Dog Park Etiquette - The stuff of good times...for all

Alice waits eagerly for Alex to throw her ball at the river near Alton Baker Park in Eugene.

Alice waits eagerly for Alex to throw her ball at the river near Alton Baker Park in Eugene.

A Dog Park can be the best part of a sunny Sunday afternoon or the only place it’s possible to let your apartment-dwelling pup run.  

Either way, there are some important basics that, followed by all park users, help everyone have a great time at the park.  Commonly followed practices include heeding posted signs and picking up after your pooch, but there’s a lot more to keeping your dog safe and happy.  Much is common sense . . . which of course can be all too uncommon.

Mary Williams of Fido’s Indoor Dog Park, a favorite place for Portland-area pooches to recreate indoors, shared an important tip regarding arrival:  “Be careful entering a dog park gate.  Other dogs tend to crowd around to greet an arriving dog, and this can be intimidating to many dogs and result in a skirmish, or worse.”

Williams also recommends that “dogs younger than four months be kept from busy dog parks for their own safety.”  This is especially true considering that the ever-important Parvo vaccine series usually ends at about four months of age. Trainer Ian Dunbar advocates participating in puppy socialization groups as a better place to start, saying, “Some outgoing puppies are overly friendly, thinking every dog is glad to see them.  They just don’t know that you don’t go running up to an adult dog.”  By playing with dogs their own age/size, puppies can learn the rules of dog play safely.

Ryan with Milo, Berry and Charlie.

Ryan with Milo, Berry and Charlie.

For pets and people new to the dog park, Williams suggests, “If you aren’t sure how your dog will behave, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to muzzle him or her the first few times you go — better safe than sorry.”  Plus, she adds, it may be safer for a dog new to the dog park experience to go during off-peak times such as later evening.  That, however, has its own drawbacks, as pointed out by a regular user of Eugene’s Alton Baker Dog Park.  Ryan frequently takes his dogs Milo, Berry and Charlie to play there.  Ryan says his one complaint is that the park is open until 11pm, but that “it doesn’t have enough light at night — you can’t see the dogs.”  While Ryan and his pups really appreciate the late open hours, he wants be able to keep track of his dogs while they’re there.

Once you become a regular dog park user, you can “make sure your dog gets the most out of the experience by planning ahead,” says Julia Bowlin of Canine Communication in Eugene. 

“It can make the park even more fun to meet up with dogs you know play well with each other, like making ‘play dates,’” says Eugene resident, Alex, of enjoying the park with his dog Alice.  “My favorite part is that people are generally friendly, and I like to meet other dog people.  It’s great to make plans to do things later — like go to Mt. Pisgah for a hike.”

When your dogs are playing anywhere, especially with lots of other dogs around, Casey Newton of Wonder Puppy in Portland says play should be give and take, with the dogs reversing positions (on top and below etc.).  If one dog is always dominant the other dog may get hurt or simply not have a good time . . . the whole reason for going to the park!

Of course, park etiquette calls for communication.  Don’t be afraid to tell someone you would like to keep your dog away from theirs.  If they won’t comply, it’s probably best to just leave and take a walk.  Likewise, if your dog gets into a fight you should leave, even if your pup didn’t start it.  Two dogs that get into it are likely to do it again, and the damage can be serious.  Even better, watch your dog at all times and if you sense a conflict in the making remove him before it escalates.  This is an especially important precaution with a new addition or foster dog.

Some dogs simply aren’t cut out for the dog park experience, at least “for now.”  An aggressive dog shouldn’t go to the dog park at all— it just isn’t the place to socialize him.  A grownup but un-socialized dog may require the help of a training professional.

For all dogs, an important pre-off leash skill is the ability to quickly re-call your dog.  Not only does it make for quick relief in the event of a potential fight (because your dog comes right back to your side), it also relieves you of the embarrassing necessity of chasing your dog, leash in hand, when it’s time to go. 

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Practice good people behavior, too:  teach older children to properly meet a dog and follow the protocol yourself.  That means letting a dog approach you instead of jutting a hand out, which dogs can perceive as aggressive.  Williams adds, “Do not take small children or babies in strollers to a dog park.  Dogs and children can easily frighten one another and bad things can happen to either of them in the blink of an eye.”

The good news is that the Pacific Northwest boasts tons of options.  As Bowlin says, “If one park doesn’t seem to be a good fit, try a different one.   Different areas can have different kinds of clients.”

Practicing good etiquette toward people, the space, and the dogs makes for the greatest chance of good times for everyone at the dog park.  Most experiences will be positive, and conflicts can largely be avoided with early intervention.  A little common sense and good conduct go a long way toward ensuring everyone — human and canine — enjoy good times at the park. 

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Megan Mahan lives with visiting foster animals, quite a few fish, and her boyfriend in Eugene, Oregon.  She is excited to now be with Spot full time, and devotes much of her free time to fostering pets and creative writing.  From her high school gig as Dog Bather to her more recent years working at the Santa Cruz SPCA where she was contributing editor of the newsletter, Megan has always lived, loved and worked with animals.