1. Obey the order of play between small dogs v. big dogs.
Evaulate the dog park before entering. Some parks have separate play areas for larger dogs from smaller ones, and ultimately, this is for your dog's safety. Even if you have control of your dog, there is no guarantee that the people in the park have control of their dogs. "Really big dogs can hurt a small puppy," Kilcommons says. "You have to look out for aggressive dogs. See how the dogs are behaving in the dog park and if their owners are watching them. If it doesn't look safe for your dog, don't go in." You can always come back later or try a different dog park. The same becomes true if the environment changes while you're at the dog park. If it doesn't seem safe for your dog anymore or she's tired and hungry, it's time to go home.
2. Have verbal control of your dog.
As soon as you open the car door, your dog's first instinct is to run into the park at full speed and investigate everything. "Your dog is going to be excited to be at the dog park." Kilcommons says. "But it is your responsibility to control and protect your dog, and they should have already received dog training and respond to your commands long before you go to the dog park." Re-direct their energy and have them wait until you're ready to enter into the dog park with them. During your visit, be sure that your dog is socializing positively with other dogs and not starting fights; if they do, immediately intervene.
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3. When introducing your dog to another dog, keep a little distance.
You don't want your dog to rush up to the other dog and the situation escalates into aggression. While Kilcommons says that most dogs will get along fine, it's best to keep some space between them until you know for sure. "Have your friend keep her dog on one side of her, while you walk your dog on the other side of you," he says. "That way, the dogs are together but not in close proximity."
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4. Stay with your dog and keep moving.
You take your dog to the dog park to exercise and work off her pent-up energy. Kilcommons gets his clients moving by having them run, jog or walk with their dogs while at the dog park. "Dogs will follow their owners," he says. "You won't have to worry that your dog is off somewhere if you keep him moving with you. It ends up being a great time for you and your dog as well." By staying with your dog, you ensure that your dog is safe while also behaving well.
5. Reward good behavior (and intervene on bad behavior).
Know the difference between polite play behavior and acts of dominance or aggression. A play bow from a distance or a tag-and-run pounce is acceptable play, whereas insistent pouncing or a long wrestle can trigger a fight. Kilcommons advises using a variety of clear commands that result in rewards and praise when followed. For instance, the word "'no' can mean so many different things and is not effective training," he explains. "Don't just repeatedly say their name. Say the dog's name, then a directional command. Show them that you like it when they follow your commands by giving the dog a treat or petting her on the head." If you praise your dog whenever she does something you approve, she will want to do the desired behavior again and again. This fosters a positive experience for everyone at the park and their dogs.
"Remember that your dogs are family members," Kilcommons says. "You have to look at what's polite in human interactions and start there."