The Do’s and Don’ts of Dog Park Etiquette, According to Experts and Pet Parents
Dog parks are oases for city pups and weekend highlights for suburban pets. They can also turn into nightmare situations if your fellow dog owners don’t mind their P’s and Q’s. Each dog park, depending on its location and popularity, may have a set of rules clearly posted for all to follow. This makes it easy to identify if someone—or some dog—acts out of line. However, as any dog owner can attest, it's often unspoken dog park etiquette that reigns supreme. Whether you’re new to puppy parenthood or are a self-proclaimed dog whisperer, let’s review some dog park etiquette from vet experts and real-life dog owners who feel pretty passionate about their parks.
We’ll begin with the do’s. These are all things you should do to keep your dog safe and happy when visiting the dog park.
The 7 Do’s of Dog Park Etiquette
1. Do bring a leash
The whole point of a dog park is to let your pup run free! This doesn’t mean leaving a leash at home. Leashes keep your dog and other canines safe, especially at parks where lots of dogs come and go frequently. No matter a pup’s disposition, you never know how they’ll respond to others—and vice versa. Morgan, who adopted a Catahoula Leopard Dog mix three years ago, says running into leashless dogs is “truly my biggest fear when walking my rescue.” Once you’re in you can unleash!
2. Do keep an eye on your dog
“Always be watching your dog at the park and don’t ever leave them unsupervised,” says Dr. Gary Richter, DVM, Medical Director of Holistic Veterinary Care and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition. “It’s important to be aware of other dogs and if you feel playtime might be getting a little too aggressive, always put the leash back on your pup and take them away from the situation.” Avoid the temptation to have deep convos with owners or check Twitter. Sarah-Anne Reed, consulting holistic dog trainer at Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, advises owners to “Pay attention, stay off your phone and if you’re having a conversation, always be aware of where your dog is, what is happening around them and how they are behaving.”
3. Do something before a situation escalates
Understanding dog body language will help immensely with this one. Watch for tell-tale signs like tucked tails (fear) or stiff, alert stances (ready to fight). “No dog likes a bully, so always supervise your dog and step in before the energy escalates, and it gets too intense, and a dog gets hurt,” says Reed. “It’s important to note that when dogs play, light barking and even growling may take place,” adds Dr. Richter. “Always just be aware of your pup and look out for signs of other aggressions.”
4. Do be honest with yourself about your dog
Both Reed and Dr. Richter emphatically agree: You gotta understand your dog’s unique behavior. Asking yourself the following questions will help determine whether or not a dog park excursion is right for your pup.
- Is your dog confrontational with other dogs?
- Does your dog see herself as your protector in a way that could lead to aggression?
- Does your dog prefer when the park is quiet or full of playful pups?
- Does your dog have difficulty reading other dogs’ signals?
- Is your dog easily frightened around other dogs?
- Does your dog love other dogs so much she freaks them out with her playful wrestling?
“Don't set your dog up to fail by putting him in an environment he is not suited for,” says Dr. Richter. Or, as one owner of a former racing Greyhound puts it, “If you know your dog is crazy don’t bring them to the park!”
5. Do make sure your dog follows certain commands
A big part of dog park etiquette is controlling what you can. You have no idea what other dogs will be like, so ensure your dog responds when called. “You are exposing them to many different personalities and you can’t predict what could happen,” says Reed. “If you can’t confidently call them to you if you see a potentially dangerous situation, it’s not a good idea to take them to a dog park.”
6. Do obey size regulations
Megan, who recently adopted a Chihuahua, says her pup was attacked by a big dog in a “little dog area.” Even if Chihuahuas think they’re Great Danes, they shouldn’t have to fend off large breeds in parks designated for tiny pups.
7. Do pick up after your dog
“Pick! Up! Your! Dog’s! Sh*t!” says Emily, who has a 2-year-old Golden Retriever named Cosmo. Duly noted. Now, for a few dog park etiquette don’ts.
The 5 Don’ts of Dog Park Etiquette
1. Don’t bring your young puppy
Puppies younger than 4 months old shouldn’t be playing in dog parks. “Their immune system may not be fully developed, and dog parks are breeding grounds for intestinal parasites, parvovirus and kennel cough,” Reed says.
2. Don’t bring a sick or pregnant dog
Along these same lines, Reed discourages dog owners from bringing their pups to the park if they’re sick. Canines with compromised immune systems, like those with cancer, should also steer clear of parks to avoid picking up viruses. Pregnant dogs are also at risk for illness and a rough tussle could harm her litter.
3. And don’t bring unvaccinated or unneutered dogs
Vaccinations help protect dogs from things like distemper, rabies, hepatitis, kennel cough and parvovirus. Plus, according to Reed, “An unneutered male is a particular target, and a female in heat can most certainly come home pregnant.” Many kennels and canine boarding spaces won’t allow unvaccinated and unneutered dogs, either, so it’s wise to get these procedures taken care of as soon as possible.
4. Don’t bring your dog’s toys.
“Many dogs love to play fetch but can be ball-possessive and if another dog runs over to join in the fun, it could cause a fight,” says Reed. “Even if your dog doesn’t mind sharing, another dog could be ball-possessive and grab the ball, then attack your dog when they attempt to get their ball back.” Again, you have no idea how other canines will act.
5. Don’t bring treats.
Unless you want to start a feeding frenzy and potentially trigger a possessive dog’s aggression, leave the treats in the car or save them for the walk home.
3 Commonly Asked Dog Park Questions
Here are a few dog park etiquette questions that give many owners pause. Our experts weighed in with some very helpful insights.
1. Can I reprimand someone else’s dog?
When it comes to reprimanding someone else’s dog for bad behavior, Reed encourages folks to respond with the best intentions of the dogs involved. If you feel comfortable speaking to the owner, go for it. Whenever possible, ask the pet parent how they prefer you handle something. For instance, some people use commands like “Stop,” “Down,” or “Wait.” If you’re not sure whose dog is misbehaving, Dr. Richter says, “It’s best just to leave the scene and play with other dogs.”
2. What do I do if my dog was bullied or attacked?
As wild as it may seem, Dr. Richter recommends going back to the park soon after a negative experience. “Avoidance may lead to them being more uncomfortable in that environment later. All that said, take the dog back to the park when it is relatively quiet, and the dog can have a better experience. We don't want to put them right back in the situation that turned out badly before.” Reed advises smaller play dates before a full dog park adventure. “Have a playdate with another dog that they are familiar with and watch their behavior to determine if they are ready or not,” she says. “If your dog has increased their reaction towards other dogs when out on walks, like lunging and barking, since the traumatic event, this is a sign that they will not feel safe or comfortable around other dogs.”
3. What do I do if my dog is the bully?
In the moment, things can feel chaotic. Reed says, “It’s important to respond as confidently and calmly as possible. Your energy and emotions will affect the situation and you don’t want to escalate the behavior by yelling or being upset with your dog.” (The no-yelling request was echoed by several real-life dog owners we spoke to.) As soon as possible, leash your dog and high tail it out of the dog park. However, if possible, try to apologize to other dog owners on your way out or once your pup is removed from the chaos. Mike, who adopted a rescue named Piper during the pandemic, says, “If you don’t apologize for anything bad your dog does, I’m giving you eye lasers.” A little acknowledgement goes a long way.
Then, invest in a few sessions with an experienced dog trainer. “People should realize that most of us don't intuitively know how to train a dog,” Dr. Richter says. “Many people, in an attempt to correct bad behavior, actually reinforce the behavior they are trying to stop…The large majority of dogs respond [well] to positive reinforcement training.”
Look back on the situation from your dog’s perspective. According to Reed, chances are your dog behaved in such a way because they didn’t understand boundaries, couldn’t read signals from other pups, or felt anxious and responded the only way dogs know how, “by exhibiting their feelings physically.” Again, this just means they need some guidance when it comes to socialization.