Dog parks have become a hot topic of late. As a new or inexperienced owner, you may be left feeling confused and unsure as to whether a trip to the dog park is right for you and your pup. But don’t worry - our dog park behaviour tips guide can help!
It’s incredibly important to understand 3 things before venturing anywhere near your local dog park - appropriate dog park behaviour, correct dog park etiquette & an understanding of canine behaviour when playing. Not only can this help you make informed decisions about whether to visit an off-leash dog park, but it can also help you have the best possible time if you do venture inside.
So let’s dive in by first assessing the pros and cons of dog parks themselves.
The Benefits of Dog Parks
Dogs are social creatures by nature. Having the opportunity to play & interact with other dogs is a fantastic way to boost their general well-being and mental state. In other words - it’s time for your dog to be a dog.
For those higher-energy pooches, it can be a fantastic way to help them let off steam, allowing for a calmer dog at home.
Done well, a dog park can also help you safely practise your training around other dogs, cementing the skills you’ve learned at home in more distracting environments - see below for tips on this!
The Negative Side of Dog Parks
Dog parks get a bad reputation not because they are inherently bad, but because they can be frequented by negligent owners.
Owners who fail to abide by correct dog park etiquette, and those who choose to bring their aggressive, reactive or poorly socialised dogs, are often the cause of this reputation. 9/10 times this is the cause of aggression and fights breaking out - which nobody wants.
That being said, all dog-on-dog interaction comes with a level of risk. And just like humans, not all dogs get along! Arguably this is heightened in a dog park scenario where dogs may feel crowded or threatened. However - if owners are sensible, vigilant and can intervene correctly these risks should be relatively low.
Do the benefits outweigh the risks? That depends on you, your dog and the park you choose to visit. So let’s look at how to navigate the dog park successfully and keep those risks low for you and your dog.
Are off Leash Dog Parks Safe?
Any park has the potential to be considered safe or unsafe; what really matters is the context you and your dog find yourself in. To start with, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions:
- Socialisation - Is my dog well socialised and friendly? Do they enjoy social interaction or do they tend to shy away? Dog parks are best suited to confident, energetic dogs that enjoy the company of others. They can be very overwhelming for shy or nervous dogs, who might enjoy a 1 - 1 playdate much more.
- Training - Does your dog have a solid recall and basic commands? The excitement of a dog park can test your dog’s ability to listen, so make sure you are confident in your training before attempting an off-leash park. You could always have a few training sessions outside the park to begin with, to help your dog adjust to the difficulty of the distractions present.
- Reactivity - If your dog has ever shown aggression or reactivity towards other dogs, skip the dog park altogether. Putting them in this situation is more often than not going to result in a negative experience for you and potentially others. There are plenty of other ways to have fun with your dog in a solo manner.
- Play Style - Do you know your dog’s play style? Do they prefer chasing or roughhousing? Do they play well with smaller dogs or do they tend to be a little too heavy-pawed? Understanding your dog’s quirks can help you navigate your visit safely.
- Climate - Dog parks usually involve a lot of exertion. So make sure the humidity and temperature aren’t going to put your dog at risk of heatstroke. Make sure to visit in the early hours or late at night if it’s very hot.
- Hormones - Is your female dog in season? Or is your male dog unneutered? Unneutered males may attract negative attention, and females in heat should be kept away from other dogs to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
To make sure a specific dog park is well suited to you and your dog, you might want to make a solo visit yourself to scope out the following:
- Fencing - Is the park enclosed? Are there any nearby roads or other hazards? Is there a double gateway to prevent dogs from running out by accident?
- Size - Is the park large enough for your dog’s size? Similarly, is it small enough that you can keep your eyes on your dog the entire time?
- Water - Is there somewhere for your pup to rehydrate after all that running? If not, you’ll want to bring your own water bottle. A portable travel bowl or dog water bottle is always handy to have on the go.
- Size - Are there separate areas for small and large dogs? This can be useful to avoid injury or scraps breaking out as sometimes large dogs can be unintentionally rough with smaller ones. If there aren’t separate areas, be aware of your dog’s needs and play style & react accordingly.
Question: Should I Take My Puppy To The Dog Park?
First off, to be protected from diseases, a puppy should not be brought to a dog park until they are a minimum of 17 weeks old and have had all their shots. At this age, exercise sessions should be very brief to prevent any over-exertion or joint damage.
I would argue that even then, the dog park probably isn’t the best place for a very young puppy. I would begin with some 1-1 socialisation experiences and play dates first before graduating to the dog park. This allows you to crucially have more control over your puppy’s experiences, ensuring they are positive ones.
This method can also be much more conducive to training, allowing you to introduce the idea of calmness & focus around other dogs - whereas a dog park will likely leave you calling your puppy’s name in vain!
Plus - young puppy dog park behaviour might not be well tolerated by most older dogs! So first introductions with a well-mannered elder are a must.
Once you are confident in your puppy’s social skills and training, and they have had a chance to mature a little physically, you can think about introducing the dog park.
Dog Park Behaviour Tips
You’ve decided the dog park is the right place for you and your dog - so let’s get ready to make it a great trip out for both of you!
For this, you’ll need to know the basics of canine body language. By understanding what constitutes normal dog park behaviour, as well as red flags to look out for, you’ll be able to manage your time there confidently.
Normal Dog Behaviour When Playing:
- Reciprocal play - dogs change positions, reverse roles and mirror each other
- Play breaks - dogs take periodic breaks to reset
- Bouncy, exaggerated gestures
- Wiggly bodies
- Open relaxed mouth
- Leaping & jumping
Bad Dog Park Behaviour:
- Pinning - holding another dog down and standing stiffly over them
- Shadowing - stalking another dog obsessively
- Bullying - repeatedly bothering another dog that does not want to interact
- Humping - often a sign of high arousal and overstimulation
- Staring - a fixed gaze directly at another dog
Warning Signs (Possibly Intervene):
- ‘Back off signals’ - looking away, moving away, growling, freezing
- Continuously running without taking breaks - a sign of over-arousal
Aggressive Behaviour (Intervene Immediately):
- Snarling or raised lips
- Showing teeth
- Hackles up at the shoulders
Top Tip - The most effective way to break up any fights can be to give a loud clap with your hands - which should momentarily distract both dogs and allow you to intervene without the risk of injury. Failing that, have one person grab each dog by the hindquarters to remove them.
Signs of Anxiety or Stress:
- Fast wagging low tail
- Hiding behind objects or people
- Attempting to appear small
- Tucked tail
Dog Park Etiquette Every Owner Needs To Know
Both you and your dog will have a great time if you know what’s expected of you. So here’s a list of dog park behaviour tips for both of you to abide by:
- Pick up - As you would anywhere else, come prepared with a bag holder & lots of poop bags.
- Supervise - A dog park is a place to actively watch your pooch and their interactions with other dogs. Not a place to be scrolling your phone!
- Manage - Is your dog needing a time out? Are they playing a little rough? Make sure to take breaks where needed.
- Read the room - Is your dog looking overwhelmed and frightened? Is your dog pestering people or other dogs repeatedly? Then it might be time to leave. There’s no shame in being a responsible owner and knowing when enough is enough.
- Bring toys - This can cause resource guarding and unnecessary tension between dogs.
- Bring a sick dog - Or you run the risk of spreading something nasty amongst your fellow four-legged friends.
- Let your dog gang up - Sometimes dogs with a frustrated prey drive may ‘pick on’ another weaker dog. Be sure to stop this by intervening.
Bonus Dog Park Behaviour Tips
Dog parks can be a fantastic place to enhance your bond and training. Here are some of my favourite top tips for making the most of your visit:
- Exercise beforehand - I always like to make sure my dog’s nervous energy is worked off first, ensuring a more well-behaved interaction and play with others. This might mean a few on-leash greetings on the way to the park, and lots of sniffing.
- Recall & collar grab - Practise your recall and a collar grab at home, so that your dog associates these with positive things - you’ll never know when you’ll need them. Then practise them in busier scenarios until you can implement them at the dog park.
- Release - One of the most useful training exercises you can do for dogs that enjoy playing is to recall them for a treat, then release them to play again. Doing this multiple times during your visit will help teach your dog that coming to you is a bonus, not the end of the fun.
- Mix it up - Dog parks shouldn’t make up all of your dog’s exercise. It’s heaps of fun, but it’s also a very arousing and exciting experience. So make sure to switch it up with some calmer activities on your off days.
Dog Park Kit List:
Wondering what to pack for your fun day out? Here’s a comprehensive list of what to bring with you to the dog park:
- Control harness - If your dog tends to pull you towards the dog park, try using a control harness like 4Pooch to help you work on improving this behaviour. You might want a harness with a handle like this one to help you quickly intervene in undesirable situations.
- Recall lead - If your dog is still working on their recall, a long lead can be a fantastic way to allow them some freedom while still staying in control. You can always drop the lead to allow them some playtime with other dogs too.
- Treats - It’s important to have some great currency on hand to help you call your dog if needed. We love these all-natural treats, paired with a treat bag for easy delivery.
- Water - Always carry water for your dog so they can rehydrate as needed. We have a great selection of travel bowls and water bottles specifically for pooches.
- Towel - If your park has any water-filled areas you might want to bring a quick-dry pet towel to clean up before heading home. Or just to remove some of that drool if they enjoy mouthy play!
There you have it - our ultimate guide to dog park behaviour. We hope this guide helps you have a positive experience for both you and your dog, keeping both you and Fido safe and happy. Even if that means skipping the dog park altogether! Remember that only you know what’s best for your dog, and that’s what makes you an amazing pet parent.