Dog parks can be a great place to exercise your dog and let them play off-leash with their doggie peers but they also can be a disaster waiting to happen, full of ill-behaved unvaccinated scoundrels running amok while their owner flips through Instagram!
What’s an owner to do? Don’t fret - just make sure you understand what you’re getting into when you roll up to the dog park, and plan accordingly.
To help you out, we’ve put together a guide to help you decide whether or not the dog park’s for you, what to expect, and how to tell the difference between playing and real fighting.
The truth is that not all dogs will enjoy spending time at the dog park. It’s important to remember that you’re going to the dog park for your dog’s sake. Making the best decision for your dog is important.
Personally, I am very careful when deciding which dogs I bring to the dog park and when. I don’t bring my young lab to the dog park on nice Sunday afternoons, because Sundays are packed with pooches, and she gets overwhelmed with the huge number of dogs there.
She tends to get mouthy and barky when she’s overwhelmed, and this annoys other dogs. We instead go closer to dark on weekdays, when she can run with one or two other dogs that are still there.
I am also quick to leave the dog park if things feel or look off. As a student of dog body language, I find that the dog park is a great learning place for me and my dog - but that also means acting on my knowledge and leaving when I feel that another dog or owner is potentially posing a threat.
It’s probably best not to bring your dog to the dog park if your dog is:
Young dogs are more likely to be bullied or overwhelmed. It’s also a potentially life-or-death mistake to take your dog to the dog park before their vaccines are complete. Check with your vet before trying out the dog park.
Young dogs are also more likely to react poorly to a single bad experience at the dog park, potentially creating issues with a dog for the rest of his life!
Dog parks are not a good way to start socializing a dog or help them get over an existing fear of other canines - it can actually have the opposite effect.
Enroll yourself in a dog training class like obedience or agility to get that instead (Note: to clarify, dog parks are great for continuing socialization - but more controlled environments with fewer dogs are best for young or nervous dogs with existing socialization issues).
Unless your dog park has a small-dog area, it’s best to leave your small dog at home.
Even if your Yorkie doesn’t know her size and can play well with your neighbor’s Rottweiler, it’s just too easy for things to go wrong. Other big dogs might not know how to react to a small dog and might even think of her like a prey animal. It’s also easy for your little dog to just get run over by rude big dogs!
While this sounds like exactly what a dog park is for, it’s better to train your dog to be able to calm down around other dogs before braving the dog park.
A few doggie friends and scheduled play dates will help a dog like this avoid getting over-excited and resort to being rude. This frantic behavior can be stressful for the dog, even if it looks like they’re having fun.
Don’t bring a new shelter dog to the dog park until they’re very comfortable with you and in their new home. You don’t know if they’ll come when called or how they’ll react to a situation that they can perceive as stressful.
Here are a few things you might find at the dog park when you visit for the first time.
If you do decide that a dog park, it’s important to know what to look for in good dog play as opposed to an escalating encounter.
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.
Watching videos of dogs playing like this one below will help hone your eye!
These characteristics, when put together, suggest that doggie play time is healthy and fun for both parties.
We've put together a list of what behaviors to look for that indicate happy, normal canine play!
Keeping an eye out for danger designs is key to catching situations before they turn into full-blown fights. Learn to recognize doggie warning signs before dogs get to the point of growling, snarling, snapping, lunging, or biting.
These signs of stress are good for any dog owner to know, both in and outside the dog park, so that you can spot signs of stress at Christmas dinner, the vet’s office, or at the coffee shop. Knowing how to tell your dog is stressed will help you make her life better!
These signs are all good to know about so that you can intervene before the fur starts flying.
If you do find yourself in the middle of a canine tussle, be careful. Read our guide on how to break up a dog fight safely and effectively without losing a finger!
Leave the Food at Home. As another general guideline, keep food and toys away from the dog park. Even if your dog passed puppy kindergarten with flying colors and is a sharing pro, other dogs may struggle with resource guarding. It’s best not to risk it
Dogs Have Different Play Styles. It’s also important to be aware of your dog’s play style and personality. Some breeds are more prone to body-slamming (boxers) or heel-nipping (heelers) behaviors that other dogs may perceive as rude. It’s not that your dog isn’t playing - it’s that it might not be fun for her playmates!
If your dog has a unique play style connected to their breed, consider connecting with breed groups to let your dog channel their unique energy!
Know Your Dog’s Personality. In addition to play style, be aware of your dog’s personality. My 13-year-old lab used to be awesome with other dogs. Now that she’s getting older, she is quick to get annoyed with other dogs. She’s happy enough to play for a while, but she’s not very patient when other dogs pester her.
Consider Visiting at Off-Peak Hours. As mentioned already, visiting the park at off peak hours is ideal for dogs that are overwhelmed easily, but it also gives you a chance to take in the dog park and get your bearings.
On vs Off Leash Areas. Once you enter a designated off leash area, make sure to take your dog's leash off right away, as dynamics between on and off leash dogs can cause stress and aggression issues.
You may notice that your dog has suddenly gotten tense with a tight mouth and that her tail has become tucked. Maybe the dog she was just playing with doesn’t seem to notice, and your dog barks and snaps at the other dog when he tries to paw at her again.
Did your dog just start a fight? Not necessarily. Dogs can give each other “corrections,” which are ways for them to tell each other “no.” It takes a practiced eye to know what an appropriate level of correction is given the infraction, so it’s a good rule to remove your dog from the park if she’s giving or taking corrections from other dogs.
A correction is different from a fight in that it’s usually one-sided and usually only lasts a split second. In a perfect world, your dog barks at the other dog and the other dog backs off, and they both can go on with their days. Even with these minor encounters, it’s still a good idea to leave - your dog is likely pretty stressed.
Even if you do everything right, it’s possible to end up in a bad situation at the dog park. It’s just too hard to pay attention to every single dog all the time, and things can escalate quickly. It’s best to be very in-tune and attentive so that you can avoid incidents before they happen.
If your dog does get into a full on tussle, do not put your hands into the fray for any reason. There’s a very good chance that you’ll be bitten.
Instead, you can try:
This should startle the dogs enough to get them to stop fighting in most cases. Keep your cool and don’t make yourself into another victim. If you’re interested in learning more about breaking up dog fights, Dr. Sophia Yin has a great article that goes into more depth.
Despite all the considerations that you need to take, dog parks can be great spots for some good fun. I love going to the dog park, but I try to be deliberate about when I go and which dogs I bring with me. I stay aware of my surroundings and what my dog is up to, and I’m not hesitant to leave if I feel like I need to.
If you’re feeling like a public dog park might be too much for you or your dog, you can also get a membership to a private dog park. These parks often have more barriers to entry, eliminating the worry of unvaccinated or poorly-behaved dogs. And since they’re membership-based, people can be kicked out for repeated infractions. As an added benefit, they also tend to have fewer dogs.
Some other alternatives to dog parks that allow for great exercise or play include:
While they can be few and far between, some bars go beyond just being dog friendly and have a full-on private dog park out back. I’ve found that because a restaurant manager is around to kick out ruffians, I have fewer near misses at such a location.
They also are smaller and the dogs tend to be well-behaved. Owners may be more selective about only bringing good dogs with them, since the owners want to enjoy a pretzel and a beer!
Growing up on a farm, we occasionally organized play dates for our lab. We’d invite our friends over who had other friendly dogs around the same age and size. We’d sit around talking or eating while the dogs romped in a private dog party!
If you know of anyone with a fenced back yard, you could start to organize something like this. It’s especially good for your dog to have those consistent friends, so they can build rapport and become better playmates over time.
Most trails require that your dog stays on leash, so you won’t get the multi-dog play aspect here. It’s important to heed these laws in case you run into other dogs that are very uncomfortable or aggressive while you’re there.
That said, hiking is a great way to work your dog’s mind, nose, and body while they get exposed to lots of new smells and socialization opportunities. Not all dogs are up for it, but some breeds absolutely adore hiking!
Some places do have off-leash trails, but be sure to know the rules of where you are. You could get a ticket!
The bottom line is, dog parks can be a great way to wear your dog out and can be a ton of fun. However, they also are hard to predict and require that the owners not just stand around on their phones. Monitoring for appropriate and good play is important to avoid incidents that can cause physical or psychological harm to the dogs.
Know your dog, and know your dog park. If your dog loves the park but gets overwhelmed easily, adjust your schedule and go to the park on weeknights or find an alternative to dog parks!
What's your experience with dog parks - love 'em or hate 'em? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.