Dog Park Tails: The First Tail

By Michael Litzky, CPDT-KA

            Dog parks are a great source of socialization and exercise, two key ingredients for a well-balanced, happy dog.  However, it is also important to be aware of the risks and take appropriate precautions.  Dog Park Tails, a new, semi-regular feature on our blog, will help ensure your visit to the dog park is a positive one.  You’ll find advice for the dog park, as well as the occasional anecdote from our own dog park adventures.  We’re based in Atlanta, Georgia, and if you live in the area, you may also find helpful reviews on some local dog parks.  Now, on to the First Tail…

10 (Kinda) Quick Tips for a Fun and Safe Trip to the Dog Park

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1.    Absolutely NO treats, food, bones or high value toys inside the park.  Balls are usually ok, but make sure there are plenty available.  Bringing something tasty into a dog park will bring far too much attention from the powerful sniffers in the park and could very easily lead to a fight.  If you have trouble getting your dog to leave the park without treats, try practicing a come command while just outside the dog park fence.  You can use all the treats you want to strengthen the command outside the fence, then use praise and enthusiastic play to reinforce the behavior inside. 

2.    Keep moving.  Especially when you first arrive.  Dogs are more likely to stand or play near our feet, regardless of how much extra room there is at the park.  Nervous dogs will often glue themselves to their owner’s ankles.  Your dog will move with you when you walk around, which will help make them feel more comfortable.  When a dog feels restricted to one spot, they are more likely to react when scared.  Moving around can also help prevent owner-based resource guarding. 

3.    We’re talking about off-leash dog parks, which means all dogs should be…that’s right…off-leash.  Dogs on a leash feel restricted and more vulnerable.  This can increase their fear and make them more likely to react.  Off-leash dogs may also seize the opportunity to pick on a restricted, nervous dog.  If you are trying to socialize your dog, and they are not ready to be off-leash in the park, spend time outside the fence and allow them to watch the other dogs play at a comfortable distance. 

4.    NEVER carry or pick up a dog unless it is an absolute emergency.  The raised dog will feel extremely restricted, and as we’ve already discussed, that will cause the dog to feel more vulnerable and more likely to react.  And they’ll have every right to react, because the focus of all the nearby dogs will immediately turn towards them, as if they had a target on their back. 

5.    Dogs read our body language to help interpret different situations.  When you’re at the dog park, try to be calm, happy, and relaxed.  And most importantly, have fun!  If you’re having fun, your dog knows there’s nothing to worry about.  Even if there’s a scuffle, resist the urge to just start yelling.  A loud “Hey!” can be effective, used sparingly, but continued yelling will only worsen the severity of the situation.  Multiple people rushing in while yelling at the top of their lungs are basically telling their dogs to “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

6.    Supervise young kids at all times and make sure they do not run.  Most dogs will understand that adults aren’t interested in playing rough and tumble, but young kids are viewed as willing and ready playmates, just like the other doggie friends at the park.  If they’re excited and running…it’s game on. 

7.    Proper gate etiquette is very important.  This topic could be a whole list by itself.  Most incidents at a dog park will happen at or near a gate.  When entering the dog park, come in quickly, but make sure your dog isn’t too wild.  It’s not a good idea to let a dog full of energy, ready to explode, into a yard with a bunch of other dogs.  Try walking around outside the park for 5 or 10 minutes to let your dog calm down.  If your dog is inside the yard and likes to greet each new dog at the gate with a lot of noise and enthusiasm, redirect your dog’s attention away from the gate when another dog approaches.  Use a ball, enthusiastic praise and play, anything (except treats!) to get their attention.  The squeaky part of a plush toy, held in your pocket, can be a great distraction.  Finally, most parks will have a paddock area with two gates for entering and exiting.  When one gate is open, the other gate should be closed.  Never leave both gates open, or risk causing a doggie exodus. 

8.    It seems almost too obvious to mention, but personal experience requires it, you should pay attention to your dog.  If your dog is pestering another dog that clearly doesn’t want to play, you need to redirect your dog’s attention or hold them in place for a few seconds to allow the other dog to get away.  Don’t wait for the other dog to say enough is enough and over-correct your dog with a bite.  Similarly, if your dog is the one that is trying to get away, and the other owner isn’t helping or paying attention, it may be time to leave.  Trips to the dog park are for our dogs and there’s no reason to stay if your dog is no longer enjoying the experience.    

9.    Speaking of paying attention to your dog, please pick up their poop.  Even though you’re in a fenced in area, you still need to clean up after your dog.  Nobody else is going to do it.  Nearly every dog park will have plenty of poop bags and trashcans. 

10.    Small dogs stay on the small dog side.  Big dogs stay on the big dog side.  There’s a reason most dog parks are divided into at least two areas.  Dog breeds have an exceptionally wide range in size and strength.  It’s not fair for the Chihuahua – no matter how confident she is – to go paw-to-paw with the well-meaning, but overly-exuberant, Boxer.  Let alone a Great Dane or English Mastiff.  The injury risk is far too great.  Furthermore, some breeds have a strong prey drive that can be triggered when they see a tiny dog running out of the corner of their eye.  If your dog loves chasing squirrels, there’s a decent chance they will also enjoy chasing squirrel-sized dogs, who will likely not find it nearly as amusing. 

Michael Litzky is the Owner and Head Trainer of Idle Paws Dog Training.  He is a Certified Professional Canine Behavior and Training Master Instructor and Behavior and Aggression Management Trainer.  He is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed.  He has worked with thousands of dogs in all areas of dog behavior and obedience.