How to Avoid Dog Park Drama

Here's what you need to do before you load up your pooch for some off-leash fun.

multiple mixed breed dogs smile while playing in grassy dog park

meaghan browning / Getty Images

Maybe it's just me, but dog parks aren't as much fun as they used to be. There are many reasons why — from overcrowding to distractions — so I turned to the owner of two pooches who are Atlanta dog park "veterans" and a vet for advice on how to make a day in the park a happy experience for everyone.

Frank Anderson’s dogs, Jake and Zeke, know their way around Atlanta’s green space. While the 11-year-old littermates may not be the most active dogs, they still appreciate a daily romp. Both pooches perk up when you mention the p-a-r-k.

Summertime crowds flock to Atlanta’s historic Piedmont Park, but Anderson avoids green spaces teeming with pooches and people. Instead, he and his partner frequent smaller, neighborhood spots such as Adair Park in southwest Atlanta. It’s a quieter space where Jake and Zeke can chase squirrels to their hearts’ content. To make the most of your dog park experience this summer, Anderson and veterinarian Liz Hanson offer a few words of wisdom.

Conduct a dog-free scouting mission

Check out nearby dog parks before bringing your pets. Anderson recommends familiarizing yourself with park rules — and make sure those gates function properly. It also helps to identify multiple exit routes in case things get crowded. Some parks even group dogs based on size, which makes it easier to monitor the action.

"Observing the dog park ahead of time will make you feel more comfortable and prepared for your first visit and will help determine whether or not that particular dog park is right for your dog," says Hanson, who has two miniature longhaired dachshunds appropriately named Peanut and Butter.

If your dog tends to prefer more low-key play time, take Anderson’s lead and visit early in the morning, around 7 or 7:30 a.m. He also recommends avoiding the 7 to 8 p.m. window, which tends to be popular among dog owners.

Prepare a dog park kit

Be sure to carry plenty of water, a travel water bowl, and poop bags, just in case the park runs out. Hanson notes that an air horn and a canister of citronella serve as good go-to items for quickly resolving skirmishes among dogs.

"Fortunately, most fights at dog parks are not serious and don’t result in injury," she says. "However, it’s always recommended for owners to be prepared and mindfully aware if the environment is safe for your dog to play off leash."

Pay attention to your pooch

Anderson says that dog parks aren’t quite as fun as they used to be — and he places blame at the owner’s end of the leash. All too often, people unleash dogs and then pull out mobile phones to connect with friends, oblivious to their pet’s bad behavior.

“I check Foursquare and Yelp, then leave the phone in my pocket, unless there is a picture moment,” he says.

Hanson agrees that dog owners can be a problem. Take a proactive approach by being aware of your dog’s location at all times and monitoring any problematic or aggressive behavior. If your dog makes friends at the park, chat with the owners. Find out their names as well as the dog’s name. This will help if you need to get the dog’s attention quickly.

While dogs play, Hanson also suggests that people keep conversations at a low volume. Dogs typically are hyped about playtime. Too much excitement can cause rough play and aggression.

“Many [dogs] will run through the park and state their dominance by barking or growling loudly, but most do not result in a serious fight and these usually do not need intervention by owners,” Hanson says. “In fact, many owners can potentially make things worse by screaming or yelling at the dogs, which creates more distress amongst them.”

Hanson also advises pet owners to protect their pooches’ health by taking proactive measures before hitting the park.

“Dog parks are a breeding ground for fleas and ticks, especially in the high flea and tick season from April to October,” she says. “To ensure your dog will not come home flea-bitten — or spread fleas to other dogs while at the park — always administer a monthly dose of flea and tick medication.”

In addition to vet-grade flea and tick formulas such as VetGuard Plus, Hanson tells dog owners to keep dogs up to date on vaccinations. Dogs that frequently interact with other dogs — at dog parks or even dog daycares — should request the kennel cough vaccine to protect dogs against an upper respiratory infection that spreads easily, she says.

If dogs do tussle, intervene with care

It is inherently dangerous to intervene in a dogfight. When an owner tries to pull dogs apart, Hanson says they typically will clamp down even harder. Grabbing your dog’s collar during a dogfight only increases the chance of getting bitten. Instead Hanson recommends Cesar Millan’s approach: Identify the dog with the greater intensity and apply force to its rib cage. Often the dog will open its mouth and let go. Anderson has had success with similar tactics.

"I just grabbed the aggressor by the neck and squeezed the ever-loving hell out of his neck — and squeezed his collar until he finally released,” he says, adding that no one was injured. “We just move on. It’s over.”

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