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Five tips for proper dog park etiquette (on avoiding bites and playing nice)

Posted Sep 22 2008 10:57am

Not every pet plays well with others. We all know a recluse or three and more than a couple unsociable fight-pickers. While members of the latter variety are usually great one-on-one, the prospect of taking one of these canine examples to the dog park is not a sunny one—in fact, it’s fair to say they're unwelcome, banned, verboten.

But that doesn’t keep some similarly socially challenged dog owners from chatting loudly on their cell phones while Fido charges dominantly towards every dog. Stiff-tailed and direct-gazed, he forces every dog he meets to submit…with a well-placed paw on their shoulders. Dogs roll over and pee for him. They cower and lick his mouth. Others avoid him. One or two react adversely but usually cave pretty quickly...until they don't and a trip to the emergency vet becomes necessary.

What’s wrong with these people as they chat blithely away? Do they not see the warning signs, so involved in their conversations as they are? Are they unaware that one day one of these otherwise sociable underdogs will get tired of his tricks and meet his challenge?

I once offered my human version of a challenge to one of these obnoxious owners. Passive-aggressively, I begged her attention by miming the universal hand signal for hanging up the telephone: “May I speak with you?”

Five minutes later she reluctantly ended her conversation.

“I’d just like you to be aware of what’s happening here. Your dog is exhibiting subtle but dangerous dog behavior. My dog plays well with others but I’m afraid to let him into the enclosure knowing that yours might challenge him. Do you see how he “plays”? That’s not playing. He’s stressed. Please consider that while it might be exercise it’s probably not good for his psyche—nor that of his “playmates”—to bring him here.”

Needless to say she was insulted and defensive, pointing out that the dogs were always “kissing” him. Would that I could have whipped out Dr. Karen Overall’s book on dog behavior and explained (with pictures aplenty) that her dog’s behavior, while normal, was not conducive to the dog park experience.

For the record, I didn’t play the “I’m a vet” card, nor do I ever use the dog park as an place to source new clients (unless the conversation naturally goes in a medical direction and they specifically ask me for my business card). Instead, I’m there to have fun. Which is why I get my hackles up when I see potentially dangerous interactions take place.

With that in mind, here are five tips for proper dog park etiquette. I’d like to thank Darlene Arden for her fun book on dog etiquette (Rover, Get Off Her Leg: Pet Etiquette for the Dog Who Pees on Your Rug, Steals the Roast and Poops in Improper Places) which (at least partially) inspired this post and whose tips I paraphrase here (with a few of my own points sprinkled in).

#1: No aggressive dogs!

Don’t bring an aggressive, dominant dog to the park. Dogs who continually challenge everyone, hackles and all, don’t need to be there.

#2 No toys

Toys can be a big trigger for fights. Leave them for more solo play or when you absolutely know none of the dogs interacting is a toy freak. And keep the treats to yourself until after the park. You don’t want your dog running with a rawhide in his mouth anyway.

#3 No kids

Keep children out of the enclosure. Not all dogs respond well to high-pitched kid squeals and others fight over their attention. Dog parks are for dogs. Children should stay on the sidelines.

#4 Pay attention!

Don’t hang on the cell phone, for example. It’s important to be able to correct your dog or respond in an emergency.

#5 Room to maneuver

Make sure the dogs aren’t packed in like sardines—especially if you have a little one. It only leads to the potential for adverse interactions and small dog tramplings.

***

Come on…I know you have more.
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