A dog park visit should be a great treat and learning opportunity for your pup, not a random, chancey experience. Your job is to be your dog's trusted leader, orchestrating his safe, enjoyable play each and every time at the park. Learn how to assess other dogs on the playground, and direct your dog to those who are best suited for your fur kid's fun and safe enjoyment!
You can first start taking your puppy to the dog park when he's 4-1/2 months or older as he has developed immunities from vaccines. It's important to socialize any puppy early on because youngsters with good experiences mature into much friendlier, less fearful dogs than others, and are less likely to become aggressive. In addition, the exercise received can help remedy a laundry list of behavior problems.
Before your first dog park visit, provide your dog with a few one-on-one play socials with other dogs. This gives your dog a chance to build his confidence with other dogs, and you the opportunity to observe and learn about your dog's play style and any signs of dominance you need to control.
When you arrive at the dog park, turn off that darn cell phone! A single minute of texting could be all it takes for your dog to end up cowering in fear from a playground bully, or in the midst of a brawling fight. You are responsible for watching not only your dog, but every other dog in his vicinity. Be aware of the savvy and attentiveness of other dog owners - or lack thereof - as many do not supervise or manage their dogs while there, but instead tune out to their phones or to drink coffee and chat with others.
Before you physically bring your dog into the park, quickly step in on your own and check out what's going on. There are a few signs for leaving the park for another day and taking your Fido to another venue: the dogs are all mostly anxiously bunched together in a too small area; there is excessive anxious barking; many of the dogs seem stressfully “worked up” while the owners are obliviously and irresponsibly schmoozing on their own.
Look for a dog or group which is relaxed to pick as the best for your dog. You should perceive that he will be able to comfortably meet and play with the dog or group you choose. Then go get Fido and bring him in on his leash to your selected dog or group. Take him off leash so he can meet/greet, but carry his leash with you so that you can physically direct him out of any play issue or place if need be. Without having his leash, your only option is to drag him by the collar which embarrasses him and lowers his esteem in the eyes of the other dogs.
Assess the Dogs in the Playground
- Hyper, Rambunctious, Clumsy These are mostly puppies, but others as well. If your dog is young, don’t make the mistake of looking for another “puppy” for your dog’s play, especially one in this category. While the puppy may be of the same age as yours, these dogs often body slam or pin down others. Understand that this is dominance as they are testing their strength similar to pups in the wild. Your dog will not learn much from another in this group except how to play roughly and protect himself from dominant bullies. Your dog’s size is meaningful in this as well as all other categories, as smaller dogs are at greater risk during play if grouped with larger dogs. If you have a small dog and the park offers a separate fenced yard for the under 30 lb. crowd, use it. Your little one may feel quite comfortable hanging with the big dogs, but a large clumsy goof could maul your fur kid - with or without intention. In addition, small dogs with squeaky barks often trigger larger dogs’ prey drive instinct. Your dog is not a squirrel but may sound like one, which can set off a larger dog’s attack mode.
- Shy, Reserved, Insecure, Fearful This dog usually avoids others, rolls over submissively when sniffed, and may cower when approached by another. If pushed to the wall, this dog may react with fear based aggression and beat the poop out of your dog. Don’t let your dog push this dog, but instead let the shy friend come to your dog on his own. This is not a target playmate for your pup when you're scoping the park. You'll often see this dog cowering under a bench which his owner is sitting on, which is a sign to AVOID!
- Aloof, Disinterested, Independent Your dog will probably not be interested in these pups. The reasons why they are so withdrawn vary, but include past bad dog experiences, age/medical challenges, not having received prior socialization and other.
- Bossy, Pushy, Dominant These are the bullies on the playground. To identify these dogs, lose all your preconceived ideas about dog age, size and breed and instead simply observe behaviors. You will quickly learn to identify these dogs if you look for a variety of unmistakable signs. One is a dog making direct eye contact with other dogs with anything but a smiling face/positive body language. This is a challenge of dominance, with the other dog expected to submissively turn away or be pursued with from subtle pawing to all-out aggression. Another sign is a dog who nips and bites other dogs while "play chasing." The owner may protest that “My dog is just playing,” but this behavior has undertones of dominance as the nipping biter is testing the strength and reactions of others. Other signs include a dog pouncing on and pinning down others, obnoxious in-your-face barking with other dogs, and humping which is often mistaken for sex but is more often a display of dominance.
- Overtly Aggressive and Threatening This dog is the above category times ten, with growling and attacking behaviors. This may be the consistent demeanor of the dog. Or it may be triggered by rough play which escalates, or the dog being possessive of a toy, water, his/her owner, and more. Look for and avoid dogs with any overtly dominant, aggressive behaviors.
- Comfortable, Confident, Friendly, at Ease Bingo! This is the kind of dog or dog group you are targeting for your pup’s play. The owners are conscientiously supervising and interacting with their dogs, and their pooches are happily balanced, relaxed, and owner connected.
- Special Toys Leave your dog’s favorite disc, ball or other toy at home. Most dog parks have enough tennis balls for the pleasure of all. If your pup makes a play for Fido’s "special toy," Fido may go from being a furry friend to an attacking beast. This is a natural instinct for some dogs, as their descendents in the wild only survived by asserting themselves during the feast following a kill, while the weaker members perished. Don’t limit special toy avoidance to discs and balls. Tug-of-war toys appear as a fun invitation, but are more frequently a warm-up to a full fledged brawl, which the other dogs in the park will be happy to join in once started. Stay away from dogs who are playing with any special toy other than the numerous playground tennis balls.
- Water If the dog park does not provide water, you need to bring your own with a bowl for your dog. It is best to take your dog out of the park to give it to him if water is not provided in the park. Otherwise many thirsty dogs will congregate over this limited resource, and fights will be a woof away. Watch for other owners who are bringing out water within the park, and direct your dog away from them.
- Unneutered Males Almost every dog park posts rules requiring that dogs be fixed if beyond six months old. Even if a male is not aggressive (although they are more likely to be so), those with "peanuts" exude a scent which is a threatening signal to other dogs. As the physical sign is pretty simple to observe, make it your routine to steer clear of intact males. Avoid female dogs who are being humped incessently as this is a possible sign that they are not spayed and are coming into heat.
- Food Don't bring any food including treats you use to train your dog into a dog park. Similar to toy possessiveness, that sweet soft Poodle may become a holy terror if food is introduced in the area, claiming it as his/her own. As with water, watch for other owners who are bringing out food or treats and leash your dog to move him/her from that vicinity.
- Breeds Don’t mistake thinking all Labs and Goldens are nice friends for your pup, while Pit Bulls and Rottweilers are all dangerous. Observe the dog, as well as the owner’s handling and attentiveness. The owner's connection with his dog provides insights on how well any dog receives consistent, balanced leadership. The traditional softer breeds of dogs have been the culprits more than once for instigating fights which result in dog injuries. And even pint-sized small dogs like Pugs can inflict some ugly bites and wicked punctures.
- Be Prepared for an Off Hours Emergency Even with your diligence, the surprisingly worst can happen as “dogs will be dogs.” Know where to take your dog if he becomes injured. Most vets are closed nights and weekends. Be familiar with where the nearest off-hours emergency clinic is located. Keep their phone number handy, and know how to get there and park. If your dog has an injury emergency, call the clinic on the way there so the staff is as prepared as possible to handle your dog when you arrive.
Have fun and lead your dog into enjoying a great experience with each park visit!