Dog parks are magnificent places. As the manager of my favorite local off-leash hangout likes to say, "A dog lives to do two things: Chase and be chased." In a dog park, Fido can live the dream. And for us humans, there's nothing quite like the sight of a pack of happy dogs to make one feel … well, happy.
But dog parks can also be a nightmare. In the decades I have been visiting such places, I've run into a few filthy, untended parks that lack the basic necessities like water bowls and a garbage bin for the poop bags. Or, for that matter, poop bags themselves. (Not all dog people can be relied upon to bring their own.) I have also witnessed some serious confrontations, both physical and verbal. And it's not always the dogs doing the fighting.
So how do you ensure a good dog park experience? For answers I turned to the above mentioned volunteer manager of Honolulu's Diamond Head Bark Park — Clark Hatch — and retired dog trainer and breeder Jerry Mount, Sr., of Mount Kennels in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
"Rules," Hatch says, laughing, as he hands me a paper sheet of the rules and regulations available to every person who comes to the Bark Park. "Animals like boundaries, and so do humans." Jerry Mount Sr. agrees, adding: "We often have more trouble with the people than we do with the dogs!"
So what is a well behaved human to do? There are the obvious rules everyone should follow: Some are obvious and require no explanation. And some others...
1. Make sure your dog has all her shots and parasite control treatments before bringing her to a dog park.
2. Pick up her poop. Always, no excuses. Don't have a bag? Borrow one. Can't borrow one? Go find a bit of discarded newspaper to pick it up with. Do not, under any circumstances, leave her poop in the park.
3. Ensure your dog is not in heat. Parks are for playing, not fornicating.
4. Don't bring your dog to the dog park if your dog isn't good in the dog park. "No two dogs have the same personality," says Mount. "One might be exuberant and confident while another might be timid and shy. You have to be very well acquainted with your dog's individual way of approaching social interactions in order to help him and others have a positive experience."
In truth, not every dog should go to the dog park. A dog who is exceedingly sensitive and/or submissive, or a dog whose alpha manners are likely to earn him a few well-deserved growls and snaps in a pack situation, are better off socializing at home, with carefully chosen, compatible canine pals. That can be hard news for some dog owners. But it's not about you.
"It's about the dog," Mount says. "If you can be honest about your dog and his individual quirks, then you can avoid bad situations."
5. Know your dog park — and don't bring your dog if this isn't her kind of park. Just like the dogs themselves, dog parks are unique. Some are just wide, open spaces that have evolved into casual off-leash areas over time. Others are intentionally built — even staffed! — parks with specific rules, regulations, and hours. No matter what kind of park appeals to you, make sure you understand its culture and observe its rules — both written and unwritten. Be aware of where you're going — and think through whether it's a good fit for your dog.
6. Pay attention! "A dog park is not a relaxing place for a responsible dog owner," says Mount. Given the complex mix of dog personalities and interactions, you must be absolutely attentive to your dog as she makes her way around the park. Always remember the basic pack nature of dogs; their inherent drive to establish dominance, and the possibility of clashes, even between the "nicest" of dogs.
"If you get distracted by your iPhone, or caught up chatting with others at the park, your amiable Golden Retriever might just decide she doesn't like a certain Rhodesian Ridgeback and take a lunge at him," says Mount. "As a responsible dog owner, you need to be ready to step in and assert your authority whenever there is anxiety or tension."
So pocket the phone, keep an eye on your dog, and — although it's an off-leash park — keep a leash handy.
7. Be in command. You must always — always — be in control of your dog. People who bring their pooches to dog parks should certainly have their canines under strong voice command. This can be achieved through proper socialization and good training.
"I'm a fan of establishing this order with lots of treats and praise," says Hatch. "But do this work at home. Don't bring treats or chews of any kind to the dog park, though, since dogs are hard-wired to compete for food resources, and many owners won't appreciate you offering snacks to their dogs."
And always have a leash on hand. "If a situation seems to be developing between two dogs or a group of dogs, you want to be able to loop a leash over your dog's head, pull her away from any potential conflicts, and take her to a place of safety," says Jerry Sr., emphasizing commandment Number Five:
8. Always be ready to go. If you sense that a situation involving your dog might devolve into something injurious, just leave. "If something's not working for you or your dog, get out of there," says Mount.
9. Don't fight with other dog owners. No matter what happens between the dogs, let's we humans keep our cool, shall we? Common courtesy goes a long way.