Dog parks have never been more popular. They can be good opportunities for your dog to expend excess energy and have fun with other dogs. Unfortunately, as their use increases, so does the concern about dog fights. Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do that will dramatically reduce the chances of your dog getting into a serious altercation.
1. Ensure the park has enough space.
Some dogs need a generous amount of space, especially in the context of a dog park where high-intensity play is common and group dynamics are constantly changing as new dogs arrive and others leave. Don’t go to the park when it’s busy – and be prepared to leave early if it starts to get crowded. Avoid congested areas and give more space to dogs who seem stressed or highly aroused, dogs who are playing roughly, and dogs playing with toys.
2. Observe and assess the park conditions.
It’s important to understand that your dog may be at risk merely by being a bystander, so don’t hesitate to change your plan when you get there. It may be disappointing and frustrating if you don’t go in or have to leave early because of other park users, but at least your dog will come home with both ears.
It’s impossible to predict or control the behaviors of other park users – whether they have two legs or four – but you can watch for some indicators to help determine the risk of a dog conflict occurring. Lots of dog poop on the ground can indicate that the park has many users who do not follow rules or are lax in supervising their dogs. Caregivers who are sitting or standing around chatting or using cell phones are likely to be less effective at supervising and intervening before a fight happens.
Before you enter the park, observe the dogs that are there. Dogs who are comfortable have loose and wiggly bodies. Generally speaking, dogs who are uncomfortable either look stiff, perhaps with tails held very high and hackles raised, or look hunched and lowered, with tails tucked (beyond what is typical of the breed). Avoid dogs who relentlessly follow, chase, or hump other dogs despite the other dogs’ attempts to move away.
Other red flags to watch for include dogs excessively chasing or roughhousing, dogs ignoring the calls of their caregivers, and dogs in shock collars. Dogs wearing shock collars experience stress, even when not actively being shocked, and they may be at risk of redirecting their frustration, stress, anxiety, and/or anger toward the nearest bystander.
3. Use caution in the entrance area.
Most dog park conflicts occur within 100 feet of the entrance area, with about half of them within the first 20 feet.
This is a high-risk zone because it’s usually congested with distracted caregivers chatting with others or looking at their phones while their dogs race around the area and mob the new arrivals. Some dog park designs make congestion worse by placing amenities like benches or water fountains in the area. Also, funneling all traffic to one entrance and exit, requiring tired dogs who are leaving to mix with over-excited dogs who are arriving, makes the entrance area a fight waiting to happen.
If possible, use an alternate entrance or exit. If this isn’t an option, do your best to wait until the congestion clears (or come back at a different time). Once through the gate, move quickly away from the entrance area and call your dog to come with you. Refrain from tossing a toy, chatting with someone, or being otherwise distracted until you are at least 100 feet from the entrance.
4. Keep your dog moving along.
Some caregivers simply enter the park and sit or stand there, expecting their dogs to play with unfamiliar or incompatible dogs. It’s better to move farther into the park immediately upon entering and continue to walk throughout the park, allowing your dog the choice to engage with, avoid, or ignore dogs along the way, and encouraging your dog to move along with you if her interactions with other dogs are unruly or uncomfortable.
Many dog professionals who are experienced in managing groups of off-leash dogs believe that conflicts are less likely to occur when groups of dogs are kept moving along rather than remaining in one area.
If you want to chat with someone, it’s likely safer to chat while you walk and keep your attention on your dog. Some dog parks are not well-suited to walking a route, such as “dog runs” or parks without a suitable substrate for walking (such as pea gravel). These types of parks are better for brief playdates with a small group of compatible dog friends or a quick romp when the park is empty.
5. Actively supervise your dog.
Effective supervision involves more than just keeping your eyes on your dog. Just like a supervisor at a school yard during recess, you’ll need to be actively engaged and focused on your dog and the other dogs in the area. A dog park is not the place to use your cell phone or catch up on your reading.
Bring your leash with you and watch for canine stress signals indicating your dog or other dogs are uncomfortable or over threshold. Even too much “happy stress” can lead to dog conflicts, especially when intense play shifts into frustration or “the zoomies” (frenetic random activity periods).
Dogs who are close to threshold will find it difficult to respond to cues, so stay attuned to your dog’s arousal levels and periodically ensure that your dog still responds to your cues. If your dog starts disregarding your recall cue, it may be time to change the activity, move to a different area, or leave the park.
It’s important to recognize inappropriate dog play and to be ready to intervene when you see your dog or other dogs exhibiting behaviors that could lead to conflicts. Just because your dog plays well with familiar dogs doesn’t mean your dog will play well with all dogs. Some dogs have incompatible play styles, and dogs who haven’t had much experience playing with unfamiliar dogs might be too rough when playing with new dogs.
Doing a simple consent test can help determine if the play between dogs is consensual or if you need to intervene: Interrupt the play and let the dog who is smaller, less assertive, or the one being chased choose to resume play or not.