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Dog Park Etiquette

IMG_2380If I had $1 for every time an owner told me how irate they were about something that had happened in the park when they were walking their dog – well, you know the rest!  So what are the unspoken rules about how us dog owners should conduct ourselves, what’s expected of us, what’s frowned upon, what constitutes unruly canine behaviour and how can we prevent it in the first place?  That’s a whole load of questions for one blog but let’s start at the end and work back!

What’s Frowned Upon?

Now I’m going upon personal experience here, both my own and with clients – other people may have more to add:

  • Boisterous dogs off-lead barging up to other less confident dogs who are (usually but not always) on lead, with owners shouting in a carefree manner ‘it’s OK, he’s friendly’!
  • Over zealous play which is not intercepted by owners
  • Dogs romping around the park having the time of their lives with owners somewhere within a 5 mile radius
  • Dogs who will not return to their owner come hell or high water and would prefer to scavenge a few family picnics instead
  • Dogs who absolutely adore people they haven’t met before, especially jumping all over them and always people in light coloured clothes after they’ve been mud wallowing
  • Those incredibly bouncy canines who are hopelessly out of control and instinctively target hapless humans who are either definitely not dog lovers, phobic or vulnerable in some way
  • Owners who do not pick up after their dog, engage in the act of decorating trees with poop bags or go to the length of picking up and then abandon the bag

What Constitutes Unruly Canine Behaviour?

Most of the above refers to the 4-legged contingent of the dog/owner relationship, but it is important to realise that nothing the dog is doing here is actually bad, wrong or naughty – it is absolutely normal behaviour.  What makes it ‘unruly’ is the fact that it is behaviour that we deem inappropriate or out of context to be appropriate.  It is up to us to teach our dogs, appropriate behaviour in social settings or contexts.

How Can We Prevent Socially Inappropriate Behaviour?

Start early with puppies. Most owners are aware of the sensitive period up to 14 weeks, that hugely important development window where socialization and habituation are two critically important processes for owners to engage in. Many owners socialize their puppy well with friends and family and other people he/she may encounter in life but for various reasons (worries about vaccination status/size of puppy and being hurt etc.) fail to adequately mix the puppy with conspecifics.  It is very important that the puppy has experiences with other dogs and puppies at this young age.  Join play groups, puppy parties and of course enroll in training classes with a suitably qualified and accredited trainer who knows how to organize and structure sessions.  This is critical because poorly run training/socialization sessions can have an adverse or even harmful effect on your puppy.

What Else Can We Do?

Monitor Play & Interpret  Body Language Better

Play is good and sometimes we can intervene too much.  Dogs learn by having the opportunity to interact – this is how they learn canine lexicon  and it takes time for them to achieve this. Having said this, play needs to be balanced and appropriate.  Take time to brush up on canine body language.  If your dog is hounding the other party, body slamming or the other dog is continually running away for example, play is unbalanced and you should intervene.  Balanced play involves both parties taking turns to stop and start play and with no party controlling play.  Dogs can quickly learn to bully if you do not step in.  If you recognise signs of being a little ‘full on’, ask your dog for a time out – stop, sit, wait for 5 secs and resume only when calm.

Calm & Cool – Then Play

If you always let your dog off lead at the first sight of another dog, then pretty sure you’ll end up with one of those dogs who goes crazy at the sight of another furry friend!  Teach impulse control.  Sit, wait/look/ count for 10, then go play.

Dog Park Doesn’t Always Mean Go Wild

Dogs are great at associative learning.  They quickly learn that a certain context = great fun, especially if they’re off lead and can root around, go in the river, play with friends etc. Sometimes, do something different.  Go to the park, have a calm walk, try a little training, do some trail work.

Practice ‘Come Back’ Early On

Make sure you start your recall training early on and only gradually re-introduce distractions.  Don’t set your dog up to fail – if you know there’s a high chance he wont come, don’t try.  Practice where there are fewer distractions, a quieter corner of the park maybe/use a long line, increase your reward factor and repeat another day.  You can also begin lots of focal training which has a great bearing on recall.  Make sure you choose a qualified and accredited behavioural trainer to show you how. Similarly, although we’re in the park together, I think we sometimes forget that not everybody actually likes dogs! Indeed some people can be very afraid of dogs, so, a secure recall is a must.  Furthermore, changes to legislation dictate (for example Dangerous Dog Act 2014) that dogs must be kept under control in public (and private), this refers to all dog breeds and the dog simply has to appear as though it may injure someone, to be in trouble.

Be Aware Of Other Owners

You may have a confident, outgoing dog – you’re very lucky.  Lots of owners do not and they keep their dogs on lead for that reason – the approach of your dog may severely affect theirs.  If you see an owner with their dog on lead, always put your dog on lead too.  If you’re in doubt about whether your dog can play, just ask!  Most people are very happy to let their dogs play but it’s always best to check first.

If we plan ahead when our dogs are young, we can prevent so many of these social issues which make life very unpleasant for other dog owners.  I see many dogs who were once outgoing and happy individuals and due to one or more adverse experiences with other dogs are now not, and that is very sad to see and their  road to recovery is a long one. It is up to us as dog owners to ensure that our dogs interact well and behave appropriately in public and if not, to seek qualified assistance.


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