Dog parks can be hit or miss and the dog loving population can be pretty polarized when it comes to their use. No doubt, dog parks can be risky due to the unknowns - but they can also provide a wonderful outlet for social dogs. Since we can’t completely remove the risk from visiting dog parks, here are some things to keep in mind that will create a safer and more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
LEARN WHAT APPROPRIATE PLAY LOOKS LIKE
Just because dogs are running around and wrestling together, does not mean that they are necessarily enjoying it - or that the interaction is safe. Play behavior, though muted, mimics prey behavior so we see many of the same patterns - stalking, pursuit, catching, "killing", etc. There are, however, more subtle communications to look for that tell you how the play is going on both ends. Things you want to see in play:
Swapping roles. A sign of good play is seeing the dogs involved switching roles. Even if one dog seems pleased to be on the bottom or act as the “prey”, they should at least be pausing to check in with each other now and then before continuing.
Pauses in pursuit. You don’t want to see the same dog constantly being chased. The intent can turn in the blink of an eye, especially when other dogs sense the excitement and peel off to join in on the pursuit. This can be problematic when the dog being chased is nervous and is running not because they are playing, but because they are afraid. It is also troubling when there are size differences between dogs - due to predatory drift and the potential for high speed collisions.
Who is initiating the play? Hopefully both dogs are equally interested. Is the same dog bothering another to play over and over again despite the other dog continually walking away? There can be such a thing as “too” friendly when a dog cannot take a hint. This leads to the other dog possibly becoming irritated or feeling that they cannot escape the invite. Learn to identify when your dog is soliciting play from another who may not be as interested, or needs a break - and interrupt or redirect.
BE MINDFUL OF OTHER VISITORS' SPACE AND INTENTIONS
The majority of people who come to the dog park do so to enjoy time with their dog. Keep in mind that not every person or dog enjoys the same type of interactions.
If you see an owner and dog at the far end of the park playing fetch and generally ignoring other dogs, give them space and direct your dog towards dogs who are playing with each other. Just because a dog is friendly with other dogs does not mean that they are using the space the same way. If you took your child to the park and you saw another child playing catch with his dad and a group of children playing tag- which would be more appropriate for them to attempt to play with?
Avoid crowding the entrance or allowing your dog to do so. Dogs greeting at the gate is a recipe for trouble. I personally will wait until a dog at the gate loses interest or their owner calls them away before I will let my dog enter the park. When you enter the park, move away from the entrance towards the middle or along the sides. If someone is trying to enter the park with their dog, redirect your dog from meeting them at the gate. It may be natural for them to want to do so, but it is unfair to the dog entering the park to be ambushed without a chance to settle in. This can also invite barrier frustration and start the interaction off with conflict instead of a neutral approach.
When entering the park, watch for people heading towards the exit. Their dog is likely tired and may not be at the same excitement or energy level as yours - they may not be as receptive to being directly greeted or tackled while they are trying to leave. Direct your dog towards those who are still “in the game” if possible.
Avoid on-leash greetings - some dogs are wonderful off-leash with other dogs yet reactive when on-leash. If you are entering the dog park, there is no need for on-leash greetings. They will see dogs in a more suitable environment soon enough.
LEARN DOG BODY LANGUAGE
In addition to dog communication during play, there are many subtle signs that can help us read our dogs and other dogs’ intentions and experiences while interacting.
GENERAL SIGNS OF NEUTRAL/RELAXED BODY LANGUAGE:
Curved/side to side greetings (not head on), loose and bouncy play, “soft” eyes, open mouth, neutral or calmly wagging tail, ears held in a relaxed/natural position, play bows, handicapping (making themselves smaller or lower to accommodate the other dog’s play style or size.)
SIGNS OF STRESS OR CONFLICT CAN LOOK LIKE:
A fast and forward face-to-face greeting, stiff tail/body, high tail, tail tucked, whale eye or side eye (where the whites of the eyes show), lip pucker/tensely held mouth, ears held flat to head or straight forward, excessive lip licking or yawning, furrowed brow/forehead.
CAUTION SIGNALS (NOT "BAD', BUT SHOULD BE WATCHED CLOSELY):
Raised hackles, changes in vocalization, shaking off (as if they were wet when they aren't) after an interaction, changes in tail carriage or movement (not all wagging is good, this can get tricky), direct staring, excessive stalking, any extreme or obvious change in body language during an interaction, breaking off of an interaction to sniff or mark excessively (can indicate high stress.)
Check out this video on dog body language - watch Part 1 & 2!
Even if your dog is having a blast, call them out of play and encourage them to move on after a few minutes of play with a dog or based on the interaction. This gives everyone involved a chance to reset and decide if they are still comfortable. When you were a kid did you ever spend too much time with your best friend only to have it result in an argument over something silly? Even those who get along well 99% of the time should take breaks.
These breaks can also be beneficial to your training with your dog. Your direction should maintain value even in the face of a huge distraction - freedom and friends to play with. This is learned with practice and consistency, and you can use the opportunity to go back to play as a reward for your dog.
Along with breaks - keep moving. Don't form a crowd and congregate in one spot. Call your dog away from play and walk a lap around the park now and then. If all the humans are in one area, the dogs may feel inclined to limit themselves to that area as well - making the space smaller. Interactions between dogs can be affected by feeling trapped in one spot or surrounded.
If an issue arises take responsibility for your dog and their/your role in it. Advocate for your dog by not putting them in positions to make difficult choices or feel defensive. It may even come down to admitting that the dog park is just not right for your dog - and that is okay. There are many activities you can do with your dog that do not involve the dog park or being off-leash with unknown dogs.
If your dog is having an “off” day, remove them from the park. If a dog is not feeling well, had a stress-filled day, or the park just happens to be full of dogs that aren’t their “type”- move on. It doesn’t matter how far you drove to be there - it is a matter of safety.
Train your dog. It may seem like the ultimate challenge to train a social dog to listen when off-leash around new friends, but it can be done. If you do not have control of your dog you can consult a trainer to help you. The least you should be able to do is: call your dog away from another dog or distraction/redirect them, and leave the park with you when asked. It is also helpful if you can ask your dog to calm down before entering the park to dampen an explosive entrance which can invite conflict.
Be realistic. No animal gets along with 100% of their species 100% of the time. I think that humans can relate to this. It is totally normal for a dog to not want to play with every other dog they come across.
If something happens between your dog and another person’s dog - try not to take it personally. Separate dogs, assess for damage, exchange info, and leave the park. Go to the vet if necessary. Taking photos of any damage once outside the park is a good idea. It is okay to be upset, but save the venting and blaming for after the adrenaline has worn off. If the other owner does not cooperate, try to get a photo of them and/or their dog or car and track them down later. You can also ask anyone else who saw the incident if they would be willing to give a witness account.
Pick up after your dog. ;)
The more proactive and responsible everyone at the dog park is while using it, the more fun it is for everybody - dog and human alike. Nobody goes to the dog park looking for trouble - we hope - but the reality is that dogs (and humans) are animals and are not always predictable.
STAY SAFE AND ENJOY YOUR DOG!