Dog Park Safety
By Sandy Golding
Editor's Note: The popularity of dog parks is surging in the sunshine state. Yet for many people, they are still a relatively new phenomena. We felt the following article about dog park etiquette would be helpful to everyone, regardless of their dog park experience. Although different dog parks may have different arrangements and rules, the following is a terrific guide to keeping things safe, happy and fun for pets and peeps alike:
What is a Dog Park?
A dog park is a fenced public area where dogs can legally run off-leash and play with other dogs under the supervision of their human guardians. In other words, a dog park is a playground for pet-loving people and their dogs!
Your First Visit
• Make your first visit without your dog. Familiarize yourself with the rules and how the dog park works.
• Before your dog's first visit to a dog park, make sure he/she is legally licensed, vaccinated and wearing a collar and tags. Be prepared to show vaccination/health records if asked.
Editor's Note: Here's a handy pocket-sized pet records holder to keep you prepared for any outing with your dog. It's a 4-pack, so you can share with friends or family members who have a pet.
• The first few times you take your dog to a dog park, choose a time that is not busy. Weekday evenings, weekends and holidays tend to be peak times.
• The first visit can be a little stressful for both you and your dog, so keep it short and happy. Gradually work your way to longer visits.
• An initial visit without a lot of other dogs or people around can be a good time to determine how your dog will react in a group-dog setting. Watch your dog carefully for signs of stress, agitation, or harassing behavior toward other dogs and only stay a few minutes at the park if you see any of these signs. If your dog gets stressed, don't push things. Come back another slow time and try it again. Another option is to take your dog to the other side of the park, away from other dogs and give your dog a chance to calm down and become familiar and comfortable with the dog park.
How To Enter the Park
• If there are two entry gates, do not open the outside gate if the inside gate is open. Be patient. One dog at a time is a good policy.
• Remove your dog’s leash inside the double-gated entry area, or inside the gated area if only one gate is present. When you enter the park, close the gate and move your dog away from the entrance and latch the gate behind you.
• Do not leave a leash on your dog in the park. This may actually cause an altercation as your dog may feel restricted in his/her ability to protect himself/herself. Also, dogs feel more protective of their guardian when they are leashed.
While in the Park - Minding Your Ps & Qs - and Fido's Too
• BIG RULE #1: Dog guardians are solely liable for injuries or damage caused by their dogs. This rule is posted at the entrance to most dog parks. In the event that your dog hurts another dog or person, give the other person your name and contact information and ask for their name and contact information. You are solely liable and should pay any bills related to the injury. If you are not prepared to do this, you should not go to the dog park.
• BIG RULE # 2: Do not bring an aggressive dog to a dog park. Simply put, if you believe your dog is aggressive, do not bring your dog to the dog park! With respect to "aggression", this term is used very loosely and what someone may call aggression may actually be fear, rough play, domination, herding behavior or some kind of harassing behavior. If you are not sure and you think your dog may be dangerous to another dog or person (i.e. may cause injury), you should not bring your dog to the dog park!
Conversely, it is easy for people to classify many dog behaviors as aggression when in actuality they are not. If you're unsure, talk to your vet or a trainer and ask them to help you determine if your dog's behavior could be a problem. With some professional help, you may be able to improve your dog's behavior so they can enjoy the park.
If another dog guardian is concerned about your dog's behavior and asks you to control your dog or take your dog away, please do so without question and take your dog to another part of the park. You may not think your dog is aggressive or behaving badly, but your dog's behavior may be upsetting or harassing to the other dog and/or guardian and that can cause the situation to escalate to injury. Remember, the other guardian can attempt to take their dog to another area of the park, but you must do your part as well to get the situation under control. Please respect the other park users and take their concerns seriously, whether you agree with them or not.
• BIG RULE #3: No female dogs in heat permitted in the park.
Editor's Note: If you wish to socialize your dog in a dog park on a regular basis, you should consider having your dog spayed or neutered. Spaying and neutering can prevent poor behavior, plus it offers many health benefits for your dog.
• BIG RULE # 4: No dogs under four (4) months of age permitted in the park.
• BIG RULE # 5: Dogs must wear collars, but choker chains or prong collars are not permitted on dogs inside most parks. These collars can actually cause injury to your dog or another dog when dogs are playing.
• Dogs must be leashed when entering and leaving the park and dog guardians must have a leash in their possession at all times.
• Dogs must be off-leash while inside the park, but guardians must keep the leash handy and ready for use in case it's necessary to get your dog under control. That way, if your dog attacks another dog or person you can leash them immediately and remove them from the park.
• Dog guardians must be in the park and within view and voice contact with their dogs at all times.
• Most dog parks have separate areas for large and small dogs. It's very important to keep small dogs in the small dog area and large dogs in the large dog area.
There may be times when the large dog area is closed and there are no small dogs in the small dog area. At such time, some dog parks allow the small dog area to be used as an alternative area for large dogs ONLY if there are no small dogs in it. Check the rules!
Some dog parks allow the small dog area to be used as a timeout area for large dogs (i.e. large dogs that need a place to go to calm down or de-stress because they are having a problem in the large dog area) again, ONLY if there are no small dogs in the area. If a small dog arrives, you must remove your big dog from the small dog area. Check the rules!
For their own safety, small dogs should not be in the large dog area. There is a greater risk of a small dog being unintentionally hurt by a large dog while playing. Think about it: a small dog playing with a large dog is similar to a 100-pound woman playing with a 300-pound football player. The large dogs do not realize that they can hurt the smaller dogs, yet small dogs have been seriously injured (even killed) while playing with large dogs. Furthermore, a large dog that becomes aggressive with a smaller dog is likely to do more serious damage than would a dog of the same size.
Some people prefer to let their small dogs play with large dogs or they believe that their small dog plays "better" with large dogs. Some dog parks may not allow this at all. Others may let you decide. But if you choose to let your small dog play in the large dog area, realize that you do so at YOUR SMALL DOG'S RISK. Stay close to your small dog AT ALL TIMES and watch the play very closely. If you detect that the large dog is getting too rambunctious or rough, immediately go to another area of the park or leave the large dog area and go to the small dog area. Keep in mind it's not uncommon for other dogs to join in on the play, so your small dog playing with multiple large dogs means the opportunity for injury is even greater!
• No food, treats, alcoholic beverages, glass containers, strollers, bicycles or children's toys allowed in the park. Food and treats can become a source of conflict between dogs.
• No animals other than dogs are permitted in the park.
• Dog guardians must immediately fill any holes dug by their dog.
• Park gates must be kept closed and latched at all times.
• Help keep the park clean! Guardians must clean up after their dogs. Most dog parks provide some sort of plastic bags and trash receptacles for this purpose.
• Do not bring to a dog park any toys to which you or your dog may be particularly attached. These items may provoke possessive or aggressive behavior or may be destroyed through rough play.
Children In Dog Parks
• Some dog parks do not permit children under the age of 12, period. Others allow children under the age of 12, but only with close and constant adult supervision. Check the rules!
• A dog park is a dog park. Not all dogs are child- friendly. Not all children are dog-friendly. Never allow your child to approach or pet a strange dog without the guardian's presence and approval.
• Please understand that a running, squealing or screaming child may incite dogs to behave aggressively.
• Children should stay away from dogs at play. Even a friendly dog may unintentionally knock down a small child when engrossed in playful behavior.
• Direct eye contact is confrontational to dogs. An interested child staring into a dog’s face may provoke a dog unintentionally.
• Do not let children bring toys or food to the park. Even a friendly dog might knock down your child to get a toy or food.
Dog Conflicts - Learn the Four Warning Signs
• Posture: A dog’s body language can communicate fear, hostility or submission. Learn to read and respond to your own dog’s body language.
• Packing: More than 4 or 5 dogs packed together can lead to trouble. Break it up before it starts by leading your dog to a neutral area at least 30 feet away.
• Possession: Whether it’s you, a ball or a treat, most dogs will protect what is theirs. Remain aware.
• Provoking: If your dog is continuously annoying another dog or dogs, or provoking attention, it’s time to leave the park.
What You Can Do To Prevent a Fight
• Speak up if you see something serious happening (i.e. bad dog behavior that may escalate into a conflict.) All park users need to help make sure the park is safe and enjoyed by everyone. It is better to speak up and prevent an injury to a person or dog.
• Pay attention to your dog and be aware of where he/she is and what he/she is doing at all times.
• Stay close enough to control or protect your dog in the face of a potential fight.
• Keep a collar on your dog at all times to have something to grab if needed.
• Keep walking. Walking defuses defensive behaviors and helps keep the off-leash area neutral territory. Avoid the temptation to stand around and chat or sit in one place for very long. When humans congregate, many dogs may become protective of their people and their space, making scuffles more likely to occur.
• Leave the park if necessary. Some days it’s just a bad mix. Go for a walk or come back later. You and your dog will be better off.
What You Can Do If a Fight Occurs
• Never reach your hands into the middle of a dogfight. You may get bitten, possibly by your own dog.
• Distract the dogs and divert their attention. A blast of water from a water bottle or a loud whistle may work. See below for more suggestions.
• If your dog is not in the fight, make sure he doesn’t join in.
• If a fight occurs, leash and control your dog and remove him to a neutral area.
• Maintain a cool head. Getting upset and yelling will only add to the frenzy.
How To Break Up a Conflict or Attack
There are numerous things that are used at dog parks to break up a fight or attack:
• Carry a squirt bottle filled with lemon water and spray it (stream, not mist) in the face of the attacker or the fighting dogs. This will startle the dogs, sting their eyes and will take their attention away from the situation, but will not injure the dogs. This will give the dog guardians a chance to remove their dogs from the setting.
• Carry a small citronella spray called Direct Stop (a pepper-spray-type dispenser that is made by Premier Products) and spray this in the dog's face. This will not injure the dogs. Note that some people do not recommend pepper spray because it is believed to make the dogs more aggressive and make the situation worse.
• Carry an air horn. The loud noise will startle the dogs and will stop the situation long enough to get control of the dogs. The downside to this is that the air horn can scare other dogs in the park.
• Carry a whistle. Some people have had success blowing a whistle loudly to startle the dogs so you can get control of the dogs. However, some people don't feel that it is very effective because it is not as loud as the air horn.
• Blast the dogs with a water hose if you are near one in the park. This will startle the dogs long enough to stop the fight and get the dogs under control.
• If the dogs are small, lift the aggressor (the dog who is on top) up by the rear until the front feet are off the ground. The aggressor will let go and the other dog can be free to get away. Supposedly, in this position, the dog suspended in the air cannot turn on and bite the human.
• Whatever course of action you choose, be aware that many people get bitten trying to break up a dogfight. You should not reach in and try to separate the dogs if you have the options noted above to choose from.
What To Do In Case of An Injury
In the event that you or your dog are hurt by another dog, you should do the following:
• Get the dog guardian's name and contact information.
• Get names and contact information from witnesses, if any. Seek medical attention immediately. In the event of a serious life-threatening injury to a human, call 911. For a serious dog injury after your veterinarian's office is closed, take your dog to the nearest emergency care facility. (Note: This is a good piece of information for all pet guardians to know by heart anyway.)
• Dog park rules may mandate reporting the incident to animal control, or at least to the dog park organizers. Check the rules!
• Reporting the incident to the dog park organizers is important because if the dog which has caused injury to a human or another dog has been involved in multiple incidents, the organizers have the authority to permanently deny readmission to that dog.
Editor's Note: Sandy Golding was one of the founders of Paws Park at Wingate Park, Jacksonville Beach's first dog park, which opened in May 2005.
Dog Park Tips: Common Conflict Triggers
Courtesy of ROMP - www.dogromp.org
All the rules of dog and human interaction are based on common sense and courtesy. The most basic rule: Every day is a new day for your dog! By nature, dogs tend to create hierarchies in social situations. These hierarchies change with every new dog and every new day. You may discover that certain dogs do not get along with your dog, or vice versa. This behavior is common and normal, so do not blame the other dog or owner; just recognize that today may be the day that you leave the park early!
Common Dog Park Behaviors That May Lead to a Conflict
If you are concerned about how another dog is interacting with yours, Speak Up! You need to tell the other owner, "This isn't working for us. Please call your dog away." When owners learn dog body language, including the common triggers for conflicts, managing our dogs (and our own reactions) becomes much easier.
Bullying: Occurs when one dog tries to submit to or escape from a domineering dog, but the bully won't let it.
Mounting: This is a common and normal dog behavior, unrelated to sex or mating. "Humping" is generally unacceptable at the dog park because it often escalates into more combative interactions. "Humping" between doggie friends may be okay for the backyard, but in a dog park, it may cause one dog to feel threatened or trapped when a third dog approaches, resulting in further conflict.
Charging/Ambushing: Always provocative and often threatening between unfamiliar dogs. "Greeting Party" behavior at the gated entrances is especially troublesome for dogs and humans.
Full speed body-slams: against an unfamiliar or unsuspecting dog can result in a negative reaction.
Predatory behavior: Defined as one dog treating another dog as prey by stalking, chasing, and trying to bring them down.
Territorial behavior: Barking, growling or snapping in an attempt to prevent other dogs or people from approaching.
Editor's Note: The author of this article, Sandy Golding, is an organizer of Paws Park at Wingate Park, in Jacksonville Beach, Florida