Dog Park Etiquette
After spending most of my time at dog parks and off leash hiking trails I’ve seen it all. Dog fights, injured dogs, injured humans, adults fighting like children and, sad but true, an unnecessary killing of a small dog. The patterns are the same every time and it all could have been prevented. If everybody would just follow some simple rules and etiquette it would make life much easier for all of us. After all, it should be fun for the dogs and relaxing for us!
ABIDE BY THE POSTED RULES. No matter what dog park you are at, there are regulations posted clearly at the entrances for a reason. These include the size and age of the dog that is allowed, how many vaccinations are needed and rules about the behavior of your dog. At CADPA, these rules are:
1. Only dogs registered with CADPA may enter the fenced area. Each dog must be licensed as per PA law or per residence state’s law, vaccinated for rabies and Bordatella (kennel cough), and owner/handler must have a CADPA key fob. Maximum of 3 dogs per registered adult are permitted within one of the fenced areas.
2. Dogs weighing less than 30 pounds must use the Small Dog Area and dogs weighing more than 30 pounds must use the Large Dog Area.
3. For their safety, children under the age of 12 years and dogs under 4 months or with an illness or injury are not permitted within fenced area. CADPA will host events for puppies and children in one area of the park at scheduled times.
4. Scoop the Poop! Pick up your dog(s) feces immediately both inside & outside fenced areas.
5. All dogs 6 months and older must be spayed/neutered.
6. Aggressive dogs are not allowed. Dogs exhibiting aggressive behavior must be removed immediately, without debate. For everyone’s safety, repeated aggressive behavior will result in dog’s permanent expulsion from the park. Aggression is defined as behaviors that include but may not be limited to:
a) Persistent interaction of dog to dog with intent to do harm.
b) Bullying of dogs(s) that escalates.
c) Singling out one dog and pursuing it with ill intent.
d) Not backing off when a dog submits.
e) Dog that intimidates or is aggressive to humans.
7. Keep ‘em safe! All dogs must be leashed when outside the fenced areas. Each dog shall have a leash no longer than six feet and have on a buckled collar. Prong, spike and choke collars are not permitted inside the fenced area. Please keep leash(es) with you while in the fenced areas. Remove leashes before allowing dog through the inner gate.
8. Stay with your dog(s). Dogs must be within view of their owners, in the same fenced section of the park, and under voice control at all times. If your dog starts to dig, please stop him and fill in any holes.
9. Food or treats (human or dog), glass containers, strollers, bicycles, childrens’ or dogs’ toys are prohibited within the fenced areas. Smoking is not permitted.
10. Carlisle parks – including the dog park – open at dawn and close at dusk.
WALK DON’T RUN TO THE PARK. I often see humans being dragged to the dog park by their dogs, and I think to myself, if that guy can not control his dog before entering the park, he surely will not be able to control her inside the dog park. You should have control of your dog at all times, whether on or off a leash. Walking your dog should be a pleasure not a chore where your arms get dragged out of their sockets. A dog park is not the place to bring your dog as a substitute for walking your dog. To release mental frustration in your dog you must first walk your dog before entering the dog park, otherwise that excited mental energy could turn into a fight among the other dogs at the park.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS ABOUT YOUR DOG’S SUITABILITY FOR GOING TO A DOG PARK. If he isn’t polite or friendly with others, get help to change his behavior before you take him to a dog park. Dog parks are not a place to rehabilitate fearful or aggressive dogs or those that just don’t know how to play well with others. Before you take your dog into a dog park, spend a few minutes watching the other dogs and how they are playing and interacting with others. If the dogs seem to be too rough in their play or are intimidating other dogs, come back some other time. If your dog has never been around other dogs before – don’t go to a dog park until he’s had a chance to be around other dogs in other situations so you have a better idea of how he reacts to other dogs. If you aren’t sure how your dog will behave, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to muzzle your dog the first few times he goes to a dog park. Better safe than sorry.
HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS ABOUT YOUR SUITABILITY FOR GOING TO A DOG PARK. Your mental attitude and emotions are clearly communicated to your dog whether you will it or not. If you are tense and nervous, your dog will be tense and nervous also and hence a target for the other dogs. If for whatever reason you are scared of big dogs, Pitbulls, Shepherds or any kind of dogs, DO NOT COME to a dog park! If you are not scared of dogs but might be scared that little Poochie could get dirty, DO NOT COME to a dog park. Nervous energy translates directly into nervous or aggressive behavior in your dog, which usually results in a freak accident. Try to remain calm. This one is especially for the ladies, DO NOT SCREAM IN A HIGH PITCHED VOICE. It will make it worse. Try to remain calm and if you must scream, try to lower your voice and yell in a more authoritative manner!
LEAVE THE LATTES AND CELLPHONES AT HOME. Collisions with rambunctious dogs are common, and it doesn’t take much to upend a steaming beverage on someone else or a dog. And even if it’s not already prohibited by the posted rules, don’t bring alcohol or come tipsy. YOU CAN’T PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DOG WHILE ON THE CELL PHONE OR LISTENING TO YOUR IPOD. It takes about 1/100th of a second for a dog to go from nice to mean, and by the time you hang up your iphone, 3 dogs can gang-up on and eat your dog. Turn off your cell phone and bond with your best friend.
BRING EXTRA ESSENTIALS. Poop bags are not provided by the city – bring your own or help out by bringing your empty grocery bags and stuffing them in the containers provided for others to use. If you have a problem with your dog drinking the water in the bowls provided, bring your own bowls and your own water. I once watched a man clean the dog park bowl with Comet and then expected all the dogs to drink out of it. It was a beat up, scratched and bitten plastic bowl – not something that could be easily rinsed of the Comet residue.
DON’T PLAY DUMB. No one likes an owner who pretends not to notice when his pooch is relieving itself five feet away. Or when his dog is repeatedly trying to deflower the poor beagle in the corner. Or when his dog is vying for the title of Ultimate Fighting Champion, to the chagrin of irritated or scared four-legged peers and their owners. It is advisable to remove your dog from any situation the moment you sense any sort of tension in the dog pack. If it is your dog who seems to be instigating the fighting, it is important to recognize the issue and reconsider whether or not your pet really belongs in an off-leash environment. Too often, owners cannot accept or will not admit that their dog has aggression issues, and as a result, they put other dogs and people at risk. Be knowledgeable about dog body postures, communication signals and social behavior. You should be able to recognize stress, tension, fear, play, threats and aggression. Know the difference between play (which can be very active and sound violent) and real threats. Know when to intervene and when to stay out of an interaction among dogs. If you feel uninformed about canine behavior, learn more before taking your dog to a park. Harm can come to your dog if you under-react as well as over-react.
YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR DOG(S) . That means you are In Control of your dog at all times…if a dog doesn’t want to be humped by YOUR dog, you need to get her/him off the other dog. Don’t expect other dogs to “correct” your dog or “teach it a lesson” – that’s your responsibility before you even come to a dog park . Too many people make the mistake of letting their animals run free and completely disconnecting from them the entire time their dogs are out socializing. By sitting on a bench and waiting until it’s time to go home, you are potentially setting your dog up for getting hurt or starting a fight. Dogs don’t instinctively know how to behave in groups. They learn their code of conduct through interactions when young. Unfortunately, many miss the early lessons because they’re not exposed to other dogs or were taken from their litter mates too soon, and they have trouble catching up. While other dogs their age know when a look means back off, these naive newbies think everything is fair game.
WHEN YOUR DOG SAYS “HELLO”. When your dog is greeting another dog be aware of both of the dogs’ demeanors. Friendly postures generally involve the dog making him or herself “smaller” relative to the other dog. This, along with other physical posturing, serves to decrease their potential threat to others. Dogs exhibiting passive submission tend to have an averted gaze, lower their neck and ears, lick, groom and paw. Not so friendly greetings involve the dog making itself appear larger. Erect stance, head up, ears forward, tail up (possibly flicking tip), stripping (hair up on neck/back, puffed tail hair), direct stare (pupils may or may not be dilated), raised lips, low tone growl, snapping, etc.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WHEN ANOTHER DOG JUMPS ON ME? While some suggest an inhumane knee in the chest or a bonk on the nose, the truth is that since the bouncing Bozo’s just after your attention, the best medicine is to fold your arms, turn around, make like a statue and hold perfectly still – be totally boring. That means don’t touch him, don’t yell at him, just ignore him as if he doesn’t exist.
HE IS JUST PLAYING Sometimes people mistake vocal play with aggression and get scared. If someone asks you to take your dog away form their dog, even if you know better do not argue and just do it. Apparently they are scared and tense up. This could affect the dogs which could result in a fight. Prevent before it happens! Dog fights can and do occur. The most successful dog parks are the ones with an active user group. An active users group can reduce the risk of dog fights significantly. They step in and encourage or demand (as the case requires) leashes or removal of aggressive dogs. Most dogs are not aggressive because they are not on their own territory. The dogs that use the park most successfully are dogs that were socialized very young and had good experiences as they visited. Depend upon and learn from the dog savvy people to see indications of an impending squabble. Redirecting the dog’s attention at exactly the right moment can make all the difference. Your tone of voice and your body language will also make a big difference. Keep calm, don’t praise fearful or aggressive behavior by “soothing” the dog with petting and cooing sounds. AGGRESSION IS NOT CUTE. I often see people watch their dogs pick fights with other dogs while they make stupid statements like “Oh he likes to play rough”
KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE. This is perhaps the biggest etiquette breach of all. If your dog is being too aggressive (teeth bared, growling, biting, eyes narrowed), get it out of the park immediately. Boorish behavior can quickly escalate to an injury. It gets so confrontational, and everyone gets involved and people take sides. Those are the worst scandals in the dog park. If your dog is frightened with tail between it’s legs and trying to hide between yours, take it out of the park – it’s not ready yet for a mass of dogs. Come back when there is only one or two dogs and learn how to introduce your dog to others. If your dog is constantly barking at other dogs and you are asked to take care of it, please be courteous to fellow park goers and neighbors. Stop your dog’s barking without arguing, even if it means leaving the park.
NO FOOD MEANS ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD I always thought it’s an absolute no-brainer but apparently I was wrong. There is a reason why we use dogs to find buried humans, drugs, weapons and so on. Dogs have 300 million specialized scent-detecting organs lining their nasal cavity. So, what makes you think you can put dog treats in your pocket and not be bothered by creatures that have an enormous ability to smell and that live for food? If you don’t want to get bothered don’t bring food! Use the same logic for bringing human food to the dog park or throwing gum wrappers and cigarette butts on the ground. All these are temptations for dogs, especially ones that are out-of-control and won’t listen to a “leave it” command.
BREAKING UP A FIGHT Many times it’s more noise than real fighting. The worse things you can do are to panic and scream. Never try to pull your dog off by his collar. The chances of getting bit are very high. Try to grab the dog by his hind legs or, even better grab him by his hip/waist. You can really dig in his fur and skin and pull him off. The typical reaction for a dog is to look back and to see what grabbed him. That is your chance to pull him off the other dog. Please, use your common sense. If you think the situation is too dangerous let other people handle it! If your dog started the fight, you should ask the other persons involved if everything is ok with them and their dog!
THAT THING CALLED HUMPING No, your dog is not gay if he is humping other male dogs and he isn’t horny either. Humping is pure dominance. Don’t freak out and please don’t be embarrassed when your dog is getting humped or humping others. Give your dog a moment to take care of it himself (which usually means that he/she will growl back at the other dog). If your dog is passive/submissive and YOU are uncomfortable with the humping, kindly ask the other owner to take away the other dog.
TOYS Toys are great…for home. If your dog has a favorite toy at home, DO NOT BRING IT TO THE PARK! It can trigger possession and aggression. Chances of a fight breaking loose are very high.
THE NOT SO GOOD “PICK ME UP” If for whatever reason a situation escalates and bigger dogs team up and pounce on a small dog, never, ever pick up the small dog and try to leave the park. The moment you pick up the little one you are putting yourself and your dog in danger. The other dogs will jump up on you and will try to pull the little dog down. Chances of you getting bit are very high. In a scuffle stand over your dog to protect him and push the other dogs away. Try to stay calm. Same rules for bigger dogs: never pick up any dog when other dogs are around! Make sure that running dogs are not actually chasing a dog that might be a weak submissive dog. It’s natural in the wild for dogs to eliminate dogs in the pack that are weak, but we don’t want that happening in the dog park. Intervene by breaking the pack up and sending each dog away from the weak dog. Do not pick up the weak dog, this only agitates the rest of the dogs and they will start jumping on you to get at the dog.
DON’T TURN YOUR BACK Use all your common senses at the park. A dog usually sticks in a close perimeter around the owner. Which means if he is playing and romping around it will be most likely around your knees. Just be aware and ready to react quickly and jump to the side. A collision can be very painful! Do not turn your back on playing dogs!
DOG PARK ATTIRE It’s a dog park and usually it’s dirty. I wouldn’t recommend wearing your designer clothes to the park. Nor would I recommend wearing skirts or flip flops. Have you ever stepped in a nice fresh turd with open toed shoes? Which leads me to my next point….
Eeeeeeewwww I STEPPED IN DOO-DOO It happens to all of us, we are caught up in a lively discussion and we don’t realize Fido just placed a nice turd in the middle of the park. Now multiply this by 20 dogs a day and you have a mess. Keep an eye on your dog at all time and pick up the doo-doo even when it’s on the other side of the park. If you pick up poop and there is poop in close proximity be courteous and pick it up as well. We all benefit from a clean park!
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 her alpha animal is paying attention. This also reminds her to check in with you every so often. High set, slow wagging tails or not wagging at all and ears held straight up are signs to watch out for that either dog is considering a possible conflict. Be quick to intervene before it leads to anything more.
WATCH FOR BULLYING BEHAVIOR. Jumping on top of another dog, pinning, or continuous chasing are aggressive behaviors. If another dog bullies your dog, leave the area, or even the park, if necessary. 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. Know your dog. Is your dog water or toy-aggressive? Will your dog snap if someone takes his ball? Will he cause a scene if someone tries to share his water? If you answered, “yes” to either of these questions, then your dog might be the park bully. Consider seeing a trainer and keeping your dog at home until the questionable behavior has been resolved.
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. Avoid disciplining another park user’s dog. If you must use force to break up a fight, so be it, but do not attempt to “punish” someone else’s dog once the conflict is ended. If you find another dog’s behavior unacceptable, take your own dog out of the park rather than “correcting” someone else’s dog.
ENROLL YOUR DOG IN AN OBEDIENCE CLASS, THEN PRACTICE AT THE PARKS. It’s important that your dog be under your control whenever you’re in public, and that he comes when you call him, 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 them. Teach your dog by calling it to come to meals, walks and treats. Don’t call it to scold it, or it will associate the command with punishment.
BE A KEEN OBSERVER OF CANINE BODY LANGUAGE. 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. The best posture for a dog in a group is ears relaxed and mostly back on the head, head lower then the shoulders, tail straight out – not tucked or up (for dogs with very curly tails, check the ears and mouth – make sure there is no tension or tightness).
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.
So get out and enjoy the great parks and trails in our city with your “best friend”. Just remember: By being a responsible pet owner and following some sensible rules, you help keep public spaces safe and enjoyable for all.
Create a park culture
We humans are responsible for our dogs’ behaviors, hence we play a critically important role in making sure proper etiquette is adhered to, by our dogs as well as ourselves. It only takes one renegade to spoil a park for other users. The best dog parks are those whose users band together to create a sense of community, who use education, peer pressure and, when necessary, call in the appropriate authorities to help regulate those who won’t follow the posted rules or rules of etiquette and common sense.
Rules of engagement
As Patrick Swayze says in the movie Road House, “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” If a human or his dog is behaving inappropriately, assume they don’t know any better, and do your best to educate gently and politely.
If you’re uncomfortable doing so, seek out the help of another park user for support. Don’t wimp out! As a responsible dog-park user, you have an obligation to report inappropriate actions of other users that put the safety of dogs and humans at risk. How would you feel if you turned a blind eye to a potentially dangerous behavior, only to have another person or dog injured perhaps seriously or fatally if an incident happens in the future that you might have been able to prevent?
If the inappropriate actions are putting you or your dog at risk and the other dog owner isn’t receptive to education, take your dog and leave the park until you can ask the users’ group or other park authorities to handle the situation.
If you don’t know and can’t get the dog owner’s name and contact information, try to get his license plate number. If that’s not possible, write down a detailed description of both dog and human, and note any times you’ve seen them at the park, to help authorities make contact. Also write a detailed and unemotional description of the behavior(s) you felt were inappropriate.
The positive approach generally works better with humans, just as it does with dogs.
If you are still feeling insecure or you have questions, please contact someone from Carlisle Area Dog Park Association to help!