The dog park can be a phenomenal place for you and your dog to go to blow off some steam, interact with other dogs and owners, and to have a bit of fun. There are a set of unwritten rules (that should definitely be written) that many dog owners know, but there are also many owners who do not. Neglecting to follow these rules can actually be very dangerous, depending on the situation. Some of these points may seem obvious to you, but I have seen countless people make these mistakes that have led to unfortunate results, so they each deserve a mention.
Playing on your cell phone
Your job in the dog park is to monitor your dog’s playtime so that you can ensure that your dog is being safe and fair to the other dogs, and that the other dogs are reciprocating. It’s impossible to do this when you’re checking emails or texting your friends. When you are focused on multiple things at once, you aren’t fully invested in anything, but partially invested in multiple things.
When your attention is diverted is typically the moment when something bad can happen, like a dog fight. The best way to stop a dog fight is to intervene BEFORE it happens. This means that you should be constantly looking for signs of stress in your dog, and in the dogs that it’s playing with. Even if your dog has never been in a dog fight, or had any anxiety towards other dogs, you don’t know the history of the other dogs in the park. All it takes is one dog to do something that your dog doesn’t like, and your dog will retaliate, or vice versa. Never assume that all dogs are friendly when it comes to their relationships with other dogs and humans. A situation could arise, and if your attention is on your phone you may miss the warning signs that lead up to a dog fight. It becomes a lot more difficult, and dangerous, to stop a fight when it is already underway. In today’s society it is hard for many people to put their phones down, but in this case you absolutely must. It is irresponsible of you to be on your phone while in the dog park, so commit to being fully invested in your dog for the time that you’re in the park.
Bringing Food or Treats to the Park
Many people will bring treats into the dog park in order to use it as motivation if their dog is misbehaving. While this is understandable in many ways, it can cause a problem when it comes to the other dogs in the park. Not all dogs receive treats at home, and your treats may be seen as a high value item to them, worth fighting over. Some dogs have resource guarding issues, and if treats are being given out in the dog park, this could cause an altercation between the dogs. Some dogs have noses that can pick up the scent of food from a mile away. These are the dogs that are going to ceaselessly hover around you to get some of the goods. If they’re particularly persistent, they will jump up on you and try to bite through your pocket. This may seem harmless, but I have seen people get bit by a dog for this exact reason.
Bringing human food into the dog park is also a very bad idea for the same reasons that I listed above, except that human food is of even higher value than treats. Leave your food at home, for the safety of the dogs, and you.
If you absolutely need to bring treats into the dog park to use for your own dog, make sure that they are in a sealed container or package, and when you are distributing the treats ensure that it is done in a subtle way away from the other dogs. If another dog is bugging you in order to get a treat, be sure to ask the owner in advance if the dog can have a treat. It is an important question to ask because some dogs have serious allergies to food. Often the act of receiving the treat will be enough for the dog to back off and give you some space.
Bringing Children or Babies to the Park
This is one of the worst things that you could possibly do, both for the safety of the dogs, and the children. The dog park is not a playground for your child, it is a place for dogs to play. Children tend to move in very quick movements, which can scare dogs, or prompt them to play. Not all dogs in the dog park have been exposed to children and babies, and may react negatively to them, or not understand the line between appropriate play, and rough play. The dogs reaction could be to jump, chase, or even bite. Herding dogs are especially prone to chase, and sometimes nip the ankles of children, because they were bred originally to herd livestock.
I’ve seen many people bring a stroller into the dog park, and it causes problems in almost every single occasion. Many dogs have never seen a stroller before, and thus will bark or lunge at it when it’s in motion. A stroller is something that should be left outside of the dog park.
If a child gets hurt in the dog park, it is the dog that is reprimanded, but really the blame is entirely on the adult for bringing their child into a dangerous place. If you do need to bring your child into the park, make sure that they are quiet and stand very still. The right way for your child to meet a new dog is to stand very still, and calmly hold out their hand for the dog to sniff. Running, jumping and fast movements should be avoided in the dog park. Never assume that the dogs will be good with children, because there are many dogs in the world who are not.
Approaching a dog as if it’s your own
One of the mistakes that I constantly see with people in the dog park is that they approach all dogs as though they’re their own, wrestling with it and vigorously petting. Of course the person doesn’t do this in a malicious way, often times it is a natural instinct to approach all dogs with love and affection. The reason that this should never be done is because not all dogs are comfortable being approached by a stranger. All dogs come from different backgrounds, and have different relationships with humans. Although your own dog may be absolutely smitten by any attention from humans, there are many dogs who are not, and until you’re properly introduced you will never know which one is which.
When in the dog park it is best to allow the other dogs to approach you first. If the dog seems friendly, allow it to sniff your hand as an introduction. Think of this as the equivalent of a handshake. If the dog still seems as though it’s looking for some human love, then by all means you may pet it, but allow the dog to make the first move. If the dog walks away after the initial sniff then this is usually a good sign for you to not pursue any physical contact with the dog.
This is an issue that I have struggled with in my dog, Django. It is a common issue with rescue dogs, who are sometimes skittish around humans that try to get too close to their personal space. Django is the type of dog who likes the presence of humans, but doesn’t necessarily like to be touched by a stranger, so what I do in this situation is I politely tell the person that he’s friendly, but it’s best not to touch him roughly because he will get spooked.
At the end of the day, we bring our dogs to the dog park mainly so that they can interact with each other. Of course there will be some human interaction there as well, but please respect the dog’s space and if you’re ever in doubt, as the owner before approaching a new dog.
Breaking up a dog fight incorrectly
As much as we try to prevent it, occasionally a dog fight will break out in the park. It can be a traumatic experience, both for the dogs and the humans. It is very important for you to know the stress signs in your dog so that you are able to avoid a fight before it happens, but if it does escalate to the point of a physical fight, then there is one MAJOR mistake that many dog owners make.
Generally when a fight happens, the owners rush in to pull their dogs apart. The mistake here is that, in all of the excitement, the owners will try to grab the dog’s collar to pull them away. This is the main reasons that owners get bit during a dog fight. Your dog’s instinct will be to turn and bite, not knowing that it is actually its beloved owner that is the one pulling. This is a consistent instinct in many animals, including humans.
Instead of grabbing your dog’s collar, the best way to break up a dog fight is to grab the hind legs (upper legs, not the feet) and guide the dog backwards away from the fight. By grabbing the legs you will likely surprise your dog enough to break them out of “fight mode” and you will also be taking away a lot of their physical power, which will make it easier for you to pull them out of the fray. Be sure to keep your face and other body parts well away from the dogs as well, to avoid getting bit.