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Beyond the rules: A guide to dog park etiquette

Dogs at a dog park
Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

Dog parks are a fun way to allow your canine friends some exercise and off-leash playtime.

However, dog parks – which are one of the fastest growing outdoor amenities across the country – are not for every dog or owner. Dogs can bite and bully each other, run amok and knock other dogs and people over, or be annoying with excessive humping, jumping and pinning.

The Forest Preserve District has a list of rules for using its six dog parks including: permits are required, big dogs can’t go in the little-dog enclosures, owners must pick up after their pets and dispose of the waste – no matter where it is in the dog park, including tall grass areas. And owners must “keep their dogs under control at all times.” But there is more to the mix at dog parks than the basic rules.

Dog experts have a list of tips for hanging out at the dog parks. These recommendations are designed to make dog park outings more enjoyable for humans and canines alike.

Pay attention

For instance, recommends dog owners visiting a dog park pay attention to their pets. “Talking on your phone, texting, emailing and Facebooking are all dog park don’ts,” according to a list of dog park rules on the Vetstreet website. “Your dog needs to be actively supervised at all times, even when you are visiting with the other pet parents or greeting one of your pooch’s friends. And of course it goes without saying, but never, ever leave your dog unattended in the park, even for a moment.”

The site also encourages pet owners to take the edge off their pup's energy before arriving at the dog park, which might sound counterintuitive, but there is a reason.

“Don’t bring a hyper, under-exercised dog to the park,” the site advised. “A wound-up canine’s overzealous interactions can cause other dogs to feel threatened. If you have an excitable dog, take him for a long walk or jog or play fetch in the yard before you head to the dog park — whatever it takes to burn some energy and get him ready to play nicely with his friends.” also warns against allowing your dog to hump or mount another dog. “Humping can be part of normal play, but not all dogs, or their humans, react nicely to it and aggressive responses may occur – from the dog and his human. Instead, redirect your dog or remove him from the park if his humping becomes excessive.”


Do's and don'ts

And, while it may seem obvious, it's important to note that people shouldn’t use dog parks to socialize an aggressive dog. “Canines that are aggressive with people or other dogs should never be taken to the dog park. Period,” Vetstreet states. “Taking an aggressive dog to a park rarely resolves the problem; instead, it puts other dogs and people at risk. If you are concerned about your dog’s aggressive behavior, seek professional guidance in dealing with the issue and avoid the dog park until it has been resolved.”

The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a list of do’s and don’ts for dog parks to help keep visits from going awry. For instance, the group says you shouldn’t take your dog to a dog park if the animal is uncomfortable in such settings. The association has a list of body language signs that show a dog is anxious or stressed including: fast wagging low tail, whining or whimpering, ears back and hiding behind objects or people. Signs of fear include: tail tucked, hunched over with head down, tense and submissive urination.

One of the most important tips for dog park outings is to make sure your dog is responsive to your verbal commands. And owners should supervise their dogs while they are playing and interrupt any rough play. Dogs shouldn’t be allowed to pin, shadow or bully other dogs. Fast, nonstop running and full-speed body slams also should not be allowed. Snarling and a raised lip, staring with a fixed gaze at another dog, showing teeth and hackles raised are all red flags that require intervention, the association continued.

Also, the association warns that: “Dog play styles can be radically different, and sometimes they are not compatible with each other’s. This can cause misunderstandings, or even fights, and it can also exacerbate certain play styles.”

Take responsibility

Sometimes, according to the association, it’s the humans at a dog park who are the biggest problem:

“Owners, of course, play an important role in dog parks, and often don’t accept the responsibility they should. Many don’t pay attention to their dog, and many have no idea what constitutes proper behavior, or what a dog may be signaling to another dog. Some defend their dogs when the animal exhibits poor or inappropriate behavior. Some overreact to a normal interaction, in which one dog discourages the attention of another.”

The bottom line is this: you and your dog should both behave at the dog park. Pay attention to your dog, know your dog’s personality, train your dog to listen to your voice commands, and leave if your dog is causing problems or is being harassed by other dogs.