I’ve been spending a lot of time at dog parks. Here are 10 rules I believe dog parks in a better world would enforce.
1. A dog park a place for dogs to socialize
This is the most important rule, and one 99% of dog owners fail to grasp. The park is for dogs to socialize. Think about that. It is for dogs to socialize. It is not your private dog training ground. It is not your private space to commune with your pooch, and it is not a place for humans to socialize while ignoring their dogs. Not all dogs are socially-minded. If your dog is not social, meaning if your dog is aggressive, defensive, fearful, protective, obsessive, overly timid, painfully shy, extremely submissive, neither spayed nor neutered, only responds to an insanely loud referee’s whistle or is merely psychotic, DO NOT bring him/her to a dog park. Plus, if your dog exhibits resource-guarding or toy-obsession, DO NOT bring him/her to the dog park.
2. Pick up your dog’s poop
Just do it. Stop whining, don’t bitch, don’t make a scene, just fucking do it. Forgot poop bags? Ask somebody for one and remember them next time. If you can’t be bothered to keep an eye on your dog until he/she poops at the park be aware somebody (like me) will probably call you out. Do that enough times, and you will be labeled a self-important piece-of-shit dog owner and shunned by other park goers. Of course, being a piece of shit is something you’re accustomed to, and you won’t care what others think, but dog park karma has a way of eventually catching up. Consider yourself warned.
3. Off-Leash means OFF-LEASH
Better dog parks in tonier neighborhoods often have airlock entrances facilitating leash management, but even where there is no airlock, you must get your dog unleashed before entering the park. Yes, this can present any number of challenges, but you are doing your dog no favors by dragging him/her into a gauntlet of “greeter dogs” at the gate. Most dog parks have multiple entrances. Is there a less crowded second entrance? Oh, that entrance is a longer walk for you? You’re not a piece-of-shit dog owner, are you? It sounds like you might be.
4. Do not bring food of any kind to a dog park
Do not bring treats, do not bring your lunch, do not bring coffee, do not bring donuts for everybody, do not enter the park with that Cliff Bar at the bottom of your pocket. If you bring treats or food into a dog park, you deserve whatever happens.
5. Children and dog parks: a risky mix
I’m not going to say don’t bring kids to a dog park because I’ve seen instances where smart kids and attentive parents do fine. But for crying out loud, people use your brains. Your 1-year-old, who is just now ambulatory, should not be set free at a dog park. Your three little darlings who all run in different directions and pay no attention to the four-legged critters are a disaster waiting to happen. Oh, and then there’s the kid who thinks all dogs are friendly, love to have their tails pulled, and their toys taken away. A kid like that often signals a piece-of-shit dog owner, too.
6. Know your dog(s)
This is a contentious point. People own dogs for as many different reasons as there are different breeds of dogs. But the one great truth is there are “dog people” and “non-dog people.” Frequently non-dog people own dogs for the wrong reasons; they think they should have a dog, they think they’ve always wanted a dog, they believe a dog will provide unconditional love, they believe a dog won’t impinge on their current lifestyle and will raise itself to be a great companion, etc. Here’s a secret, dog people mainly find non-dog people pathetic, insensitive louts. As a dog owner, you must take the time to know your dog. This is true whether you visit dog parks or not, but it is crucial if you plan on visiting dog parks.
7. Monitor your dog(s)
Theoretically, you’re the adult monitoring your kids at the playground, so do it. Don’t whip out your phone the minute the dog is off the leash and stare at it until you lose track of time and then yell at your dog that it’s time to go, or worse, suddenly discover your dog is humping everything in sight and pissing off other owners/dogs. Pay attention to your dog’s behavior. Pay attention to other dog’s actions. What? You’re unfamiliar with or don’t care about dog behavior? Then why the hell do you own a dog? You sound like a piece-of-shit dog owner to me.
8. Intervene when necessary
Ok, this one is tricky. At some point, a problem will arise at the dog park and, unless you’re a piece-of-shit dog owner, you will need to intervene between two or more dogs. Knowing when and how to intervene is difficult. The key is remembering rules 1 and 6. Dogfights don’t just happen. There will be signs. But you won’t be aware of these signs if you’re staring at your phone and have no inkling of dog behavior. Dog parks, like local bars, have regulars. Most regulars are good-natured social individuals, but there will always be one or two surly grumps who cause problems. Or there may be that new-to-the-neighborhood young buck who feels compelled to make his mark. Am I talking about bars or dog parks? See what I mean? Pay attention, get to know the regulars, and stay alert when a new dog arrives.
In 95% of cases, dogs will work out their differences on their own. It’s a great thing to see and can teach humans a lot about compromise. If you sense trouble brewing the best course is to calmly, but decisively, break your dog’s focus. All dogs, to a greater or lesser extent, respect authority. Do not raise the pitch of your voice; do not scream, do not run at the dog(s). Call your dog while walking toward him/her with your arms at your side. Is your dog ignoring you? Are you suddenly realizing you have no control over your dog? See rule 6.
Assuming the situation is not a full-on fight, once in range, my preferred technique is to get a hold of my dog’s collar and then try to place myself between my dog and the other dog(s). This does two things: it provides me a measure of control over my dog, and it breaks my dog’s fixation on the current situation. Dogs take cues from their owners and other humans, so it is imperative to remain calm. There are nuances a-plenty to situations like this, but that is not an excuse to not take action before real trouble begins.
9. Be prepared to break up fights
They are rare, but they happen. Unless you’re a special kind of self-important piece-of-shit dog owner, you will know when two or more dogs are really fighting. It’s a horrible thing to see. Breaking up an actual fight is dangerous for you and the dogs. My strategy is to get as close as feasible and wait for even a split-second lull in the action, and then try to break both dog’s focus. Do not, ever, just dive in, arms flailing, screaming at the top of your voice. When two or more dogs are really fighting, they will not for a second discriminate between their intended target and a human hand. Another strategy is to try striking the dogs with a knee to separate them. This means getting right into the action, so it should be used with caution. It is usually a bad idea to try and kick at dogs that are fighting. The goal is to separate the dogs and, again, break their focus.
I’ve witnessed only a handful of actual fights. Each lasted less than 5 seconds and in no case were either dog seriously injured, but I remember every one of them. In one case, the owners were equally clueless and powerless to intervene. They were the special kind of owners I mentioned, leaving it to others to separate the dogs while they shouted and screamed to no avail. In another case, we separated the dogs by grabbing their collars at a lull and pulling them apart. This works if both owners are on their toes and act together. If only one owner catches their dog, it makes that dog vulnerable which can escalate a fight. In this instance, after only a few seconds of calming them, both dogs were fine, approached each other, sniffed, and behaved like buddies.
10. Never stop learning
I have been taking my dog to different dog parks and social situations for several years now, and every trip is a learning opportunity for both my dog and me. I’m reminded that in most cases the dogs are laudable, the humans lacking. But that doesn’t prevent my ginormous dog and me from continuing to dangle our toes in the social ocean. Dog parks are also places to meet actual dog professionals – trainers, full-time dog walkers, etc., from time to time. I’ve yet to meet a trainer at a park who is unwilling to offer insight into dog behavior. Plus, being a somewhat antisocial person, visiting dog parks has helped me to be a better dog parent and a slightly more tolerant person. So we’ll keep going as long as there are off-leash parks to visit, but, if nothing else, please pick up your damn dog’s poop.