My favorite dog park here in Wilmington, Delaware, where I live is Talley Day Bark Park off Foulk Road. For most people in North Wilmington, this seems to be the hot spot, especially on the weekends. But as a dog trainer, I may view dog parks a little differently than the average park visitor. And I don’t think I’m alone. When researching this post on dog parks, I found countless opinion pieces from other trainers on this very topic. So, suffice it to say, I’m going to add in my opinion to the mix.
Talley Park is great in that it has two separate, fenced-in sections that divide the dogs by size. That is a must for any dog park. Never bring your little dog into a dog park full of large dogs. It’s not safe and not fair to your pup. An attack, or worse, can cause trauma to your small dog that she may never get over. But I’ll get to some more park etiquette suggestions soon. First, I want to tell you about my personal experience with dog parks.
Before I become a trainer, I had a newly adopted female Pit Bull that was about a year old. I started bringing her to Talley Park on the weekends for some socialization and exercise. On the weekends, there can be upwards of 15 dogs in the Bark Park at any time, which can be very problematic. Maggie spent most of her time sitting next to me on the bench or behind my legs, with brief bursts of running with the other dogs that lasted maybe 30 seconds. Then she’d be right back next me. I wasn’t picking up on the signals that she really wasn’t enjoying herself at the park at all. Whenever she ran around, she was mercilessly humped by other dogs and would react by becoming submissive. About the fifth or sixth time we went, I guess Maggie had had enough of the aggressive humping … she turned on the huge Doberman mounting her and was latched on to his neck in no time. Luckily, I knew the trick of pulling up on a dog’s hind legs during a fight to break it up, so it ended pretty quickly. There was some blood and the Doberman’s owner was screaming and yelling. I apologized, assured him that Maggie was up to date on her shots, and got Maggie out of there. Sadly, there was fallout to this experience. My gentle dog suddenly became reactive. You’ve probably seen this or have a reactive dog yourself–your dog barks and lunges at other dogs or people while on leash or while in the car. Maggie had never done that, but after that one experience at the dog park, she now did.
Our lives changed pretty quickly. I had to give her brief potty breaks, then try and get back inside before we saw another dog. Long walks were out of the picture. And getting through the lobby of my condo building was torture; what if we saw another dog? The one good thing that came out of all this is that I decided to become a dog trainer so I could help my own dog get over something that had clearly traumatized her. Today, all these years later, Maggie still doesn’t love being approached by other dogs on leash, but I can control her. She’ll never be able to take a group class or go to doggie daycare, but progress has been made. About three years ago we added another member to the family, a Boston Terrier, who adores Maggie and Maggie adores back.
Believe it or not, I still go to the dog park, but not with Maggie. Ruby, our Boston Terrier, is very social and loves the park, but I only bring her when there’s no more than four dogs there. We leave when it gets too crowded and I watch her like a hawk. Which is rule number one of my dog park etiquette list:
- Watch your dog and know when it’t time to leave. I know the dog park can be social, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to tap someone on the shoulder to alert them to something their dog is doing and shouldn’t be. Yes, you can chat, but don’t lose sight of your dog. Put the phone away and pay careful attention to whether your dog is getting stressed or bullied. Just like the proverbial sandbox, dogs can be bullies too. If your dog is getting picked on, leave. Or if she’s showing signs of stress with her tail between her legs or she’s hiding behind people, it’s time to go. You must advocate for your dog at all times.
- Don’t bring young kids to the large dog side of the park. You may not like me saying this, but watching a young kid get knocked over by a pack of dogs is the parent’s fault. Even if your child is sitting on the bench next to you, when dogs get into their antics, they often jump on and off the benches and can really hurt a little kid. If you go to the small dog side, have your child sitting with you and be prepared to push a jumper down off his lap.
- Do not bring food to the park. This may seem obvious, but I actually watched a guy have pizza delivered to the dog park once. And while trying to get it back to the bench, he was jumped on and tackled until the dogs got the pizza. Don’t even bring a little pack of peanuts with you. This can cause fighting and you’ll find a pack of aroused dogs following you everywhere.
- Do not bring your dog to the park until she knows the recall command. If your dog does not know how to come when called, then the park is not a good place. She needs to be completely in tune with you and you have to be able to call her out of a situation where she may get hurt. You cannot be chasing your dog around a dog park; she needs to know to come to you when called, no matter what she’s doing.
- Do not let your dog bully or be bullied. I touched on this above but if your dog greets other dogs by ramming into them or pinning them to the ground, she is not a dog that should be at a dog park. Dogs need to be socially appropriate when at the park. That doesn’t mean that they can’t tumble around and wrestle, but those behaviors can turn into fights in seconds if you have a bully in the mix. Likewise, if you see your dog getting bullied, advocate for her and get her out of the situation.
- Do not just let the dogs work out their issues on their own. In my home, when my girls start playing rough, I let them go until I recognize the signals of a fight about to start. It rarely escalates, but when that happens, I redirect them to something else and it’s over. But I’m a trainer and I know my dogs. At the dog park, letting the dogs fight it out or settle their own differences is extremely risky. You don’t know how quickly another dog will take rough play to fighting. If you see that starting to happen, get your dog away from the pack. And if it happens a second time, leave.
- Do not go to a park during peak hours. It doesn’t matter how docile or mellow your dog may be, going to the park when there’s more than a handful of dogs there is not good judgment. People are socializing and paying less attention to their dogs and there are too many dogs to keep under control. If you’ve ever had to break up a fight where multiple dogs were involved, you’ll know that it’s better to stay away from a crowded park. Assess the situation before walking in. Are there only three or four dogs in the park who look to be playing nicely and getting along? Do you see a dog that you know to be a bully? Is your own dog too amped up to go inside and needs a walk first? Think these things through before you walk into a crowded park.
- Do not bring a resource guarder to the dog park. You may have a dog that doesn’t let you or other dogs take or even touch his toys. Until you get this resource guarding sorted out with a trainer, keep your pup away from the park. People often bring toys or balls for their dogs to play with at the park. If your dog steals toys and hoards them, snapping at anyone who comes close, your dog doesn’t belong at the park. Serious fights can break out because of this type of guarding. I’ve seen it and it isn’t pretty.
So can you still have fun at the dog park? Of course. But you have to pay attention to your dog’s signals and know when the situation just isn’t right. Be prepared to walk in and right back out again if the situation isn’t ideal. There’s no shame in that. I’ve walked up to the fence and turned right back around and left because there were too many dogs in the park or the local bully was there terrorizing everyone. Putting your dog at risk for the sake of a little fun is never worth it.