5 Steps for a Great Time at the Dog Park

From the day our local dog park opened eight years ago, my two Siberian huskies and I have probably been its most loyal visitors. We are there at least weekly, if not daily (though at the height of summer, my snow dogs are much less enthusiastic about playing outside). It’s a place where my buddies can safely run off-leash, make friends, and practice their social skills with all types of other dogs and people. Likewise it’s a place where other dog owners and I can chat, swap stories, and enjoy each others’ company.

We love our dog park. But for many people, the dog park is an intimidating place.

“What if I let my dog off leash, and he won’t come back?”

“What if another dog starts a fight?”

“What if MY dog starts a fight?”

These are all valid concerns, but the benefits of visiting a dog park are so great, for both dog and human, that it’s worth it to overcome these fears so your whole pack can enjoy the experience.

With that in mind, here are five tips to help make sure your visit to the dog park is a successful one.

jack russell terrier with toy

1. Make an honest assessment of your dog.

This is the foundation. We all love our dogs and prefer to only see their sweet side, but put that away for a moment. What are their quirks? What sets them off? How are their manners? Being honest with yourself about your dog’s shortcomings is the first step to addressing them.

The ideal dog to bring to the dog park is one that will neither cause nor attract trouble. This means you’re aiming for a dog that isn’t aggressive or fearful; one that’s not super dominant nor over-the-top submissive. An easy-going dog somewhere in the middle of these extremes is going to have the most success at the dog park.

If your dog doesn’t fit this description, it doesn’t mean you can’t go to the dog park. It just means you have a bit of homework to do first. Your dog doesn’t need to be perfect by any means, but you should feel pretty good that they can predictably behave in a socially acceptable way.

So for example, if your dog reacts negatively to other dogs, your homework might look like this:

  • Step 1: Be able to maintain good behavior when passing by other dogs on your daily walks.
  • Step 2: Have supervised off-leash time with a trusted dog or two.
  • Step 3: Begin a gradual introduction to the dog park for short periods during off-peak times (i.e. when there are only a few other dogs there).
  • Step 4: Full integration into the dog park.

Don’t hesitate to seek the help of a knowledgeable trainer or behaviorist if you need help with your homework.

pitbull puppy

2. Go for a walk before you go to the dog park.

One of the surest ways to set yourself up for trouble is to bring a hyper, frustrated dog that’s been cooped up inside all day and then release her into the dog park like a four-legged rocket.

Instead take 20 minutes and go for a walk. Not only will this take the edge off your dog’s energy level, it will prime her to listen to you and accept instruction before you reward her with the freedom of the dog park.

(This assumes, of course, that your walks with your dog are calm, controlled affairs, not shoulder-yanking free-for-alls. If your dog walks are more the latter than the former, go back to step one. You’ve got a bit more homework to do.)

lady with yorkshire terrier

3. Learn the basics of canine body language.

Not every wagging tail is friendly, and not every growl is a death threat. Sometimes the distinction between friend and foe can be as subtle as a pricked ear or a sideways glance. But if you know what you’re seeing, you can recognize trouble brewing and step in before it boils over.

Because humans and dogs have lived so closely together for so long, we like to assume we know what our dogs are communicating, but that’s not always the case. We tend to pay attention to “big communications,” like snarls and whines, while often missing more subtle but equally important “small communications,” such as warning eye contact or lip licking in response to stress.

That’s why it’s worth it to educate yourself on the basics of canine body language. My favorite resource is Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior by Roger Abrantes, but there is also a wealth of information available online. Learn the basics, then further your education by observing the dogs at the park and their various interactions. Pay particular attention to the subtleties — the quiet, small details no one else notices. The lifted paw. The turned head.

With time and experience, you’ll become fluent in “speaking” dog.

siberian husky

4. Obey the rules of the park.

This seems pretty obvious, but I could talk your ears off with stories of people who completely ignored our dog park’s rules and then were shocked when trouble ensued.

Be sure to follow all posted rules for the park, but from a safety perspective, the two most import rules for every dog park are:

  • Don’t bring a female in heat. The males WILL fight over her.
  • Don’t bring food, whether human food or dog treats. Some dogs are extremely food motivated and may fight over it.

While the first is a pretty rare occurrence, food is a much more common problem. I once saw a family come to the dog park, and the parents brought in their three kids, each with a Happy Meal, so they could sit on the grass and eat. The parents were then shocked when dogs surrounded their kids, trying to beg and/or steal whatever they could.

Don’t bring food to the dog park. Just don’t. There’s no good reason to do so.

If you have to bribe your dog with treats to get good behavior, then you need to do more homework. And don’t feel that you need to reward your dog’s good behavior at the park with treats because the dog park itself is a reward.

Even if your dog has no food related problems, for the good of everyone at the park, save the food and treats for when you get home.

lady playing with dog

5. Don’t let the bad spoil the good.

There may come a day when you have a bad experience at the dog park.

Your dog and another dog might not get along for whatever reason. Somebody may bring an antisocial dog to the park. There may even be a fight.

But please, do not let a bad experience keep you from returning to the dog park.

Over the eight years I’ve been taking my dogs to our local dog park, I’ve seen two fights. Fortunately neither fight involved my dogs, and neither resulted in serious injuries for the dogs that were involved. But we’ve had a handful of other negative experiences stemming from canine squabbles, the occasional rude human, and the odd day when my dogs just didn’t feel like listening.

If I let those rare negative times dissuade me from returning to the park, we would have missed out on literally hundreds of wonderful days there.

You might misread a situation. Your dog may have an off day. Mistakes will be made, and some days it’s best to just cut your losses and go home. But experience brings wisdom, so get back on that metaphorical horse, take what you learned, and go back to the dog park.

There are good days waiting for you there.

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