Dog Park Etiquette – Part 1

It’s a beautiful fall Saturday so you look at your bored pooch and say, “Wanna go to the dog park?” She perks her ears, cocks her head to the side almost in disbelief, then seeing you really mean it this time, she’s a blur of scrambling legs and flying fur as she slides on the heart of pine floors all the way to the door. She can’t get there fast enough, and there might even be an excited whine or two.

More than likely, you’ll have a lovely day at the dog park. Your dog will make new friends and maybe you will too. You’ll both enjoy the crisp, autumnal air and will begin to feel the tautness of the previous week’s tension loosening in your body. Your dog might take a bold leap into the pond at James Island County Park and be a bit surprised by its sudden coolness. You will successfully avoid stepping in poo. Toys and tennis balls will be playfully shared as easily as laughter. You will both return home refreshed, relaxed, and worn out into a happy exhaustion.

Or perhaps you’ll happen to the park on a bad day and it’s a waking nightmare. Dogs are running wildly without real supervision as their owners talk or text on cell phones. There’s a big dog towering over a little dog, his owner insisting, “He’s friendly.” Or maybe there’s a little dog who is Napoleon reincarnate, terrorizing every big dog she comes into contact with while her owner laughs and calls it “cute.” A few dogs look sick. There’s a crowd of intact males surrounding a female dog that is sashaying her tail all around the park. She must be in heat. Someone brought their 14-month human child and she’s toddling around while dogs are whizzing by her in a frenzied game of chase. Maybe you even notice someone sneaking a few sips from a longneck tucked into the folds of their jacket.

Or in a worse case scenario, perhaps it’s YOUR dog who’s having a bad day. She’s narrowing her eyes, her tail is high and stiff, she’s growling and just generally acting nasty. But, gosh darn it she’s going to enjoy the park even if you have to make her. You didn’t drive all the way out there for nothing.

Oh yes, more often than not, it’s the people at the dog park that make or break your experience.

With the grand opening of the new dog park at Bees Landing Recreation Center earlier this month, the Charleston area now boasts 12 official off-leash dog parks — making it more important that ever for Fido to mind his manners while at play. If we are all respectful during our time in these spaces, more funds will be allocated to improve existing facilities and to build additional dog parks in our communities.

__Abide by Posted Rules__ – This is a no brainer. Abide by the rules of the dog park that way we can keep enjoying it. Most general dog park rules include: no glass bottles, cleaning up after your pet’s waste, hours of operation, vaccination and license requirements, the barring of aggressive dogs or dogs in heat, etc. If too many people break the rules, we run the risk of dog parks being closed down.

__Consider Age Appropriateness__ – Don’t bring a dog under the age of 4 months to a dog park. Not only will your pup not have the proper vaccinations to protect them from a host of diseases, but it’s dangerous for a dog that young to be with older, larger dogs who might be playing too rough for your baby.

Likewise, take your human child to the children’s playground to play, not to the dog park. You will never know for sure if all the dogs in the park are kid friendly, so just don’t risk it. If you bring your older child, make sure they understand that cannot scream and run around, they should not take toys from dogs, and that they should stay close to you.

__Bring a Healthy Dog__ – You wouldn’t send a sick kid to school so don’t bring a sick dog to the dog park where they could transmit their illness to other dogs.

__Know Your Dog’s Limits and be Responsible__ – Not all dogs enjoy dog parks. While I always encourage socialization and feel even fearful or timid dogs can learn to feel safe and enjoy dog parks, take it slow. Start on-leash during your first few trips to the dog park, or go when it’s less busy. Don’t stay longer than 20 minutes.

If you know your dog tends to be aggressive with big dogs or just isn’t comfortable around them, go to one of the parks that has a designated space for the little guys.

If your dog isn’t playing nice, correct their behavior. If the negative behavior persists, leave. The easiest way to avoid dogfights is to leave before it happens.

Even if you feel your happy dog is perfect and LOVES every dog he meets, remember that not all dogs have this personality. Don’t allow your dog to rush up even with a happy greeting to a dog that looks timid. Encourage quick passes, side greetings, and make sure your dog is not overcrowding the other dog. Direct your dog’s attention elsewhere if the other dog looks like he’s getting stressed out.

__You are not Cesar Milan or Victoria Stilwell__ – In general, keep your dog-raising techniques to yourself. Most people don’t want unsolicited advice. But if you are making friends and someone says, “I just don’t know why Fluffy does…” then it might be an opportunity to provide some helpful insight.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of dog park etiquette when Leah offers up pointers on what to do when dogs show aggression.

Leah England is the founder and publisher of Lowcountry Dog Magazine.

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