Dog parks are amazing places. When you watch dogs play you can’t help but be inspired by their energy, their good naturedness, and the pure joy they feel at being alive in the moment. It’s almost a spiritual experience. Until, that is, you step in a pile of dog poop that some other owner didn’t pick up. Or until the shepherd mix gets in a fight with the chow mix and their owners start screaming at each other. Then you start to wonder why we can’t all just get along.
Believe it or not, there is a dog park etiquette. When you go to a dog park, you must be committed to disciplining your dog and to picking up poop. Picking up poop is the easy part. The difficult part is supervising your dog and making sure he plays by the rules, and to do this you need a good understanding of the rules yourself. If you can stick to the following guidelines, you can help make your dog park a better place.
First, clean up after your dog. Picking up poop is more than simple etiquette – it’s essential to keeping the dog park open. If you leave the poop in place, dog-haters in your neighborhood will unite to inform local politicians that dogs and their owners are dirty, noisy, and irresponsible. And if you leave the poop, they’re right! In addition, because keeping clean is so important to keeping the dog park open, other owners will round on you like a mother dog protecting her pups if they see you neglecting to clean up after Fido. Believe me, if ever you have missed a pick-up, the people at your dog park know. If you’ve missed twice, you’re guaranteed to have a reputation. So pay attention to what Fido is doing.
If by chance you’ve forgotten or have run out of bags, don’t be afraid to ask another owner for one. Many other dog owners have been in the same situation, so many dog owners make a point of carrying extra bags. Likewise, don’t be afraid to tell other owners that their pets have pooped. It’s a little embarassing, sure, to inform a complete stranger that her Fifi has pooped, but most owners are more embarrassed if they’re caught not picking up. They don’t want to earn a reputation, after all.
Second, keep your eye on the dog. At all times. Really. You wouldn’t dream of letting your child wander around the grocery store unattended, so don’t dream of letting your dog sniff around and introduce himself to strangers without your watching his every move. Accidents happen too fast for you to be lackadaisical, and you really can’t count on Fido to exercise good judgement. I once took my eyes off my dog just long enough to pull my phone from my pocket and check the time, and it was just long enough for him to disappear into the lake behind the snow drifts and get stuck in the slush. After I pulled him out, he promptly started sniffing around the same snow drifts. You can’t trust your dog to stay out of trouble.
Besides, sometimes trouble comes looking for your dog. Just like with humans, there are plenty of bratty and obnoxious dogs out there, and they may start picking on your dog or trying to butt into the game your dog is playing. Sometimes everyone just gets too excited. Pay attention to how the dogs are interacting – think of yourself as the host at a party. You want to make sure your guests are having a good time, so you mingle and make sure that nobody is getting too comfortable and getting out of hand. Keep your eye on your pooch to make sure there isn’t any doggy drama brewing. Doggy drama can turn into a fight, and dog fights are a sure party-killer.
How can you tell if there’s doggy drama brewing? There are a few signs to look for. Persistent humping, for example, can be a sign that a dog is being annoying. If nothing else, it can annoy the owner of the dog who’s being humped, and you’d be surprised by the number of owners who act personally offended if their dog gets humped. If Fido keeps humping another dog, pull him off and correct him, because if the owner doesn’t snap, the dog itself might, and you can’t really blame a dog for telling a humper to get his filthy paws off her. Dogs have personal space, too.
A hard chase can also be a sign of doggy drama. If you’ve ever seen a nature show where a pack of animals brings down an antelope, you know how to spot a chase that has become too serious. Assertive or defensive dogs will let the group know they’re crossing the line by snapping or lunging at their chasers. Shyer, more polite dogs may roll over, run under a bush, or run to momma. Either way, the dog is calling a time-out, and the group should listen. It’s like when you’re playing football, and you suddenly get the sense that your not being tackled so much as being attacked. Dogs, like people, can get carried away. Whether you’re human or canine, when somebody calls a time-out, everyone should cool down, and the dynamics of the game should shift. Dogs who are playing chase should take turns being “it,” or they should find another game when time-out is called. If they don’t, they belong in the penalty box. Take your dog aside if she’s over-excited and won’t give up the chase. When she calms down let her go back to playing. Or if it’s your dog who’s playing the antelope, shoo the “hunters” away with a light-hearted scolding. The other owners should respect the hint and call their dogs away.
Some dogs seem to want to pick a fight. They’ll place their paw on the other dog’s neck or jab at them with their muzzle. It’s similar to what happens when a chase gets too serious, but it happens one-on-one. Either the victim is going to feel harrassed or intimidated and not have any fun, or the victim is going to stand up for herself with her teeth. Once again, you can’t blame a dog who has to be rude to get another dog to back off. It’s better, though, if you nip the whole thing in the bud. When you see these situations, call your dog away until the other dog is engaged in a new game and will leave your dog alone. Or, if it’s the other way around, call your dog away and distract him with a new game so he’ll leave the other dog alone.
Dogs can, however, be single-minded, and it’s not always easy to distract them from what they thought was a really great game. If you can’t successfully distract your dog, it’s time to go home. At most, it should be three strikes and you’re out. Of course, if your dog is a big, hyperactive jerk as soon as you cross the gate, take him out immediately. Likewise, if your dog provokes a fight, it’s an instant out. On the other hand, less serious infractions, like stealing another dog’s toy and playing keep-away, can be allowed a second or third chance. In any case, if you find yourself continually fussing at your dog to “play nice,” it’s probably time to cut your losses and go home.
Sometimes you’re faced with an owner who doesn’t seem to realize or care that his dog is being obnoxious. It’s not fair, of course, that his bully of a dog is ruining the playtime of other dogs, but it’s also unlikely that he’ll change his behavior if you inform him of his negligence, insult his worth as a dog-owner, or otherwise cuss him out. It’s not only the dogs who have to behave nicely at a dog park. Owners need to be respectful as well. When you’re faced with an ignoramus of an owner whom you want to tear to pieces and feed to the dogs, be an adult and be the one to go home. If the offending owner is not a complete fool, he’ll hear the grumbling of other owners and feel their icy stares. Either he’ll listen to the advice and feedback of a diplomatic owner, or he’ll conclude that the owners at your dog park are all a bunch of snobs and he’ll stop showing up. Don’t let your dog park become a hostile place by yelling at other owners.
Dog owners like to make a big deal out of properly socializing their dogs. Of course, we owners need to be properly socialized, too. Overall, a dog park is a remarkably easy place to hang out and chum around with other people. It’s when we’re faced with a conflict that the quality of our training really shows through. If you’re vigilant and you supervise your dog carefully, you’ll be able to ward off any conflicts and spend many happy hours with the pets and the people in your neighborhood.