Dog Park Behavior and Etiquette Tips (cont.)

When You Get There

General Guidelines

Keep the following recommendations in mind to minimize your risks and maximize your fun:

  • Before you enter the park, check out the crowd for a few minutes. Do the dogs seem to be romping happily? If so, let the fun begin! If, on the other hand, you notice canine troublemakers bullying or fighting with other dogs-or if you simply feel uneasy about letting your dog play with a particular group of dogs-plan to come back at a later time.
  • When a new dog arrives at a dog park, the other dogs often rush over to investigate. This sudden flood of attention can overwhelm newcomers. To avoid a canine mob scene, linger outside the park for a few minutes and let other dogs notice your dog's presence outside the park's enclosure. When their excitement about her arrival dissipates, you can enter the park together. After your dog has played a while and become part of the group inside the park, don't let her become a mob member. Instead, call her to you when you notice newcomers arriving.
  • Keep your attention on your dog and her playmates so that you're aware of what she's doing at all times. If you see signs that play's not going well, you can step in to stop interaction before things get out of hand. (Please see Interpreting Dog Play and Interaction, below, to learn about these signs.)
  • Avoid canine clumping. When a pair or group of dogs plays nonstop for more than a few minutes, playmates can get overexcited and tension can arise. Instead of standing in one spot during your entire visit, move to a new area of the park every few minutes. Encourage your dog to follow you when you walk to a new spot. Praise and reward her for keeping track of where you are and for coming when you call.
  • If at any point you think your dog might not be having fun, take her home. If she's interacting with another dog, don't hesitate to ask that dog's pet parent to help you end the play session. It's better to call it quits early so your dog still has a good experience overall. You don't want her to decide that she doesn't enjoy playing with other dogs anymore.

Interpreting Dog Play and Interaction

While you're at the dog park with your dog, it's important to closely monitor interaction between playmates. But interpretation can be difficult sometimes. What do dogs look like when they're friendly with each other? How about when they don't feel so friendly? What constitutes polite play between dogs? How can you tell when playmates aren't getting along, and how do you know when it's time to intervene? The information below should help you interpret and evaluate dog play. For illustrations and more information about how dogs communicate, please see our article, Canine Body Language.

What Good Play Looks Like

When dogs play, they often play-bow, paw at each other and bounce around like puppies. Their bodies look relaxed, rather than stiff, and they might make “play faces”-they hold their mouths open and look like they're smiling. During play, the dogs might growl playfully and open their mouths wide, exposing their teeth and pretending to be ferocious. They might switch roles so that one dog's sometimes on top when wrestling and sometimes on her back, sometimes chasing and sometimes being chased, sometimes pouncing and sometimes getting pounced on. The dogs might also frequently switch games, alternating between stalking and chasing each other, wrestling and rolling around on the ground, mouthing on each other, playing with toys, and taking breaks to drink water or sniff around. As the dogs run and wrestle, you might notice them pausing or freezing frequently for just a second or two before launching back into the game. These little pauses and breaks in play help ensure that play doesn't get out of hand.

Signs of Trouble

If possible, watch for warning signs and step in before a fight happens. Your first clue that things aren't going well during play might be the absence of all the signs of polite play described above. Instead of those signs, you might notice the dogs' bodies becoming stiffer and more tense. Their movements might seem faster and less bouncy. Play might become louder and build in intensity, without any breaks or pauses. If you see any of these signs, it's time to separate the playmates. You should also interrupt play if you see a dog who's pursuing and playing too roughly with a playmate who's trying to get away, or who's repeatedly knocking down or standing over another dog. Intervene immediately if a number of dogs start to chase a single dog-especially if that dog is small.

Damage Control: If There's a Fight

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to monitor playtime, dogs get into fights. These scuffles often look and sound ferocious. The dogs might growl fiercely, snarl at each other, bark, snap and show their teeth. However, most dog fights don't result in injury to either dog. They're usually the equivalent of getting into a brief, heated argument with a friend or family member. Even so, if a fight lasts more than a few seconds, the dogs' pet parents should separate them. Doing this can be dangerous. If you grab a dog who's in the middle of fighting with another dog, she might startle and reflexively whip around to bite you. To reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties, follow these guidelines:

  • Prevent fights from happening in the first place by actively watching dogs during play. If you think things are starting to look a little tense, end play for a while by calling your dog to come to you. (Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called.)
  • Have a plan and don't panic. Remember that most dog fights are noisy but harmless. If you stay calm, you'll be able to separate two fighting dogs more safely and efficiently.
  • Before you try physically separating two fighting dogs, make lots of noise. Clap and yell. Consider carrying a mini-air horn or two metal pie pans to bang together. A sudden loud sound will often interrupt a fight.
  • If there's a hose handy, you can try spraying the dogs with water.
  • If you've tried briefly (3 seconds or so) making noise but the dogs are still fighting, you and the other dog's pet parent should approach the dogs together. Separate them at the same time. Both of you should take hold of your dogs' back legs at the very top just under the hips, right where the legs connect to the body. (Avoid grabbing the dogs lower on their legs, like by their knees, ankles or paws. Doing so could cause them serious injury.) Like you'd lift a wheelbarrow, lift your dog's back end under his hips so that his back legs come off of the ground, and move backwards away from the other dog. As soon as you can, turn your dog away from the other dog.
  • DO NOT grab your dog by the collar. It seems like the natural thing to do, but it might startle your dog and cause her to turn and bite you. This kind of bite is like a reflex that's done without thinking. Many pet parents get bitten this way-even when their dogs haven't shown any signs of aggression in the past.
  • After a fight stops, put both dogs on leashes and end the play session. Avoid giving the dogs another chance to fight. If the dog park is large enough, you can walk your dog to another area, far away from the dog she squabbled with. After she's calmed down and relaxed again, try letting her off leash again to play with other dogs. If the park's not that big, just call it quits for the day.

The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.

If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.