Behavior & Training
Print|Email|Text Size: ||
Behavior: Dog Park Tips
A to-do list for a great dog park visit

Question: I'd like to take my dog to the dog park, but I'm a little nervous about how he'll behave. Any suggestions on how to improve the odds that his visit will be an enjoyable one?


Answer: Teaching your dog key skills so that he will have a good dog park experience is important. At a minimum, be sure that you can call your dog to you and ask him to settle down. You will feel (and be) more in control of a visit to the park. But what about you? Here’s a rundown of things to remember when using the park.

• Take off the leash. What’s the point of going to the dog park if you’re going to put a leash on your dog? If you’ve done the recommended training, checked out the safety and design of the park, and observed the other dogs before entering, you’ve done what you can to give your dog a fun and safe experience. Leashes interfere with the natural body language of the dog, dogs can get tangled up in them and dogs who become stressed by constant pulling against a leash can act in undesirable ways. Besides, most parks require that your dog be off-leash.

• Small dogs need special consideration. Try to find a dog park with a small dog section, or specific small-dog playtimes. It’s so easy for a little guy to get overwhelmed—not to mention bowled over—by larger dogs. Keep your small dog on the ground rather than toting him around with you in the park. Being elevated can either give a dog a false sense of control because of the elevated position and close human backup, or entice other dogs to jump up at the dog being held to get a closer sniff.

• Stay only as long as your dog is having fun. Visits to the dog park need to be fluid. If your dog isn’t enjoying the experience, or other dogs are getting out of control, you need to leave, whether or not you’re ready to go. On the other hand, if your dog is having a spectacularly good time, you might want to stay a little longer.

• Be vigilant. Keep your focus on your dog no matter how enjoyable your human companions are. Don’t allow yourself to be part of stationary human clumps, because that will result in too many dogs gathering in one place. It is the humans’ responsibility to keep the park a safe and fun experience.

• Stay calm, talk quietly. Loud (and probably ineffective) commands as well as boisterous human chatter can raise the excitement level in the whole park and risk inciting some sort of bad behavior.

• Save treats (and toys) for later. There’s just too much potential for dogs to engage in guarding or stealing behavior that can lead to aggression and fights.

• Provide your dog with many different forms of entertainment. If visiting the park is the only exciting event in your dog’s life, he’s likely to be overexcited upon arrival.

• Stay connected with your dog at the dog park. Not via a leash, but through a mental connection. Call your dog to you from time to time. Play a quick game, or just give him a scratch and send him back to play.

• Talk to friends. Just do it in small groups, and preferably while you’re walking rather than sitting.

• Watch the dogs. You will not only learn lots about canine body language, you will also learn lessons about how to relax and have a good time.

• Always pick up after your dog, and insist that others do the same. Pick up the occasional extra pile, if needed.

• Relax and enjoy the experience. If for some reason you can’t relax—if you’re too concerned about your dog’s behavior, say—then you shouldn’t be there. Take some dog training classes to get better behavior, then try the park again.

• Leave if you start to feel concerned about anything going on. Help to resolve the situation if you can, but your first responsibility is to keep your dog safe.

Adapted from Visiting the Dog Park: Having Fun, Staying Safe, by Cheryl S. Smith; © 2007 Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.


This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 43: Jul/Aug 2007
Cheryl S. Smith is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC),and an evaluator for the AKC Canine Good Citizen and Delta Society Pet Partners programs as well as a member of "founding 500" of Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). writedog.com

Photograph by Sue Mack

CommentsPost a Comment
Please note comments are moderated. After being approved your comment will appear below.
Submitted by Genny | August 23 2012 |

More good tips www.clubhappydogblog.blogspot.com

This is how I learned.

Submitted by Rita | March 11 2014 |

My 12- year-old German Shepard mix, very mixed, seems to enjoy a trip to the dog park. Lately when a overly playful dog approaches him, he gets a little scared and jabs the dog with his muzzle. His teeth are closed and he doesn't snarl. He'll leave the situation. We walk to another area of the park.

Because he is older I assume he isn't up for rough housing. If the dog approaches again for play, he will snap/ scold in the younger dogs direction. No contact is ever made.The other dog moves on to find a friend to reciprocate the play. I interpret this as a firm, "buzz off!" That is the end of the encounter. Sometimes the other pet owner views this as aggression. Am I suffering from, "not my dog syndrome"?

Submitted by Jen | July 23 2014 |

I don't think you're misinterpreting the behaviour. Your dog is 12. When my dog was in her teens, she did this too. It's not aggressive or dominant, and it's solely a nudge or push with no fight type follow-up, and is not intended to hurt or intimidate. I figure it is the privilege of the seniors to choose their playmates. If a young pup is too boisterous or rough, an older slower dog will not have fun, and they might be starting to feel the effects of arthritis... They are wise enough to know how and who to choose. Of course, if your dog does this to every dog that approaches and never wants to play, then he isn't really enjoying the dog park anymore and leashed walks may be what he prefers now.

Submitted by MEGHAN | March 29 2014 |

My dog Moose used to LOVE the dog park. For some reason she's started to be super snippy with other dogs if we try to go to the park, especially if they go to sniff her face.
I can't understand why she went from having such a wonderful time at the park to being the dog that has to leave after 10 minutes because she is just snapping at everyone. There was no incident that happened, it just started happening more and more to the point where I don't want to take her at all anymore. Any suggestions?

Submitted by Carly | September 11 2014 |

I was wondering what I can do to make my dog more comfortable at the dog park? We've been three times now, and each time she wants to be sitting on my lap the entire time. She is obviously frightened and nervous, and I don't want to make her worries worse, but she needs some socialization. Am I pushing this too hard, and should I just forget about the park for now? Is there a way I could take her and help her feel more safe and encourage her to sniff around the park and eventually play with other dogs? Should I be letting her sit on my lap when we are at the park or not? The last visit we had, there was a rambunctious dog that kept coming up to us on the bench and sniffing at Zoey (who is a Shih Tzu/Lhasa Apsa cross), and she growled and snapped at him. I have never seen her act that way in the 3 years I've owned her. So my basic question is this - should I forget the dog park, or can I help ease her into it in a more positive manner?


More in Behavior & Training:
Dogs Take to the New
Zack's Amazing Transformation
Bringing Home a Second Dog
Cautious Canines
Aggression in Dogs
Q&A with Denise Fenzi
Training Dog Trainers
Is Your Dog a Southpaw?
Run for Your Quality of Your Dog's Life
Learn How to Train Dogs at ClickerExpo 2014