Good Manners for Dogs & People in Off-Leash Parks

Published in the Seattle Times in October 2012

Up-front admission: I stopped taking my own dogs to public off-leash parks several years ago, after a particularly traumatic incident at a local dog-park. I witnessed bullying so extreme and unprovoked it shocked me. I expected bloodshed – mine. The nasty behavior came from a woman who stormed my way because I’d handed my dog a kibble after he’d raced to me when I called him. She shouted, “No food in the park! What are you, an idiot?” As I stood rooted in place, slack-jawed, scanning for allies and/or police officers, she snarled, “Food causes fights.” Luckily I’d had a modicum of martial arts training; this made it possible for me to breathe and stifle the defensive rage roiling inside. Without a word, I gathered my dogs and exited the tiny park, never to return.

So as I offer behavioral guidelines for the canines and the humans who frequent dog parks, I’ll start with one that may be controversial. I bring food treats along whenever I’m in public with my dogs, and I suggest my clients do so too. There’s no better way to reinforce dogs for immediate, speedy recalls than to feed (and praise and play with) them when they arrive at your feet.

And no dog should be allowed off-leash in a public setting unless he has a reliable recall. This means your dog will come to you darn near every time you ask him to, even if he’s playing with friends, sniffing a bush or barking at a newcomer. When I unclip my dog’s leash in any public place, I silently recite, “I’m betting your life and our house on the probability that you’ll come when I call you.” My dogs – and most of my clients’ dogs – have a history of behavioral problems. If any of them gets involved in a dogfight or threatens to bite a person, this risks a) getting him officially tagged with a “dangerous dog” designation, and b) triggering the dog-owner’s home insurance company to cancel the policy.

Beloved dog, do you race to me, nine times out of ten, when I call you? Then I will take the gamble: you may be off-leash here at the park. Or instead do you, dear pooch, show no indication you’ve heard me (or run in the opposite direction) half the times I call you? Then this is too risky for us both; we’ll skip the dog-park and you’ll stay on leash for now. We’ll continue training together to ensure you will come when called. Soon we should be able to safely visit the dog-park.

What about that problem of the presence of your food treats possibly instigating fights in other people’s dogs, especially those who get possessive and snarky about such a valuable resource? The real question is why are these dogs allowed to get close enough to lay claim on your treats? Their owners should be practicing that all-important recall, calling their dogs away from your bait bag. But you can’t count on this, so bring yummy but not super-fabulous (i.e., stinky) food. Kibble or dry biscuits are fine; liver or salmon bits might be too enticing for the canine crowd. Never feed another person’s dog. And don’t feed your own pups when other dogs are glommed around you.

Two or more dogs crowded together can get prickly, especially if they’re begging a treat (or a toy) from someone. Stationery people, especially those with goodies, generate tight groups of aroused dogs. These four-legged scrums can devolve into a brawl in an instant. To avoid this, move! If you’re physically able, keep walking the entire time you’re at the park. This keeps the dogs’ energy flowing and more diffuse.

Frequently interrupt your dog’s rough-housing or chasing by calling him to you. Reward him for complying, not only with food treats but also with permission to go back for another play bout. Imagine that your dog has a “playing meter” – you — and that the allotted time expires every five minutes. Your dog can insert a virtual token into that meter by responding promptly to your recall, thereby gaining additional time to romp. No recall? Then the meter expires and playtime is over.

Throw together a few adolescent, athletic, adrenalinized playmates, each armed with a toothy weapon, and a serious fight can erupt suddenly from what looked like good-natured fun. Think soccer hooligans. So these repeated check-ins with you also help ensure that the dogs’ frolicking doesn’t get too heated up.

Be aware that many dogs will deign to interact with the other canine park-goers only when there are no toys available. If humans bring along a Frisbee or tennis ball, some dogs will focus so keenly on this coveted object that they’ll ignore playmates. This may be OK with you, but it doesn’t count as a social event. I’ve met dozens of clients’ dogs who were supposedly well-socialized at dog parks but who actually spent all their park-time playing fetch. These dogs end up having the same degree of social skills as a person who strolls through parties playing Angry Birds on his iPhone the entire time. Use toys in moderation at the dog park if you want your dog to develop the ability to communicate fluently and easily with his own species.

Always move through the entry gate(s) quickly. Remove your dog’s leash as soon as you get in; dogs on leash are often anxious or frustrated around off-leash dogs. (I also remove my dogs’ collars to prevent a strangulation accident). Then walk briskly away from that area. Avoid having your pup get trapped at the entry gate by a deluge of dogs magnetized to check out the newcomer. Given this, your fellow park-goers will be grateful when you prevent your own off-leash dogs from crowding them as they arrive.

Be prepared to leave immediately whenever things look iffy (and someday they will). Trust your gut. If you see any dog or human whose behavior makes your stomach clench, go home. Also, please be ready to call “game over” if your dog is being a bully or is acting panicky or overwhelmed. Remove her from the playfield promptly, with minimal drama. Then decide if it’s prudent to try again in 15 minutes, or on another day, or maybe not at all.

In case of a dog-fight, alert the people around you that you need help. Owners of the fighting dogs should intervene by getting their dogs back on leash, if at all possible. Bystanders should call all extra dogs away from the altercation and confine them outside the fence or on leash.

Please don’t bring young puppies to the dog park. They need full immunity to communicable diseases before visiting such an enormous Petri dish of germs. Your veterinarian can provide specific timelines.

Senior dogs can also be poor candidates for dog parks. In my 20s, I enjoyed hanging out at bars full of strangers in various states of arousal and sobriety, but now, decades later, I consider that setting too manic and noisy. Pay attention to how eager your older dog is to enter the fray. Over time, he may have matured out of his “clubbing” phase.

Over the years, I’ve also become more risk-averse. I now consider small dogs to be at significant risk when exposed to unfamiliar unrestrained larger dogs. In the 1990s, when I owned a dog daycare in Tacoma, I marveled at Willie, the little land-shark of a dachshund who held our Great Dane at bay. But experience has taught me that two or more big friendly dogs sometimes shift suddenly to being dangerously predatory toward any small animal, especially when running. Tiny dogs are therefore much safer in parks that have separate fields designated for them.

Of course, always carry poop pick-up bags, more than you think you’ll need. Don’t leave even a speck of poo in the park. This edict has direct implications on how many dogs one person should bring to the park. I think four is the maximum. It’s nearly impossible to guarantee you’ll be able to see Dog #5 pooping in the tall grass as you’re stooping over to clean up after dog #4.

In a perfect world, there’d be no unsupervised kids, baby strollers, bikes or skateboards in dog parks. But all of these make appearances at dog parks every day, so be constantly scanning for any potential triggers for dog aggression (or chasing). Call your dog away using that recall signal you’ve so assiduously trained and move to a different area of the park.

Reminders for dogs:

The park is a playground, not a sex club. If you’re a bitch in season, stay home. If you’re an intact male, be on your best behavior because you’ll be scrutinized by everyone.

Relentlessly chasing a dog who’s playing fetch is not “good fun” – it’s annoying. Expect that at some point, that fetching dog may lose patience and turn on you. Lunging and snapping are likely.

Play is a mutual activity between consenting animals. If the other dog is an unwilling participant, you’re being a bully. Take it down a notch or find another playmate.

Reminders for humans:

Watch your dog. Always. Don’t get so distracted by conversations with friends that you stop paying attention to what your dog is doing.

Walk. If possible, don’t sit or stand in one place.

If another dog tells your dog to back off and he ignores this signal, interrupt the interaction with a recall or by physically moving your dog away.

If your dog tells another dog to back off and he ignores this signal, go help your dog get away from his/her pursuer.

Don’t discipline anyone else’s dog. If you believe there’s a problem, speak with the owner or just move with your dog to another area of the park.

Don’t feed anyone else’s dog.

Have fun and be fun.