a dog park does not mean that that dog has the social skills to be at a dog park. There are a surprising number of oblivious dog owners who will inevitably reply “Oh, he’s never done THAT before” when their dog makes a beeline for yours, bearing teeth and growling, while they leisurely stroll over. That said, from time to time there are situations noone expects. It’s hard to know why your dog might not like another dog, but they will let you know when they don’t! So until you know your dog, and the others at the park, keep a close eye and don’t let the dog get too far from your reach.

  • First of all, congrats!
    – ALWAYS keep an eye on your dog.
    – ALWAYS have poop bags and pick up after your dog
    – Intervene if necessary. For me, personally, I have had my rescue dog for almost a year, so I know all of her little signs of getting upset. If I see another dog not wanting to play with her and getting upset, I try to distract her away from the dog. If you think you need to intervene, do so before it has turned into a fight and is harder to break up. If a fight erupts, loud noises (whistle, air horn, or throwing whatever you have to make noise) can distract the dogs for enough time for you to grab a collar. Never put your hand in between the dogs (I learned this the hard way with 10 puncture wounds and a broken finger).
    – Always have collar and ID/rabies tag on your dog
    – Make sure your dog stays UTD on vaccinations – the dog park is the most likely place for a dog to get sick
    – Make sure you have water/a water bowl if the dog park does not provide it
    – Do not ever bring food (even treats) into the dog park. Some dogs become aggressive around food. This is my biggest pet peeve at the dog park!
    – Talk to other pet owners there. This is a great place to make friends and meet knowledgeable and caring dog owners
    – HAVE FUN!

    • Agree with everything said, and want to say this again: don’t bring treats into the dog park.

      Dogs will fight over food, or may just come over and jump on you if you have food. Most dogs are trained with treats, so it will be really hard for an owner to get his/her dog (who is otherwise well behaved) to leave you alone.

    • Good idea about the treats – I have been guilty of this in the past because I never thought of it as bad etiquette, but that’s a very good point.

    • Sparta

      I do not let my dogs drink water anywhere unless it comes from me. There is a strong danger of leptospirosis, which last fall killed two dogs in Bloomingdale in the space of a few days. It’s spread by rats and the vaccinations for it address only 3 or 4 of 7 varieties carried by the virulent DC rat population. It can kill your dog in a day or two after contact with the infected water.

  • What kind of ball etiquette rules do you follow? My dog often goes after someone else’s ball or another dog takes his. I usually take cues from the other dog and its owner– if they are enjoying the competition and don’t mind my dog getting in on the action, great. If it looks like my dog is constantly stealing the ball or the owner doesn’t want him there I’ll shoo him away. And if my dog gets distracted and doesn’t bring the ball back I make sure I’m the person to retrieve it.

    • When that happens I will just say to the owner, “let me know if my dog is bugging you and I’ll stop her” or some such thing. I do the same thing when she’s playing with any other dog and say something like “if you feel like she’s playing rough or your dog is uncomfortable just let me know.” My dog is ridiculously friendly and I try to respect everyone else’s comfort levels.

  • The less of a production you can make coming into the dog park for your pup, the better. Take the leash off and open the door swiftly and don’t act too nervous. The most stressful time for a dog new to the park is entering, and keeping them in the entrance to be barked at makes them anxious.

    Sometimes other dogs are ill-mannered or socially retarded (I have one of those) and your dog may snap at them. It’s ok. My dog does it sometimes – all 20 lbs of him – and then he moves on. The trouble comes when another dog wants to completely dominate another and the weaker dog either really doesn’t like it or is no match for the other and just gets clobbered. That’s really the only time someone should intervene. Dogs that are humping each other, grabbing each other’s scruffs or ears, snarling, or tackling each other are 90% of the time fine and just playing – even if it seems “rough”. It’ll be patently obvious when one or the other doesn’t like it, or if they’re really taking each other on. Owners jumping in and anxiously correcting things when they’re fine actually makes the dogs behave worse.

    Basically, the only thing that really drives me nuts (aside from not understanding how dogs play) is not being honest about your dog’s temperament. If your dog really isn’t socialized as well as you think she is, work on it before you come to the park. If your dog’s aggression surprises you, then don’t just settle for “I’ve never seen her do that before” and leave it to other people to worry about what your dog will do.

    • I agree with all of that, except for the humping part. Please don’t let your dog hump other dogs because for some dogs, it’s an immediate trigger for a fight. If you allow it, then they’ll think it’s always okay and then eventually get in a nasty fight. I usually try to discourage all signs of my sometimes alpha dog trying to dominate another including humping. Playing, rough-housing and chasing each other is different than trying to exert their dominance.

    • “…Dogs that are humping each other, grabbing each other’s scruffs or ears, snarling, or tackling each other are 90% of the time fine and just playing – even if it seems “rough”. ”

      That’s terrible advice. If I saw you come into the park I would immediately leave.

      • good. Go buy your dog some more outfits.

        Look, on the humping thing – all I was saying is it’s not the end of the world if your dog does it because he/she is trying to figure out their slot in the dog park pack. If it’s compulsive or your dog being a jerk, obviously step in. I do when my dog starts humping smaller dogs too much, and my dog’s 20 lbs.

  • 1. Learn to recognize the signs of aggression in your dog. I barely go to the dog park any more because people can’t recognize the difference between rough play and aggression. I very much believe in let dogs be dogs, but aggressive dogs are either not having fun themselves or causing other dogs not to have fun.

    2. The dog park is for socializing dogs, not yourself.

    3. Also the dog park is for socializing dogs, not for exercise. It’s good mental stimulant, but it doesn’t substitute for walks. That mindset makes for high strung dogs at the dog park, and high strung dogs at home.

  • bfinpetworth

    I’m going to offer an alternative point of view: After many years of trying different dog parks in different cities and different dogs, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are not safe. There are just too many irresponsible dog owners that are looking for an easy way to give their not-well-behaved dog exercise without doing the hard work. Too many fights, too many injured dogs, it just isn’t worth it to me.

    But many people like them, so good luck with your new family member!

    • I second this approach. We take our puppy to socials organized by training groups (Fur Get Me Not, Happy Hounds, etc). Once she is grown, we will work on play groups with dogs in the neighborhood that we know but we will not be going to any dog parks. We have already seen too many irresponsible dog owners and don’t want to create a situation where our dog could become scared of other dogs because their owners just aren’t paying attention.

    • Definitely agree with this. I used to bring my dog to the dog park all the time, but after a bunch of close calls with very badly socialized dogs and owners who were either in denial or didn’t care, I decided it was a very unsafe environment. I haven’t gone back in three years and never will do so.

      I recommend having play dates with friends or neighbors who have dogs who you know are well-socialized. A dog park is a crap shoot, and honestly not worth the gamble.

  • I echo what people have already said on here. I also want to say it’s your responsibility to know if/when your dog is uncomfortable. Quite often I’ve gone to the park with my dog and another dog is shaking, has it tail between its legs or hiding in its owners. Another dog will come up to sniff the scared one and the scared one yelps and it starts fight. Not every dog loves the dog park and if your dog is one of them, take them out. There are other ways to socialize.

  • Everyone else has given good advice, so I’ll just +1 all of it.

    I just wanted to add one safety thing that seems obvious but that inexperienced dog park folks don’t always know – if your dog wears a metal chain or prong collar, please take it off before going in the park.

    The Washington Humane Society used to offer “Dog Park Etiquette” training classes for people; I thought it was really useful and had a lot of info about watching dogs’ interactions and spotting issues before they turn into problems, which I never noticed before. I don’t think they offer that anymore, but a good dog trainer can probably give you some of that info as well.

  • I’ve had a 65 pound pitbull mix rescued pitbull mix for 4 years or so. I got him when he was two, and he is not great with other dogs on leash. He is kind of a jerk when meeting other dogs: doesn’t seem to know not to put his face up to theirs, doesn’t sniff enough, sometimes lunges or snaps or pulls hair. On the other hand, he spent a whole week with my sister’s 15 pound Boston terrier, and after about the first 5 seconds of his being-his-usual-jerk self, they got along great. The jerkiness has always made me nervous about bringing him to a dog park, but I also suspect he might do really well and learn some manners if only there were the right group of dogs there: say a more or less established “pack” of well socialized dogs his size with chill owners. Anyone know if there are any such dog parks around? Maybe with separate areas or times for bigger dogs and smaller ones? Thanks for any ideas!

    • Correction: I currently **have** this dog, not had…

    • You aren’t going to like my answer, but I have to be honest – your dog is not dog park material right now (or maybe ever).

      It’s not that he couldn’t learn something from “a more or less established ‘pack’ of well socialized dogs his size with chill owners,” it’s that in the typical dog park, it’s highly unlikely that this perfect group of dogs (a) exists and (b) will be the only dogs there at the time you want to visit.

      So if you get into a park with a random mix of dogs, your dog is pushy/jerky/clueless about other dogs’ body language, he misreads (appropriate) corrections from other dogs, and if another dog gets hurt, *your* 65 pound “pit bull mix” is going to take the blame for whatever happens. Sorry but it’s how the world works.

      I’m not trying to be negative, because my dog is very similar to yours. If you do find a dog that he likes, one on one play in a separate area of a dog park might work. Or we’ll go at non-crowded times, mid-morning or afternoon, and watch the temperament of the one or two dogs that are there for a while and then maybe go in. But we just don’t do a lot of dog park time because I don’t want to be “that person” with the dog that ruins the fun.

      Also look at, I know they give classes for reactive dogs. It seems counterintuitive, but solid training on leash helps a lot with how they react off-leash.

      • excellent answer. Some dogs just aren’t cut out for dog parks. I learned the hard way when I got my pup and now we just go early morning when nobody is around or avoid the park completely.

    • I had a larger dog that didn’t do well with smaller playmates, and I found some good playgroups through MeetUp. Also, Spot On Training and some other training programs offer good classes for reactive dogs like yours (really helped my dog)

    • As a fellow pit bull owner (mine is the sweetest most loving dog with people, but also can be a jerk with other dogs), PLEASE PLEASE do not take him or her to the dog park. It is absolutely irresponsible if you do knowing that your dog has “jerky” tendencies. You just don’t know the personalities of the other dogs in the park and a fight could break out very easily.

      Like someone else mentioned, because your dog is a pit bull, you will automatically be blamed. You have to remember, as a pit bull owner, you are not only responsible for your own dog, but for the image of the breed as a whole. We have a very long way to go before people see these dogs for what they are- loving family dogs. It is our responsibility to make sure we don’t put them in situations where they will fail.

      As an alternative- seek out play dates with friends who have dogs with a stable disposition who will not mind a dog who is a bit jerky. Your dog will be a lot better off this way- trust me.

  • I would recommend going early in the morning the first time, like around 6am, when the dog park is either empty or sparse. This way you can establish a routine with your dog that they come back to you when called. It’s also a much more controlled environment than joining a dog park with 10 dogs running around.

    Make sure your dog DOES come when called. My biggest tip on that is to call them randomly now and then just to say hello, give them a toy, pat them on the head, give them water, whatever. Otherwise, the only time you’ll call them over is when it’s time to leave. Dogs catch wise to that sort of thing.

    • The part about calling your dog even when it is not time to go, and rewards for coming when called is good advice.

      Please please put down your phone and iPod and take care of your dog. So many times I see oblivious dog owners chatting, flirting, playing Angry Birds, anything but pay attention to the reason they are there.

      Also second that part about not putting your hand between fighting dogs. Our friend had a DC dogwalker who no kidding had her thumb bit off trying to break up a fight between dogs at a park.

  • One piece of advice I have is be prepared to leave at a moments notice. If you sense the temperament of the park shifting after an excited, nervous or aggressive dog enters, just get up and go. You can always come back. And your dog doesn’t need to be exposed to a dangerous or unpleasant situation. If it is not a good park day, go for a walk instead. It is easier than arguing with the other dog owner about their dog’s behavior.

  • Be social, but not so social that you don’t play with your dog. One of my favorite parts of my day is bringing my dogs to the park when I can and I can’t stand it when people are just standing around talking to each other and not paying attention to their dogs.

    My dogs are pretty shy and sometimes just like to sit back and watch everyone else play and just lay in the sun. Don’t force your dog to play if he/she doesn’t want to.

    Don’t bring your own toys. I don’t even like that many parks provide balls because some dogs are extremely toy aggressive/possessive.

    I used to live near the hill so I’d bring my dog to Lincoln Park a lot. If your dog doesn’t listen don’t go there because technically you’re not allowed to have dogs off leash and the police come a few times a day and will ticket you. There also is not a fence so you have to be really careful.

    Then I lived in Bloomingdale and we frequented Ledriot Dog Park and Shaw Dog Park. Ledriot was empty a lot of times when I would go and it also seemed to have a lot of irresponsible dog owners (left choke chains on, didn’t pay attention, didn’t pick up poop) but occasionally you could find a good group there. Shaw is nice but it gets pretty busy.

    Now I live in NW and I go to Newark Street Dog Park. The people there are really nice, there are a lot of “usuals.” There is an occasional irresponsible owner but overall I’m very happy with it.

  • Someone must be a cat person…

  • I like the dog park, but learned the hard way. After a scary incident, my rule of thumb – I don’t go in if there’s a dog that I couldn’t personally take on if it attacked my dog. I know most of the dogs in our neighborhood, and have learned which ones I need to stay away from. Please keep in mind that even if a dog plays well with other dogs, it might not like yours. So keep a close eye until you know the dogs.

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