All photos: Jaymi Heimbuch
Watching dogs play well together at the dog park can be great fun, but too often the party gets spoiled by a misbehaving pooch — or a misbehaving human. We identified 25 things that humans do wrong at dog parks — if you missed the first part, catch up with 15 things humans do wrong at the dog park — and five things you can do to make your next visit a lot more enjoyable:
1. Not supervising kids.
First, seriously think about if you really ought to bring kids. For so many reasons, it's a bad idea. Squeals and quick movements of kids can switch on a dog's prey drive. Kids can grab strange dogs' ears, tails or pet them in ways the dog doesn't like, which readily invites a bite. Unless your small child is well-versed in how to act around dogs — including leaving them alone, standing still around running dogs, and dropping to the ground and covering their necks if a dog attacks — then they don't belong in a dog park. Second, if you do bring kids with you, they need to be supervised as closely as the dogs. Running, throwing things and touching strange dogs should be minimized. It only takes one overly excited dog to make things unpleasant really quick. That said, with enough supervision and in the right atmosphere, dog parks can be a great learning opportunity for children to be taught dog body language and appropriate behavior around animals.
2. Putting strollers, lawn chairs, and other items in the middle of the fields.
Dogs don't watch where they're going a lot of the time. Consider a dog in a game of chase, running full blast while looking behind to see where her chaser is, only to careen into a stroller, lawn chair, backpack or whatever. Major ouch. It's scary and painful for the dog, and probably damaging to the property. Oh, and it will probably also get peed on in about 10 seconds. The only thing that should be set out in a dog park is the dog.
3. Bringing in human food.
If you want to go to a dog park and see a bunch of dogs sitting and standing around staring at a human, by all means, bring human food. Or, if you want your lunch stolen by a slobbery thief, bring it to a dog park. Besides being a total distraction for the dogs (and also a rather unsanitary place to eat) human food can also be bad for a dog that does manage to steal it or pick up the crumbs. From onions to chocolate to grapes, what you bring to the dog park could be toxic to the pooch that hoovers it up.
4. Feeding someone else's dog.
Big, big no-no. The dog owners who bring a baggie of biscuits to share certainly mean well, but feeding someone else's dog without permission is rude behavior. I've come across dogs that have allergies to certain ingredients, are on an elimination diet for medical reasons, are simply on a diet because they're tubby, are bad beggars whose owners don't want the behavior encouraged, are on certain medications so have very specific diets. Owners of these dogs really don't want others feeding their dog something strange that could throw their system out of whack. Though you truly are a sweetheart, don't feed another person's dog without asking permission. Just as you wouldn't give food to a strange child in a playground, don't give food to a strange dog at a dog park.
5. Bringing dog-aggressive dogs to the dog park to socialize them.
Dog parks are often viewed as a place where dogs socialize. It makes sense, right? It's like a big old doggie cafe! Well, only within reason. For dogs who are already practiced at socialization, yes, a dog park is a place to meet and greet. But for dogs that need socialization, the dog park is not the place to do it. Especially with dog-aggressive dogs. For dogs that have issues with other dogs, they need a calm, quiet, and controlled atmosphere to meet and learn proper interactions with other dogs. This is not the atmosphere at dog parks, where everyone is running, playing, overly stimulated and on edge. In fact, an owner can make her dog's aggression far worse by putting the animal in the middle of such an environment. Not a good mix for that dog, nor for every other dog forced to interact with her.
6. Bringing fearful dogs to the dog park to socialize them.
Again, like dog-aggressive dogs, fearful dogs need calm, quiet, controlled environments with low stimulation levels to learn how to get over their fears. Fearful dogs could be afraid of too much noise, other dogs, sudden movements, other humans, trash cans or any number of things. If you have a dog that tends to be easily scared or nervous, a dog park is a nightmare. Think of it like this: if you were really afraid of spiders, what if someone dumped a bucket of spiders on your head and said, "See! It doesn't hurt!" It may not hurt, but it would completely freak you out! Same thing with bringing a dog that is scared or insecure to a place with too many new stimuli. It could lead them to become even more afraid, or worse, start lashing out to protect themselves from what scares them so much. To socialize a fearful dog, work with a trainer or take small-group classes. But avoid the dog park until your dog has gotten over her fears.
7. Giving out training advice.
Everyone is an expert, right? Well, not so much. But people at dog parks can sometimes think that because they have a dog, they're an expert. Again, they totally mean well and their heart is in the right place, even if their opinions are wrong. But let's face it, it's a bit obnoxious and could be potentially dangerous. Think of dog training like tattooing. Sure, anyone can do it, but the results, which are usually permanent, will depend on education and experience. With dog training, the technique and approach can make all the difference in how a dog responds and whether or not they improve or get worse — or, as can sometimes happen with bad training advice, get worse and have other problems pop up as a result. So, unless you're a professional trainer, it's a good idea to not hand out advice at the dog park. On the flip side, take any training advice you're given with a grain of salt and verify it with a professional trainer before trying it out.
8. Letting a dog walker take your dog to a dog park without spying on them to make sure they know what they're doing.
Yes, you should totally spy on your dog walker in this instance. I've received this sage advice from both trainers and responsible dog walkers. Not every dog walker knows what they're doing. Despite a lack of training or experience, some dog walkers feel it's a good idea to collect their pack of dogs from various homes and head to the park. They may or may not know the behavior quirks of each dog. They may or may not know the obedience level of each dog. And without a doubt, their ability to control each dog is limited. If your dog walker is taking your dog to a dog park, spy on them. Seriously. On the flip side, if a dog walker shows up with a group of dogs at the park where your dog is playing, it would be a wise idea to leave immediately.
9. Blaming the breed for bad behavior.
This is something that goes well beyond dog parks, since many of us are guilty of blaming the breed rather than the individual dog for certain behaviors. We humans are amazingly good at stereotyping, and then taking those stereotypes at face value. This is to our detriment, even when it comes to dogs at dog parks. Just because your dog has certain breed characteristics, doesn't mean those characteristics can justify bad behavior. Let's look at some examples. Herding dogs herding other dogs: rude. Bulldog breeds playing really rough or not picking up the other dog's cue to stop: rude. Chihuahuas and terriers acting like a little general, barking at and chasing off any dog that comes near: so totally rude. Never say, "Oh it's because he's a _____ that he does that." Nope. It's because your dog is how he is, and you need to train him to act appropriately and with courtesy to other dogs. It might be in their breeding to act a certain way but that's no excuse to allow that to surface to the point that it causes problems for other dogs. It may be something you have to work with them on for their entire life, but if you're going to a dog park, polite behavior regardless of breed is a must.
10. Forcing your dog to play.
I've watched dogs who have no interest in playing, and are trying so hard to tell their owner that they just want to sit there or leave, be repeatedly encouraged to go play. I've even seen an owner literally pick up and toss her dog into the mix, trying to get it to play with other dogs. Your dog loves you, and you love her. And in a loving relationship, you listen to and respect with the partner has to say. If your dog is telling you she doesn't want to play — by continually going to the gate, sitting or standing by you just to watch the action but not participate, ignoring or warning off other dogs who try to initiate play — then listen to your pooch and leave. Forcing your dog to engage erodes the trust in your relationship, and turns the dog park into a place of dread rather than an interesting environment. This can spark behavior problems not only at the dog park but possibly in other areas as the trust and cooperation breaks down.
Do dog parks sound like a total nightmare yet?
Well they sure have that potential. But they don't have to be. In fact, you can be part of making a dog park a safe and fun place to be. Here's how:
5 ways to make your experience at dog parks so much more enjoyable.
- Think about why you're going there in the first place: Really take a look at why you're going to the dog park. If it is to exercise or socialize your dog, then don't go. Dog parks should be a supplement to a dog's daily activity and socialization, not the primary source of it. Making a dog park the primary source is, as we've seen above, inviting trouble. I totally get it — some days we just feel lazy and we'd rather take our dog somewhere they can run and play with minimal effort on our part. I've been there. But dog parks aren't the solution because they actually require quite a bit of focus, effort and input from us to keep things safe. Likewise, look at how you're feeling about the dog park. If you're only going to do your own socializing, don't go. I can't stress this enough: your dog needs your attention and supervision while in a park. If you're going to compromise that, then think of another activity for you two to do together.
- Exercise your dog's brain and body before arriving: This may seem counterintuitive, since so many of us think a dog park is where dogs should exercise. But I promise, this simple step will dramatically reduce the potential for problems. Before you head to a dog park, run your dog and get out all that pent-up zoomy energy that can be the source of so much doggy drama. Don't take a wired-up dog into a stimulating environment like a dog park. That's the physical exercise part, but you also need to mentally exercise your dog before you walk through that gate. Practice recall, lying down on command, leave it, drop it, stay, and other essential commands. Reward your dog with awesome treats to get them happy about listening to you. Your dog needs to respond to these commands in an instant, no matter what else is going on around her, in order to make sure you both stay safe in a dog park. Knowing that she'll get high value treats when she responds will help in getting her to pay attention to you more than the excitement around her. So exercise your dog's brain and body before entering a park.
- Leave at the first sign of trouble: Okay, you've done everything right so far. You're at the dog park for the right reasons, you've exercised your dog to get the zoomies out, she's paying attention to you when you call to her, things are looking great. But in comes someone who hasn't done things right with their dog. It doesn't matter if you just got there, or if you have to stop mid-throw during fetch. The second you see an overly excited dog coming in, or your dog is starting to get tense, or someone's dog isn't listening their owner or worse, not listening to other dogs' social cues, just go. Get out of the situation before it becomes a situation. It's better to be safe to go to the vet's office.
- Learn your dog's personality when it comes to group situations: What is your dog like in social situations? (And be honest. You're among friends here.) Are there personality types she clashes with? Does she tend to be an instigator, a moderator or the target? Is she fearful around certain types of dogs or in certain situations? Does she pay attention to social cues from other dogs even when she's excited? Does she tend to panic, or freeze, or lash out when things get tense? Know your dog's every quirk and know how to recognize both the signs that your dog is building up to a certain reaction as well as the triggers that cause it. Then know how to stop that reaction before your dog even gets there. It may end up that once you take a serious look at how your dog is in social situations, you'll discover that the dog park is not the place for her at all. And that's okay! Your dog is wonderful even if social play with strangers isn't a good activity for her.
- Study up on dog body language: This is the most important thing you can do for your dog. Hands down. Learn what it looks like when dogs are being dominant, nervous, unsure, overly excited. Study what the height of a tail and frequency of wag is signaling (indeed, tails are as important to dog communication as tongues and lips are to human communication) and how dogs' eyes convey messages, from relaxed to stimulated to angry. What does it look like when a dog is asking to play versus being a bully. Learn the signs for when excitement switches to aggression. Learn what your dog is telling you and other dogs by the slightest twitch of the ear, pause of the body, or dilation of the pupils. (Yes, dilation of the pupil. Seriously, that tells you a lot.) Learn what proper and rude dog behavior is according to dogs, so you can determine which dogs in the park may become a problem, or if your dog is actually the problem. When you've studied dog body language, you'll be able to look at a dog park in a whole new light and in an instant, assess the mood of the group of dogs present and thus the safety level. You'll be able to see and stop problems before they escalate. And most importantly, your bond with your dog will grow and strengthen as you better understand what she's telling you in her own canine way.