The first dog park in the United States appeared in Berkeley, California, unofficially in the 70s and then officially in 1986. While dog parks can provide outlets for social and physical activity, they’ve also come under scrutiny by dog behavior professionals. Although I recognize their use (and their fun!), I always caution my students about the risks of dog parks. One bad event can do more than ruin a day – it is possible that it can leave lasting marks on your dog. The dog park environment isn’t right for every dog*, but let’s say that you have a friendly dog who you expect to play well with others. Here are 5 dog park behaviors that we all should avoid, and what we can do instead to build safe dog park communities.
Humans on their phones instead of actively supervising their dogs.
You should be prepared to intervene if your dog shows any inappropriate behavior. Namely, if the other dog is showing signs of stress or fear, you should hold your dog back for a few moments, ask him to settle, and redirect him to more appropriate play.
Some examples of when to call (or go get) your dog:
If someone’s dog is hiding behind their legs or the benches, don’t let your dog pursue him. If someone picks up their small, fearful dog, don’t let your dog jump up on them. If a dog is running with a tucked tail, he’s not enjoying the game – don’t allow your dog to chase him. If a dog has dropped to the ground and is showing his belly in submission, don’t let your dog be part of the large group that sniffs him. He’s fearful and intimidated – the pleasantries can resume once he is warmed up, and not in the middle of a gang. If dogs are exiting or entering the park, call your dog away from this tense, high energy, small space.
Humans who don’t intervene because the dogs should “work it out”.
If you have personal dogs that have a solid and trusting relationship with each other, and you know their behavior well, you might decide to let them work out a conflict. However, the dog park is not a place for this strategy.
It’s unwise and unfair to expect your dog to handle a tense situation with a dog that he does not know well. It’s quite possible that one or both dogs may make a mistake, or misinterpret a signal. It’s extra difficult to meet a stranger in a distracting, high energy environment, and with an ever-changing dynamic as dogs enter and exit the park. In the interest of safety for everyone, the humans should make conservative decisions so everyone can get along.
Pushy dogs that don’t respond to distance-increasing signals.
Safe and polite dog-dog play includes lots of natural pauses. If one dog sits, a polite partner will pause for a moment and turn his head to the side, or maybe also sit. Then they’ll resume playing. If a dog becomes tense in a moment where the play got too rough, a polite partner may turn away and sniff the ground, until invited back to play. If your dog doesn’t respond to these signals, you need to intervene. If he repeatedly ignores these signals, it is probably time to leave the park.
The dog park is not the place to teach your pushy dog how to play. If your goal is to teach him safe play, it is best to find a stable and unflappable canine partner and work on one-on-one play in a backyard where you can control the situation and coach your dog. Don’t run the risk of traumatizing someone else’s friendly dog because yours is rude.
And if your dog is getting into fights at the dog park, it is time to stop attending the dog park – it isn’t the place for him. He’s not having fun, and he’s ruining the party for others. Fortunately, there are other ways that you can provide physical and mental enrichment.
The Bully Test can help you find out if your dog is perceived as pushy by his play partner.
1. Gently hold your dog (the suspected bully) by the hips. (In the video, you can see that this makes Dee slightly uncomfortable. Help your dog to feel comfortable by trying this at home and pairing it with treats, so it is not a scary feeling.)
2. Does the play partner run away? It’s likely he feels very relieved that you’re pinning down “the bully”. Give your dog a time out away from the action so that he can settle. If he’s repeatedly too pushy, end the play session.
3. Does the play partner return with enthusiasm? It’s likely that the partner thought the play was just fine. Do you agree? Then let them play. Do you still want everyone to relax a bit more? Ask both dogs to settle before resuming play.
Even if your dog “passes” the bully test, you might still prefer that the dogs lower their play energy level, or that certain play styles (such as body slamming) are not allowed. Add lots of breaks to the play so both dogs can take a moment to settle, and then release them to play.
Aim to keep play at an energy level where the dogs can still pay attention if you give them a cue, so that you can redirect their focus or call them to you should you need to intervene.
Undersocialized dogs being forced into the crowd
If you have a shy and fearful dog, one of the worst things that you can do to him is to force him to “get out there”. Socialization depends on quality positive experiences – negative experiences erode your dog’s confidence and social abilities. Forcing him into a group when he isn’t ready can cause dramatic and lasting fears. If your dog is fearful, it is okay to pick him up. It’s okay to leave. You might consider setting up a private play session with a quiet, older dog that can build your dog’s confidence.
Leashing dogs in the dog park.
Don’t leash your dog in the off-leash dog park – it doesn’t teach him what he “should” be doing, and is in fact a great way to develop leash reactivity. Leashing your dog in the park rarely helps set him up to have polite and calm interactions with others. Instead of helping him to settle, you are likely to find that it induces jumping, barking, frustration, fear, and/or aggression.
Imagine being in an obedience class where you’re asking your dog for a sit-stay, and everyone else is running around the room and hollering. That sounds like a super advanced class, doesn’t it? Are you and your dog ready for that? If not, then how can you expect him to “control” himself while leashed at the dog park?
While your dog watches others play in close proximity, he will become increasingly frustrated that he is tethered. This frustration can “spill over” into aggression, and your otherwise friendly dog may lash out at another dog that comes his way when he is frustrated. Even if you don’t see aggressive behavior, it is likely that barking and jumping and pulling will increase, rather than decrease. That’s not exactly the low-energy we were shooting for.
It’s also likely that while your dog is leashed, others will enter his space, possibly even jump on him, and he doesn’t have the ability to get away. This also causes leash reactivity, as your dog becomes insecure in his ability to stay safe and interact with other dogs in a behaviorally normal way. Again, this may result in aggressive behavior as your dog becomes fearful and tries to defend himself.
If you want to leash your dog because you’re not sure if he’ll play politely, then it is more appropriate to set up private play sessions at home where you can safely control the situation. If you want to leash him because you’re not sure his obedience is up to snuff, spend more time practicing in the open with a long line.
And if you want to leash him because he was being pushy – well, here’s the thing. Leashing is probably not going to constructively teach him the elements of how to politely play – to do that, we’d set up a private play session to coach him. And if you’re leashing him to ask him to calm down, this strategy will likely backfire, for the reasons described above. It is smarter to leave the park and settle at a comfortable distance from the action in the park.
A great many of our students are leash reactive, and while behavior modification works quite well, it is much easier to prevent this problem than to solve it. So please believe us when we ask you to avoid this behavior!
Spread the Word and Shout Out the Positives
The dog park can only be as great as the dogs and people that come to share it, so spread the word. And remember to be kind to each other. No one is born knowing this information, and I haven’t yet met someone who didn’t love their dog or who wanted any harm to come to the dogs around them. We’re all on the same team.
Have you seen great dog park behavior or kindness? Give a shout out in our comments section. Spread the love.
Sue Sternberg’s Dog Park Assistant App for iPhone (sorry Android users, not yet available)
*Dog parks aren’t for every dog, and even dogs that enjoyed the park as youngsters may change their minds as they mature. Social maturity hits around 1.5-2 years of age, and this is the time where many dogs start having conflicts at the dog park. This is because it is actually only a minority of dogs that are happy-go-lucky dog-friendly. Most fall somewhere else on a spectrum that includes dog-tolerant (likes many dogs, but not all), dog selective (has a couple friends, but doesn’t like most strange dogs), and dog aggressive (the minority at the other end of the spectrum). Dog parks are really best for this minority of dog-friendly dogs. All others would appreciate social situations that are more “cocktail party” or “Netflix and chill” instead of “Chuck E Cheese’s”.