Board Certified Behavior Analyst and PBC consultant Lindsay Parenti provides these tips for those interested in utilizing their local dog park.
Dog parks can provide an excellent source of exercise and socialization for your dog. Being familiar with a few tips can make your trips to the dog park enjoyable and relaxing for both you and your dog!
Your dog may not get along with ALL other dogs. Some combinations simply don't work. Just as we humans don’t automatically like every person we meet in life, our dogs don’t enjoy theinteraction style or “vibe” of every dog they meet. If your dog seems not to be getting along with a particular dog in the dog park, it is best to leave the dog run and come back another time or take a personal, one-on-one walk with your dog in the neighborhood and come back in a few minutes to see if the run has emptied out a bit.
Ensure up-to-date vaccinations. Dog parks are full of potentially dangerous waste from other dogs. Make sure that your dog is up-to-date on all vaccinations to avoid contamination. Also, ensure that your dog is healthy so that she doesn’t make other dogs ill. Regular fecal examinations and bordatella vaccines, along with monthly flea and heartworm prevention are a must.
Signs of Potential Illness – While not necessarily related to behavior, you will want to remove your dog from a park where dogs are showing the following symptoms:
Coughing or gagging
It is also essential that you do not bring your puppy or adult dog into a dog park if he or she is not neutered or spayed. This not only prevents accidental matings, but can lower the risk of aggression throughout the dog park as a whole because many dogs are made more reactive by the presence of intact dogs in their midst.
Park Rules. Most dog parks have a list of rules posted. Be sure to follow them. Most require that you clean up after your dog and often provide bags for this purpose. However, it is always a good idea to have your own bags.
Learn to recognize what appropriate play is like. Play is usually bouncy and is punctuated by short rests. If wrestling matches or chase games go on too long, they can escalate into a fight. Monitor your dog’s play and interrupt every now and then to remind Fifi that you are paying attention. This also reminds her to check in with you every so often. There should be frequent role reversals in healthy, appropriate play. For example, one dog may chase and then allow herself to be chased, or one dog may jump on another but then allow himself to be jumped on as well.
Beware of high-speed games of chase. Alone, two dogs playing chase is often fine but if other dogs join in, then a high-speed game of chase can arouse other dogs, and this can easily result in a dog fight breaking out. It's hard to get control once dogs begin this high-speed chase, which is why you want to catch it early, and why you want to spend a lot of time training your dog in the run. You want control when your dog starts to get out of control. But you can't wait until he is out of control to train your dog to listen to you. Train him while he is relatively calm.
Watch for bullying behavior. When one dog continually jumps on top of another dog, pins him down, or chases him with biting or attempts to bite, these pushy and potentially aggressive behaviors can trigger a dog fight and/or be traumatic for the other dog. If another dog bullies your dog, leave the area or the dog park altogether. If your dog begins to bully another dog, it’s definitely time to leave the park. This sends a strong message: Sorry, Charlie. If you bully or harass other dogs, the fun ends and we go home.
Fence Reactivity. Many dogs will engage in seemingly aggressive behavior when on the opposite side of a fence from another dog. If you notice this behavior (barking, lunging toward, growling, snarling at a dog on the other side of a fence), let me know. This reactivity can generalize to other situations and so needs to be handled appropriately.
Respect other people at all times. We often share the parks with people who are there without dogs—like bikers, joggers, and families with children. Keep your dog close and focused on you when you approach someone who doesn’t have a dog. Absolutely do not let your dog run up, bark, jump and say hello, or chase anyone. Some people aren’t comfortable around dogs, but everybody has a right to enjoy the parks and trails.
Practice obedience at the parks. It’s important that your dog be under your control whenever you’re in public, and that she comes when you call her, every time. Practice obedience training at the park and reward your dog for responding to your call, voluntarily checking in with you, and staying close. Remember that dogs will do whatever brings them positive attention from you. The more you reward them for the behaviors you approve of, the more they will offer those behaviors. It may help to start training when the park is least distracting. Participate in your dog's playtime. Interrupt every few minutes by calling your dog to you, rewarding with at least one treat every two seconds, and keep your dog with you for at least 10 seconds. For this entire 10 seconds, praise, pet and reward your dog often enough so that he doesn't have a chance to look away from you. This encourages attention, and allows your dog to calm down and focus on a human in between aroused playtimes.
Call your dog to come to you frequently, not just when it's time to leave. By calling him over to you frequently, rewarding him with something valuable, and then releasing him back to play, you can avoid the difficulty many dog park frequenters experience: the dog who can't be caught when it's time to leave. Make sure that calling your dog to come to you doesn't just signal the time to leave. Call him and have him sit by your side, receive your praise and petting for a brief time, and then release him with permission to go back and play - this teaches your dog that coming to you is merely a pleasant interruption and not an end to his fun.
Be a keen observer of canine body language (see Body Language handout). Tucked tail, lowered ears, bared teeth, snapping, and avoiding interaction are all signs that a dog is afraid or stressed. A tail held straight up in the air and barely moving is also a warning sign. Threatening behaviors in dogs include leaning forward, almost on tip toes to make themselves appear as big as possible, staring directly at another dog, and moving slowly.
Playful actions to watch for:
Back and forth play – dogs change position – role reversals
Bouncy, exaggerated gestures
Open relaxed mouth
Twisted leaps or jumps
Pawing the air
Signs of Anxiety/Stress to Monitor:
Fast wagging low tail
Whining or whimpering
Ears may be back
Hiding behind objects or people
Signs of Fear:
Dog will try to look small
Hunched over, head down
May urinate submissively
Red Flags that Require Intervention:
Pinning (holding another dog down and standing stiffly over them)
Shadowing another dog (following) incessantly
Bullying: repeatedly bothering another dog that does not want to interact
Fast non-stop running with a group – high arousal situation
Full-speed body slams
Putting head repeatedly onto another dog’s neck or back
Staring with a fixed gaze directly at another dog
Snarling or raised lips
Hackles up at the shoulders
Be aware of significant size differences. Large and small dogs can play together safely, but always be attentive and cautious. Yelping or squeaking from a small dog can trigger a larger dog’s predatory instinct. “Ooh,” the big boy may think, “it’s a squirrel or a bunny, not a dog!” Stay close by whenever your little guy is playing with larger dogs and intervene immediately if you sense trouble brewing.
Responding to a scuffle. Dog play can often seem much scarier than it actually is. Dogs “argue” most often through body language signals that communicate messages to the other dog about how to avoid a physical altercation. It is very rare for dogs to physically fight in a serious manner and even rarer for dogs to really hurt each other. But, it can happen. To interrupt a potential scuffle, get your dog’s attention however you can (i.e., toy or treat, running away, clapping loudly, etc). If the dogs are already engaged in biting behavior, do not put your hands near the dogs neck and/or face. Instead, grab both dogs by their back legs and pull backward in a circular motion to separate them. You can also throw a towel or other piece of fabric over the aggressor dog’s eyes to interrupt the fight.
Keep in mind that the entrance to the park is where a lot of problems occur. Do not allow your dog to linger in this area.
If your dog gets into a little scuffle (not a serious one) and is nervous after the issue has been resolved, avoid “coddling” her. Instead, stay in the area and allow her to calm down. If the fight is serious, of course, remove your dog from the other dog’s presence as soon as possible.
For a state by state listing of off-leash areas visit www.dogpark.com.