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How to Play Safely in the Dog Park

Updated on September 8, 2014
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Welcome to the Dog Park!

An enclosed, off-leash dog park is a great place for dogs to run full speed, or amble about at their own pace, sniffing and peeing on things. They can meet other dogs and people, and play as hard as they like. With no worry about running into traffic, you can both relax and enjoy a pleasant day with friends.

On the other hand, dog parks are full of strange dogs. It's kind of like a preschool playdate, if all the toddlers had claws and long, sharp teeth. But if you plan ahead and learn how to manage properly, you can give your best friend a great outing!


Balanced Play

Your goal when dogs play together is excitement that doesn't escalate into aggression. Both dogs should be joining in freely, and shouldn't feel it necessary to make threats to defend themselves. If one tries to hide or shows discomfort by lunging or flashing teeth, the other should back off or engage more gently. If it's not going well or one gets irritated, call the dogs away and get them moving out into the open. Learn to recognize when your dog is getting tired and take him home before he feels it necessary to show teeth.

In the video above, we have a nice example of well-balanced play. My Badger, aged two and a half, is wrestling with Atlas, a six-month-old on his first visit to the park. The game resembles a slow-motion fight. They're pulling their punches, opening their mouths wide and putting them on each other but not biting down.

Notice how Atlas is a bit intimidated and retreats under the bench several times. Badger, instead of pushing him further, goes down on his back, and Atlas comes out voluntarily. This is the hallmark of good play - the dogs maintain an even balance and neither tries to escape. There's a rhythm to it. Harder-playing dogs will have a faster rhythm, but you'll learn to recognize when both parties are happy.

Planning Ahead

On your first visit to a dog park, you'll be nervous. You may not know how your dog will react to strangers. Your first impulse may be to linger outside the fence, or keep your dog on-leash inside the park. But dogs who are restrained by leashes or fences feel vulnerable and anxious about loose dogs, and may try to drive them away.

So plan ahead to introduce your dog to the park. Scout it out without your dog and ask other folks what times the park is empty or little used. Then bring your dog in to explore the area by himself. He'll get a chance to relax and feel confident before he meets strangers.

While you're checking the park, see if there's a fountain or hose. If not you can bring a bowl and jug of water. Dogs get thirsty real quick when running.

Away From the Gate

You'll see it again and again: the humans linger near the gate on the closest bench, and the dogs stay with them. Then as each newcomer approaches, the group piles up on the gate and makes it difficult to enter. Once the new guy is in, everybody shoves up to him and pushes him into a corner, where he panics and starts a scuffle.

Not only that, but the constant wear near the gate means everybody is sitting in either a cloud of dust or a mud puddle. So move your dog down the park and give everyone a little space!

And if your dog's a greeter, please lead him away when new dogs arrive. He'll meet the newbies soon enough, and they'll be a lot more relaxed away from the gate.

The Collar Grab

There may be times in the dog park when you'l need to control your dog and lead him away; when the play gets too intense, for instance, or if he's bullying another dog or carrying on at the fence. Or maybe it's just time to leash up and go home! The trouble is, many dogs' reaction to having their collar grabbed is to either skitter away, or twist around and grab your wrist.

Train the collar grab before you go to the park. Gently take hold of your dog's collar, and with the other hand move a treat over his nose towards his eyes until he sits. Then give him the treat and let him go. Practice this for several days. Then when you go to dog parks, randomly take his collar and tell him to sit, then immediately release him to play. This teaches him that having his collar grabbed is routine and nothing to be nervous about.

Small or Large Side?

Dog parks often have a section for small dogs, usually those under 25 or 30 pounds. If you have small dogs please use it. Go with a friend if you have different-sized dogs, so somebody can sit with the little ones. Yes, you may be lonely watching all the fun on the big dog side, but please please please don't bring that little fluffy over to be trampled.

Or worse than trampled. My Badger (the gentle giant in the videos) was once being harassed by a pushy little fluffy. He's usually very tolerant of small dogs, but something about that guy pushed him over the edge. In an instant, he seized the little beast by the throat and pinned him to the ground. Mr. Pushy wan't hurt a bit and not particularly intimidated, but a touchier dog might have killed him just as fast. And when dogs are killed in a park, it's usually a small one being attacked by a larger one. Keep them safe!

Ball-Chasing Dogs

Many hunting and working dogs are intense, focused players who prefer chasing balls or discs to wrestling. Sometimes they have limited social skills and may ignore or frighten other dogs. You'll want to play fetch and other games with them at the park.

To avoid bending over a million times to pick up a slobbery tennis ball, use a "ball launcher" or "ball chucker" to scoop it off the ground and sling it a good distance. Great exercise for you both!

Just be aware that the ball-chasing dogs, as I call them, can get possessive of their toys. It's the biggest cause of dog park scuffles and fights - an intense chaser gets interrupted by another dog and defends his slobbery property. If your guy is that type, try to play with him away from the others, and move him on if they come too close.


Get Off the Bench

In the picture above, we see an established group of dogs and people, who have known each other a long time are comfortable. The dogs play while the humans gossip, and there's rarely a problem. But see Jack, with the red harness? One day I looked up and saw my great big Badger dangling Jack from that harness like a suitcase. Moral: Watch the dogs!

If the other dogs aren't well-known to you, then stay off the bench. It doesn't matter if the other owners are lounging, you walk around, pet the dogs, and stay near your own. Be ready to call your guy to move on if things get intense. Observe how he plays with the strangers and intervene when necessary.

Park Activities

Some parks have activities for the dogs: agility or obstacle courses, bridges, or climbing structures. These are great for when nobody else shows up, or on days when your dog feels anti-social, bored, or too excited. Train him on the quiet days and you'll be able to keep him focused and occupied on busier ones. (I won't tell if you bring some treats in for rewards when you're all alone!)

To the right is a brief video clip of my Badger learning to go over jumps. The park also has a tunnel and hoops, so there's a variety of skills to practice.

On the Bad Days

Not every visit is going to be a good time at the park. I try to go when there'll be a few dogs, but not a crowd. Badger doesn't like mob scenes and I don't think it's safe.

Pay attention to your instincts. If your dog is being pushed around and seems unhappy, go take a walk and try again another day, with different (or fewer) dogs. If some misguided person brings their toddler in where your big dog is tearing around like a steam engine, it's time to go someplace else.

Every day won't be a good day, but most of them can be! Enjoy your dog park visit!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Breaks are important, too! Let your dog rest up when he needs to, and he'll stay relaxed and happy.Badger and Rico playing happily.
Breaks are important, too! Let your dog rest up when he needs to, and he'll stay relaxed and happy.
Breaks are important, too! Let your dog rest up when he needs to, and he'll stay relaxed and happy.
Badger and Rico playing happily.
Badger and Rico playing happily.

© 2014 Valerie Proctor Davis

Do You Enjoy the Dog Park?

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    • Lorelei Cohen profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 3 years ago from Canada

      Excellent advice for dog owners who have dogs in any social situation. Dogs definitely speak a different language than we do.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 3 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      Valerie, this is some valuable information, that many dog owners simply don't think of. We took our little Maltese, C.C., to a dog park once. We went into the small dog section, but she didn't seem to know what to do. Other small dogs were chasing balls tossed by their owners, and she just watched. She's a prissy little thing, and didn't want to get down in the dirt (all grass was, of course, worn away). She hates to get her feet wet, too -- kind of like a cat. She does like to play chase, but it has to be her idea. If a person or even another do tries to start the game, she acts frightened. Noooo, she's not spoiled or anything...

    • Valerie P Davis profile image
      Author

      Valerie Proctor Davis 3 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

      @smine27 If your dog hates the dog park, try bringing him when no one else is there and see if he likes roaming by himself. It's okay if he doesn't like playing with a group of strange dogs--many dogs don't like that!

    • smine27 profile image

      Shinichi Mine 3 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      I must try the dog park again with my dog. He just hates it there.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 3 years ago from So Cal

      We haven't taken our dog to the park. We are not sure how she will do. She is friendly and likes other dogs but it's scary to take our 70 lb dog out. This was helpful and I think we will give it a try. Thanks

    • shay-marie profile image

      Shay Marie 3 years ago from Southern California

      This is a great resource. We took our dog to the park almost daily for a few months, but had to stop. She was fine most of the time, but on a few occasions when a particularly persistent dog would corner her, she would cower and show fear-aggression. I was concerned she was developing a bad habit, so we haven't taken her back. :( It makes me sad because she seemed to love it.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 3 years ago from USA

      These are great tips. I have been afraid to take my dog to a dog park, but with your tips, I might be able to do so.

    • Valerie P Davis profile image
      Author

      Valerie Proctor Davis 3 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

      @tillsontitan, thanks for your comment. Dogs are often fearful and reactive on-leash but fine when they can move freely. Try taking your dog to a park early when there's no one else there and let him get used to the space. Then when a new dog shows up, your guy isn't restrained and helpless on the leash.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 3 years ago from New York

      Loved this hub and welcome! I have a 4 yr. old min pin who used to love other dogs but now things he's king of the road. He's fine with dogs in my house but when he's on a leash forget it! I want to take him to a dog park but have been in touch with his former kindergarten teacher to see if we can tone down his little aggression problem

      I loved your training hint and will try adding that to my dog's repertoire.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

      P.S. Good luck here, I'm sure you'll do fine.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Well done, and well-presented information. Welcome to Hub Pages!

      You've given excellent advice and I hope this article gets a lot of traffic.

      Voted up, useful and interesting; shared and pinned.

    • Valerie P Davis profile image
      Author

      Valerie Proctor Davis 3 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

      @Jean Bakula, If the dog doesn't want to play, or is aggressive towards other dogs, he's not a good fit for a dog park (unless they come when no one else is there, to let him run alone). I'm sorry to hear about situations like that - it's bad for any dog to be neglected, and a large, powerful one is more likely to get in trouble because of it.

      Thanks for reading!

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Hi, this is a very informative hub. Dog parks are getting common in my state of NJ. I used to have a Siberian Husky for 14 yrs. but never got another dog after he was gone. My next door neighbor has a badly behaved pit bull, and she has him on doggy Prozac instead of trying to teach him how to behave. I tried suggesting a dog park, but he may be too aggressive, and she doesn't watch him, or pretends he's a puppy yet. You made me recall the fun of having a dog though, even though it is a responsibility too.

    • nightcats profile image

      June Campbell 3 years ago from North Vancouver

      I've only been in a dog park once, given that I have no dogs. I was accompanying a friend who has a miniature poodle. At this particular park, and on this particular occasion, the humans were all out in the park interacting with their animals, which seemed to me to be a fine thing. Let's face it. Most of us could benefit from more exercise than is gained by sitting on the bench near the front gate. :-)

    • BrianRS profile image

      Brian Stephens 3 years ago from France

      All very positive dog training advice and great tips for letting your dog interact with other dogs. It all makes a lot of sense so very well done.

    • profile image

      mumsgather 3 years ago

      We don't have dog parks here in Malaysia so its really interesting to read this hub.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Valerie, this is terrific information for dog owners! I love the tip about training your dog to accept a collar grab as a routine - and not negative - occurrence.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 3 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Nicely done! My dog loves the dog park and all her buddies.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      there's so much to know when we are dog owners! my doggie is little so she's easy compared to a larger dog! congrats on your first Hub too!

    • Linda BookLady profile image

      Linda Jo Martin 3 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

      Dog parks are wonderful.. a great way for city dogs to get the exercise and socialization they need.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Enjoyed reading this. Dog parks are so much fun, as long as all the dogs follow the same rules. It always surprises me how well they get along with other dogs away from home. Love the photos.

    • Richard-H profile image

      Richard 3 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      I don't have a dog, but this is very interesting info for those who do.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 3 years ago from New Zealand

      Great information here. I haven't heard of dog parks in New Zealand, but we my have some in the big cities. Great idea though.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 3 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Great information! One thing that I regret with Daisy (our Lab) is that we didn't socialize her early in her life. Now I worry about having her around other dogs, especially since she had a run-in with a neighbor dog a year ago and was bitten (a small dog attacking our big girl). Our neighbors have a Lab puppy now and I'm hoping we can get them together and they can become friends. Thanks for all the great tips.

    • Valerie P Davis profile image
      Author

      Valerie Proctor Davis 3 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

      Thanks, Nancy!

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Nice work Valerie. Glad to see you've already settled in. (smile)