Check out our new merch today!

September 16, 2015

My Rules for the Dog Park

It may come as surprise to many, but there is a strong contingent of dog owners who loathe dog parks. And it may come as an even bigger surprise hearing it from me, but they have a lot of good points. I’ve visited dog parks of all shapes and sizes
It may come as surprise to many, but there is a strong contingent of dog owners who loathe dog parks. And it may come as an even bigger surprise hearing it from me, but they have a lot of good points. I’ve visited dog parks of all shapes and sizes across the country and seen plenty of things which could discourage a person from visiting. I’ve seen everything from unsocialized dogs fighting (luckily without serious harm) to a family deciding the dog beach was the perfect spot for a picnic. (Hint: It’s not!) Dog parks are inherently risky. In that sense, I consider visiting them a lot like driving a car. In both cases I’m making a calculated risk involving circumstances both in and out of my control. And in both cases there are a number of things I can do to improve my likelihood of a safe and successful trip. Here are a few rules I’ve come up with for the dog park: Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

1. Avoid peak hours

Immediately after business hours, weekend afternoons and holidays are all high-traffic times for dog parks. Visiting the park during quieter hours ensures there’s plenty of space for all the pups and it’s easier to keep an eye on everyone.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

2. Know your dogs better than they know themselves

I know every nuance and subtlety of Eko’s and Penny’s body language. This allows me to quickly gauge and predict behavior. Often when Penny charges, like in the above photo, Eko lets her pass by. But that little tongue lick let me know he was about to engage and wrestle.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

Penny knew it too and she made a hasty retreat!

I always keep a close eye on my pups to make sure they’re happy, relaxed and comfortable.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

3. Actively supervise play

It might be a beach, but the dog park is no place for setting up a picnic or reading a good book. Active supervision ensures the beach stays fun for everyone. It’s also key to stopping problems before they start. If I notice Penny wants to play tug with an unwilling partner, I make her disengage and we head to another part of the park.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

4. Speak up!

I can’t count how many fearful eyes I’ve seen when Eko bounds over to say hello to someone’s tiny dog. I know he’s a gentle giant, but others certainly don’t. I’ve found it very helpful to speak up about my dogs’ personalities to others. “Don’t worry, he’s gentle” helps ease tension, and “She loves to play tag, is that okay?” is a simple way to test the waters.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

5. Expect the unexpected

No matter how many times dogs play together, there’s always a chance something changes. In the above case, Penny was quite shocked to learn Doc was the one instigating a wrestle. Like the Boy Scouts, I try to be prepared for anything.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

6. Always be ready to leave

The most important command I have at the dog park is “Ready to go?” I only use it at dog parks and it simply means we’re leaving. Now. When the pups hear the command they both come right to me (took a bit of time to train Penny!)

Whether we’ve had our fun for the day, or I’m concerned about my pups’ safety for the slightest reason, I’m always ready to leave the beach on a moment’s notice.

The above rules, together with standard common-sense, help keep the dog park a safe, fun and invaluable resource for my pups. Dog parks are certainly not necessary for all dogs, but my two couldn’t do without them. There’s no other place in the city for these two to get the off-leash exercise they need to stay healthy and happy.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure, chicago

Quite happy indeed!

For those of you who also visit dog parks, do you have any rules/tips for making the experience fun for you and your dog?

Comments for My Rules for the Dog Park

  1. Kismet says:

    We’re miles from such a place but our back yard is big enough.

  2. We’ve tried the dog park nearest our crib but sadly, it’s become a place where hipsters check their Twitter feed and mostly ignore their pets and children (one guy actually dropped his dog off as if it were doggie day care!). Have seen too many problems to make us want to go back there. But I have taken Sam to the one in the foothills which has acres of hills and wooded areas so we all get a good workout hiking around in a lovely mountain setting. Win-win…the best part to dog parks when you can get it. 😉

  3. Victoria says:

    we live in the country on several acres and have the yard fenced in as well so we haven’t done a dog park yet and I don’t know that my pups are well socialized enough to do one. That said i am curious as to how you got Penny to follow the “ready to go” command (Eko seems to have been your star pupil and little Penny a test for the teacher). How did you get her to give up playing and come right to you, just treats?

  4. Shana and Hobbes says:

    I love your list, I think it covers most if not all of the things we do as well. Hobbes LOVES going to the beach and we go almost every weekend. We do go early (7-8am) before it is super busy and avoid the holiday weekends. I think for us the biggest issue is to stay with and watch your dog at all times. Since our beach exits to parking and busy PCH it is all too easy for pups to end up terrified in the middle of traffic looking for their owners. I have seen it a few times and it is so scary, especially when the owners are chatting and have no idea their pup is gone and all the pup wants is to find their people. It is also a challenge when people decide to have a picnic with their tiny children. Hobbes is pretty good with kids but I am never certain just how he will react and as a parent I could not imagine plopping my toddler into a mass of unpredictable, unknown dogs tearing it up on the beach!

  5. Shana and Hobbes says:

    Thought of one other rule to add to the list – be prepared to clean up after your dog. I have taken to always having a bag or two in my pocket to give to people who are clueless. Often they either don’t realize or ignore that their dog just pooped and give a blank stare and ask ‘oh, do you have a bag I can use?’ when it is pointed out to them. What is crazy is they have free bags available!

  6. If more owners were as conscientious as you, I wouldn’t be as leery of dog parks as I am (my vet is too, more so due to the reason that he said many unvaccinated dogs go to many parks). Sadly, the vast majority don’t have dogs who are trained as superbly as yours (including mine)…and many owners have the “YOUR dog is the problem, NOT mine” philosophy. You are a gem but not everyone else is!

  7. NM says:

    our rule was pretty much the same:
    -keep an eye on him at all times..looking for changes even while I am chatting with the pet parents….
    -KNOW MY DOG…His reactions especially. My dog for some reason never got into a fight but when there was one, he went for the hand that went in to stop it. A couple of times there were broken skin on hands.. He was called ‘pino quarantino’. He was quarantined after one of those incidents. Happened before my eyes in a second. From then on…I knew before things got too volatile to get him by my side and away from the center of the ‘storm’.
    -Pick up his poop and sometimes after winter…tended to pick up others’ too. I have no idea how the dogs never seem to step in it…..never…what a miracle..

    Dog focused outdoor spaces can be scary like your first visit to New York City. danger may be everywhere but you get used to it..and even learn to navigate it with expertise-

  8. Great post. I hope to be able to use these great tips one day but Kali is still not socialized with other dogs well enough to be a good citizen at a dog park. I have observed others at the dog park along our trail path and unfortunately there are some owners who don’t adhere to the same good principals you describe.

  9. realappetite says:

    Thanks so much for such an important post. My number one rule is supervise, supervise, supervise! Atlas wants to play with every dog he meets but being a puppy still he can’t always tell when another dog is getting frustrated, or defend himself if things start to get messy. I make it a point to talk to the other owners while our dogs are playing and make sure their dog is acting appropriately in their view. And if the owner is not within chatting distance or seems uninterested, we move onto another pup.
    Luckily Atlas still has good recall at the park (for now…) but I like your idea of an immediate exit cue!

  10. MZ12 says:

    Great post. Being a fellow city-dweller, I’ve found dog parks to be invaluable off-leash and socialization time for my dog. I’d say the ratio of good-to-bad experiences we’ve had is about 80-20, in favor of the good.

    Another thing I’ve found, in addition to everything you said above, is that the design of the park itself can have a big influence. Small, cramped parks that are just a big rectangle and have few options for the dogs (and people) besides standing together in clumps tend to have a higher risk of fights breaking out, in my anecdotal experience. The parks that are designed to encourage active walking, playing, and running – with a variety of features and terrain – work best for my dog and me – he loves to be in motion and it helps him stay ‘well behaved’ if he isn’t spending too much time fixated on any one dog. I realize this isn’t always possible, but on weekends I will drive 45 minutes to a good park because I think it’s worth the extra effort.

  11. I used to take Neeka to the dog park when she was much younger. She made some fast friends, but as they got older (2yrs old!) Neeka kept playing like a Ridgeback and the others settled down. Their owners were snippy with her every time she tried to get their pups to chase her. After getting run over by some new friends and a couple trips to the vet for stitches for torn skin, I said enough was enough. “Oh, they’re just playing” became synonymous with “So how much did today’s dog park trip cost?” We take long hikes around the lake and are lucky enough to find other active dogs out there. Khoi, on the other hand, hasn’t been to a dog park yet, however, we are taking him to meet a new friend this weekend. Should be interesting. I guess my big tip is, watch the way people treat their own dogs. Do they coddle them, or ignore them? I make sure they’re watching them, even when in conversations. Those are the ones who care about what their dog is doing.

  12. Ogee says:

    Great post, Will. Good dog humans can make for good dog park experiences. I just wish there were more of them!

  13. DZ Dogs says:

    Great post! But we don’t do dog parks, i’ve seen to many negative things. We stick to doggy play dates, morning coffee at starbucks, and hiking! 🙂

  14. Jesse says:

    Good read. These are the same rules I try to follow when we take Oshie anywhere that he will be interacting with other people or animals.

  15. Emmadog says:

    So many people at the dog parks seem to think it is a place to let your dog go and forget about them. They engage with other people and pay no attention to what their own dog is doing. If Mom asks them to please get their dog away as it is being disruptive or irritating, they are all bent out of shape. We like the big parks, at quiet times during the week.

  16. coastingnz says:

    Will you would have to be one of the most responsible dog owners I “know” – it is great reading of your adventures with Eko and Penny, seeing how you’ve trained them and your total dedication to them and their welfare. You are an inspiration to us all and well done. I know there are plenty of other good dog owners out there too, it is only the small few that ruin it for the rest of us but unfortunately it is those incidents that often make the “headlines” so it is very refreshing reading your blog – seeing the interaction of all the dogs at the parks in your photo – shows socialising is the key, basic training and most importantly love – love, unconditional love, just like they give us. Yes feeling philosophical this morning. I’ll drink more coffee…….

  17. Chelsea says:

    That picture of Penny getting dunked is priceless! I am tempted to print your post for the community boards at our local parks 😉

    I also prefer to call my dogs away from the gate when a new dog enters. If a dog is uncomfortable being rushed at the gate (no matter how warm the welcome) their back is against a fence. Just seems like a recipe for disaster if the “flight” aspect of a dogs fight or flight response is taken off the table from the start.

  18. Joanne says:

    Be sure to keep dog vaccinations up too date. A friend’s therapy dog picked up parvovirus at the local dog park. She recovered, thankfully, but it was a tough go for awhile.
    PS, love see your pups!

  19. These are good rules. I have never been to the dog park. Even though I have all my shots and preventative medicines, Mom is afraid to take me to the dog park, in case I pick up a flea or a parasite or a bug of some kind from another dog that does NOT have its shots and preventative medicines. 🙁

    Love and licks,

  20. Good read! We’ve quite a few bad experiences at the dog park before so we tend to avoid it now unless we’re certain that there won’t be any dogs around. I think the dog park will be a really pleasant place if more owners thought like that.

  21. Good rules! Knowing your own dogs and having them well trained so they recognize hand signals or voice commands helps I’m sure!


  22. We don’t frequent parks anymore, partly due to Jack & Maggie’s senior dog status and partly due to the craziness in the ones close by us. Luckily they get their off leash in on our daily walks/runs. These are great tips though – going to share.

  23. Abbie says:

    Such good tips! Did you teach the “Ready to go” as another recall? I’ve never been to a dog park before (they are either scarce here or I’m ignorant) although my dog has been once (in the care of someone I trust).

  24. fredrieka says:

    Momwithoutpaws loves these rules as a therapy dog we have a rule when others approach with their pawkid on a lead momwithoutpaws speaks up “we do not socialize on a lead” the friendliest dog on a lead will feel confined and may react hastily to protect itself and his owner.

  25. Those are some good rules. I hear the same thing from our clients, some love the parks some don’t like them at all. To each it’s own I guess, with your rules it seems to work for you and your pups so that is all that matters along with them having fun.

  26. Wish I could chime in but since we have had our ranch and a pack of dogs we don’t frequent the parks. They are invaluable if you live in the city though.

  27. Leslie says:

    We go almost everyday and my girls know the routine for coming and going now. People sometimes are amused that they are bilingual as I say ” Allons-y” to them which means “let’s go” in French. We are Canadian but it’s more of an Dr Who thing.

  28. […] few weeks ago I posted my rules for the dog park. These are rules which aren’t listed on any sign or in any law but which I’ve found […]

  29. Jura says:

    Interesting reading your two posts on this and the comments as a fenced ‘dog area’ has just opened in our neighboring park. Ecuador is a bit behind the us perhaps but way ahead of Vietnam in terms of responsible dog ownership. Tala has very few opportunities to be off her leash and aggressive dogs in both Vietnam and sudan have made her sometimes be quite reactive on the lead(in a scared defensive way although she doesn’t look it at all she looks aggressive) so I’m hoping to be able to go at quite times when there is just one or two dogs who seem relaxed and playful which I think will be good for her. Fingers crossed we’ll see how it works as I believe it is the first one in quito!

  30. Phil & Allison Blaustein says:

    Hey Will, Eko, and Penny!

    My wife and I have been watching the YouTube videos for weeks, love them! We added a female Ridgeback puppy to our family in August. Goes by the name of Ruby. She’s now about 4 1/2 months old. Done with puppy vaccinations about 2 weeks ago. Took her to our local dog park in Ellenton, FL (west coast south of Tampa). Normally I’d wait til shoe was a little older but she seems pretty mature in some ways. Also we’re experienced dog owners/dog park visitors, but with a chocolate lab who’s now too old to go.

    We took her this past Thursday and we were the first ones there. She got the lay of the land and then a really sweet older dog came in and they got along great. Soon more came by including a few older pups. Perfect play time with no issues at all. Today she chased a 10 month old husky til they both were exhausted. Awesome.

    We play close attention. Any bad situations and we’re outta there. She just slowly learning the ropes.

    On a different topic since we’re totally new to the blog, what do you feed your super fit Ridgebacks? Also, how old was Penny when you had her spayed?

    Phil, Allison, Chocolate & Ruby in Fla.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Us on Instagram