by Lisa M. Gerry
For most dogs, dog parks are a bit like Xanadu. There are no leashes, they get to interact with lots of other dogs and they can run as fast and be as rambunctious as their little hearts desire. It's pretty great.
For their owners, however, navigating the terrain can be a bit trickier, as sometimes what constitutes for "well mannered" can get a little murky. If only there were an Emily Post for pooches.
Until then, here are some unofficial rules that will help ensure both you and your pet avoid becoming the dog park pariah.
Be on your best behavior
When bringing your dog to an open-play park, understand that people often have different ideas about what constitutes play versus fighting in dogs, or what is acceptable behavior and what is not. For the most part, these are judgment calls, and not rules written in stone. Try to be calm and compassionate in your interactions with other owners. Something else to keep in mind: Most dog parks post their own rules and regulations right near the entrance. Be sure to read and understand those before entering, as well.
Know your dog's signals
The dog park is not for every pup. If yours seems overwhelmed by the play—if they lunge, snarl, snap or growl at the other dogs--it might be too much for them. They could be feeling more threatened than engaged. On the other hand, it can be hard to see (or sometimes admit) if your dog is the bully, but it is imperative that you try. If your dog is aggressive in his treatment or intimidation of other dogs, a behavior class could be beneficial before trying another trip to the dog park.
Be smart about safety
Do not take your puppy to a dog park until he has had all of his shots. If he is not properly vaccinated, he will be highly susceptible to potentially deadly diseases. Similarly, do not take an unspayed female in heat or an unneutered male to the dog park. This increases not only the likelihood of unplanned pregnancies, but of fighting and aggressive behavior as well.
Break it up the safe way
If you ascertain that your dog is not merely playing, but has gotten into a fight, don't immediately step in to intervene. First, make lots of noise—clap your hands, bang on the fence, shout, blow a whistle—to try to get your dog's attention. If that doesn't work, approach your dog at the same time that the other dog's owner approaches them. Make sure your dog knows you are there before you make any physical contact. During a heated exchange, biting would be instinctive and should be anticipated. Once the fight has stopped, both owners should put their dogs on the leash and leave the park for the day. The next time you visit, be aware of whether or not the same dog is visiting the park again. You can always try another go-round with the two at the park at the same time, but if they don't get along again, it's probably best to avoid the park whenever the other dog is around.
Be prepared (Dos and Don'ts).
While some dog parks have hoses or fountains for thirsty dogs, some don't.
Do consider bringing a water bottle and small dish for your dog on hot days.
Don't bring treats or toys into the park, as it creates a power imbalance among the dogs that can lead to tension and even altercations.
Don't talk or text on your cell phone while in the park, as you should be focused on and attentive to your dog.
Do have some waste bags on hand. Not cleaning up after your dog is perhaps the greatest dog park party foul of all.