Fun and games in the dog park
Going to the park is the highlight of many dogs’ day as it’s a chance for canine chums to enjoy a meet and greet, chase after a ball and dash about with their best buddies. However, not every dog to dog interaction goes to plan and there are definite rules of the game when it comes to dog park play that need to be followed. If you’re not sure what these are, it’s time to check out our DOs and DON’Ts of dog park playtime.
DO ensure polite introductions are made (with canines and humans) – this is an important dog park safety tip. If you watch dogs who know each other well greeting each other there’s usually a brief sniff around the face and sometimes around the back, before each dog moves on to give the other some space.
DON’T let your dog run full pelt towards another canine or a group of dogs they haven’t met before. Dogs meeting other dogs is something that has to managed carefully and this type of barrelling in dog social interaction is likely to spell trouble.
DO keep your dog on a loose lead and at a reasonable distance from other canines so they all have a chance to check each other out from a distance. Depending on the personalities involved, they may each have differing views on what the arrival of a new canine will mean. While some may immediately sense a new playmate, others may see your dog as a threat and will react accordingly to see them off – and you want to avoid all possibility of dog fights at the dog park.
DO stroll around the park perimeter towards the humans in the group. Introduce yourself and, in a friendly tone, ask them about their dogs (age, breed, names, how sociable they are etc), while letting your dog observe.
DO start with brief dog-to-dog introductions of around three seconds to allow for some investigative sniffing, before casually backing away. Spend some time just letting your dog and the other canines get used to each other’s presence.
DON’T allow the sniffing introductions to go on too long as this can make things tricky for your dog – remember that natural doggy greetings are short and sweet, not prolonged affairs.
DO be aware that while your dog is on the lead, which is the safest approach when meeting new canines, he or she doesn’t have many options if they feel uncomfortable. And, when dogs are feeling threatened, their stress response is either fight or flight. So, while they’re on a lead, they can’t choose flight, so fight can be the only option. This is why a dog may feel compelled to growl as a warning, or may even snap at another dog, if they feel their safe space is being invaded.
DON’T tell your dog off if they react to the other dogs with a growl – this is simply a dog’s way of saying ‘I don’t like this, I’m scared’. Just move your pet away and calmly reassure them that everything is OK. Give them a chance to settle down and understand that you’ve got the situation under control and they don’t have to feel worried.
DON’T expect your dog to join in the other dogs’ games straight away. While puppies and young dogs are generally up for a chase and friendly wrestle, older dogs tend to be more reserved and rather picky about who they decide their friends are. It’s best to repeat the observation/quick sniffs process a few times before you take the next step and see if your dog wants to join in.
DO assess the situation and think about your dog's personality and what they’re comfortable with. If the group is small, with friendly, relaxed dogs and welcoming owners and your dog is sociable, without being pushy, then they’re likely to fit in quite quickly.
However, if any dog in the group shows signs of reactivity, or your dog is obviously not feeling secure, this group may not be the right one for you.
DO be aware that some dogs find the high energy of group dog play just too stressful, preferring to play with a select friend or two. It’s important that you take time to see what’s a good fit for your dog and tailor sociable play activity to suit. A dog who’s nervous or uncomfortable is more likely to be easily overwhelmed in a park setting, which can lead to scuffles or a fear of encountering other dogs.
DO be respectful and responsible. While your dog may like to interact with other canines, some dogs really don’t like it.
DO learn to recognise the difference between play and aggression. Some dogs play roughly and growl or bark and, while many enjoy this level of play, particularly with another canine they know well, others will find it far too intimidating.
DO understand that while some dogs love to chase each other, doing circuits round the park, it’s important not to encourage groups of dogs to run as a pack, as this could quickly get out of control.
DO be aware of different dog sizes because some large dogs can act in predatory manner toward smaller ones, which can lead to altercations and injuries. If you have a young or tiny dog, introduce them slowly to larger animals, but only after you've confirmed with the owners that their dogs are calm and gentle around smaller pets.
DO keep a close eye on things and resist the temptation to scroll through your phone or just focus on other pet parents. Even close doggy friends have the occasional tiff and it’s your job as a dog guardian to keep watch on what’s going on.
DO look out for subtle signs that your dog is feeling uncomfortable, such as lip licking, yawning or panting when not hot, a stiff body and an erect tail. Keeping an eye out for these changes in your pet's behaviour – and that of the other dogs – can give you the edge to intervene on their behalf before an interaction with another dog escalates into a fight.
DO learn to recognise aggressive behaviour – such as raised hackles, bared teeth, and growling. If you spot any signs of aggression – from your dog or others – call your pet in and put them back on the lead and move them back from the crowd.
DON’T ignore your dog if they seem fearful, anxious or begin to act reactively. Call them in and put them back on their lead and let them have some space and time away from the group.
DO have some tricks up your sleeve to calm everyone down if it’s all getting a little over-exciting. ‘Sprinkling’ is a technique that can work well. This involves scattering some small treats on the ground (space them out so everyone can have their share without the risk of scuffles) and encourage everyone to use their noses to find them. Most dogs love this challenge and will quickly become engrossed in the activity – but ask their owners first.
DO be very cautious if children are present – never let your dog chase children and, unless they’re used to small people and have an impeccable record, it’s safer to put them on the lead. Some children have absolutely no awareness that it’s not OK to go up to a strange dog and give them a cuddle.
DO think carefully about taking balls or toys to the park. While some dogs love chasing a ball or playing with a tuggy toy – which can act as a useful distraction for your pet if they get worried by something – it can cause problems. If your canine chum is not a natural sharer, it’s probably best to leave toys at home so they don’t become a resource to guard. If tension builds up over who’s got who’s toy then it’s best to put them away to avoid a tussle.
DON’T throw sticks for your dog to chase. Dog injuries from sticks can range from cuts and scrapes in a dog’s mouth to infections from stick-splinters and life-threatening injuries.
DO ensure you have a supply a poop scoop bags with you and always pick up and deposit any doggy deposits in the dog waste bin. And, as playing can be thirsty work, bring water and a bowl to ensure your dog stays hydrated.
DON’T take your dog to the park if they show any signs of illness or if they’re in heat.
DO ensure your dog is up to date on all their vaccinations and parasite prevention against nasties such as worms, fleas and ticks. For dogs that socialise regularly, ask your vet about getting a kennel cough vaccine. Kennel cough is an airway infection, similar to human colds, that causes a dry hacking cough and is most common in areas where lots of different dogs gather.
DO teach your dog to learn to leave things when you ask them too. Dogs naturally enjoy picking things up, carrying them and chewing them up. However, if it’s the leftovers of someone’s lunch from last week or ‘leftovers’ from another animal – or even the remains of an old tennis ball or a chocolate wrapper – eating it could make your canine chum very ill, either from bad bacteria or by causing a blockage in their gut.
DO train your dog to have good recall so you’re confident they will come back to you when you want them too. Have treats to hand to reward your dog when they come when you call them. Remember that this can be quite an achievement for them with so many exciting distractions – so, give them lots of praise when they come padding back to you.
EXPERT TIPS: TAKING PUPPIES TO THE DOG PARK – HOW TO HELP YOUNG DOGS LEARN TO INTERACT WITH OTHER CANINES
Canine experts advise not taking young puppies to the dog park until they’re at least four months old because, in addition to not having had all of their vaccinations, puppies need to be socialised in a more controlled environment first. Very young dogs may not know how to interact with other dogs, which may cause stress or conflicts that can have a long-term, negative effect.
Nick Hof, a certified professional dog trainer and chair of The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, advises: “During our puppy’s early months, they are more sensitive to experiences, so a rambunctious greeter at the park may be enough to cause our puppy to be uncertain of all dogs.” Instead, Mr Hof suggests focusing on the goal of ensuring puppies only have positive interactions and avoid any overwhelming or frightening interactions. He adds that this approach “helps them have more confidence and adapt to new situations” and recommends attending puppy classes with age-appropriate playmates run by a vet or a reputable trainer who only uses positive reinforcement.
- LESSONS FOR LOCKDOWN PUPPIES When do you start training a puppy? Where’s the best place to go for puppy training classes? How do you go about socialising a puppy?
- PUPPY CHECKLIST What do you need to buy for a new puppy? How do you toilet train a puppy? When are puppy vaccinations needed? What about puppy training? What food should my puppy have? How much exercise should a puppy get? What should you think about when choosing a puppy?
EXPERT TIPS: TEACHING YOUR DOG WHY IT’S GOOD TO COME BACK TO YOU
Whenever you let your pet off lead to do some freestyling doggy stuff, it’s essential that they’re trained to come back to you when you want them to. Here’s what to do:
DO start by teaching the basics of recall in your back garden where there are few distractions. Most dogs pick it up quite quickly when there are some tasty treats involved as a reward. Try throwing a treat a distance away, then, once your dog has eaten it, call them back to you, giving them lots of praise and a treat when they run back to you.
DO practice regularly. This is absolutely essential to getting a reliable recall. Once your dog has nailed the basics, pick safe situations where there are low key distractions and gradually build up the distance that you’re able to call your dog and they respond.
DON’T use the word ‘come’. For most dogs, this word has developed a negative connotation – essentially ‘stop your fun now!’ Start with a new, intriguing recall cue – it could be ‘sausages’ or ‘this way’. Alternatively, try introducing a high-pitched dog whistle that your four-legged friend can learn to associate with something really good to eat or play with.
DO give your pet lots and lots of praise when they come back to you. And, if they’re doing something fun – such as pursuing a scent trail in the bushes or playing with a doggy friend – let them go back to it. This proactive, rather than reactive, approach means you’re not punishing them by taking them away from the good stuff, which, understandably, will make them reluctant to return. Instead, it’s teaching them that coming back to you is a rewarding detour rather than an end to the fun.
DON’T lose your cool. A dog that ignores you can be one of the most frustrating experiences ever – but showing how irritated you are will only serve to keep them away. It’s essential that recall is always a positive experience.
DON’T tell your tardy dog off when they eventually do come back as this simply teaches them that they were right all along and returning was a bad idea.
DO try to see things from your dog’s perspective. Usually, the interesting stuff your dog is investigating outweighs their motivation to return to you. It’s down to you to persuade them that you (with your pockets full of treats and toys along with plenty of praise to give) really are worth coming back for.
Need more help with training?
- For information on how to prevent and manage problem behaviours, visit Dogs Trust Change the Tale.
- You can also find lots of advice and training videos through Dogs Trust YouTube
- Visit the pet advice section of Battersea’s website for lots of tips and techniques
- Find out more about The Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Training Scheme
- Canine Principles runs several ‘Dog Skills for Humans’ courses and workshops
Is your dog a Burgess dog? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.
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