Dog park/walks etiquette from a dog owner's perspective-- what's okay and what's not?
May 15, 2011 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Large, sweet, excitable puppy. Meeting new dogs at the park and on neighborhood walks-- help me with proper etiquette!

Belle and I go for daily walks but we haven't encountered too many dogs thus far-- mostly because it's just now getting warm after a long brutal winter, and partly because I take her to a path that's pretty quiet while we work on "walking nice". She's a Husky/Malamute cross, and training a dog (that's built for pulling) to walk nicely on a leash is challenging, but we're doing fairly well with the use of a good harness and lots of practice.

It's time for some more socialization, and I just found out the time/days that there is a gathering of people and dogs at the local dog park, so I plan to take her there tomorrow night. But she is my first dog, and I realize that I'm not quite sure how to introduce her to other dogs. She's not at all aggressive and isn't much for barking, but she responds in one of two ways to other dogs-- either terrified and headed as quickly as possible in the other direction, or after some greeting/assessment, determined to launch herself at her new insta-friend and play, play, play. It's not yet clear to me which reaction she'll have to any particular dog, so I'm very watchful and hold her back. Either way, though, she's pulling like crazy and I find it difficult to restrain her (a 40 pound 6 month old puppy is a lot of puppy).

If she's scared it's clear that I can take her in the other direction for a bit as she gets her bearings from a distance, but in the cases when she attempts to jump all over the other dog in play, I'm not sure how to handle it. Last month she had another puppy friend around for a week or so and they played gentle-rough (running circles around each other, jumping all over each other, just happy puppy play-- no growling or yipping, but very high-energy). Obviously I can't just assume that the other owner is okay with that level of play, but are there likely any cases in which the other owner would be happy for their dog to engage in that kind of excitement? How do I ask? Is it even a good idea to let her play that way, or do I need to continue to teach her better manners before she's allowed to greet other dogs?

On walks I always first ask the owner of the other dog if it's okay if they meet, but I generally have to pull her back from the other dog if it's one she has determined that she simply must play with. I am able to get her to "sit" fairly well, though it's been tough to get her to stay in a sitting position and I have to use the command many times if there's another dog in front of her (everything is so new! so exciting!). I don't like that I find myself flustered and unable to have a coherent conversation with the other dog owner, and when we part ways I feel kind of embarrassed about the interaction. I know that as she gets older this level of hyperactivity when encountering another dog will somewhat subside, but I also know that how I handle it now will inform how she handles it in the future, and I want to do right by her and our neighbors. She's only going to get bigger, too, and I need to figure this out pretty quick.

So my questions are:
-- How should I handle the first meeting with another dog? When someone introduces their dog to your dog, what do you like and what don't you like?
-- What should I allow her to do and not to do? Obviously I don't allow the jumping but are there cases in which it's okay to let her play like that- maybe at the park?
-- What questions are appropriate to ask the other owner (beyond "is it okay if they meet?") in terms of permission they might choose to give for the dogs to interact?

I'd appreciate hearing from dog owners on these questions-- thanks!

(Pic 1) (Pic 2)
posted by mireille to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Most people at doggy parks, in my experience anyway, are very happy and willing to help you figure these questions out as a new dog owner and quite tolerant of jumping and other puppy behaviour as long as you don't ignore/walk away from it. If there are any cranky know-it-alls there you will find some moral support from other owners. You sound really nervous so hopefully that helps.

Every off-leash park I've been to with my (very high energy) retriever the whole wrestling, rolling, sprinting fun you've described is the main order of business! No harm to ask "do you want me to pull her off?" but any older dogs who don't want to be bothered by a pup can let her know themselves. There will hopefully be other puppies there that she can go nuts with.

She is very cute!
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:53 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're meeting owners at a dog park they're mostly there for the same thing you are, to let their dogs be dogs for a bit. Some owners might be a bit standoffish but you can usually tell from their body language that they don't want their dogs playing with others or that they don't trust their dogs to play nicely. Really just play it by ear and steer your dog towards the other puppies and dogs that have a similar energy level, but she'll probably find them on her own.

When your puppy plays with older dogs be aware that they might growl or nip at her quickly. If it's not too bad just let it happen because they're probably just correcting your dog. She's crossed some line and getting put back into her place. It's the best way for your dog to learn manners around other dogs. Just make sure that your dog isn't obviously harassing other dogs who aren't into it. They body language will be pretty obvious. The other owner probably knows their dog really well so find them, explain the puppy situation and everything will be all right.

When you enter the park, there will usually a double set of gates, take her leash off before you enter the dog park proper as long as she can't get away. Sometimes dogs on leashes feel trapped when around off leash dogs and other dogs take it as a sign that they can harass another dog. Taking the leash off before entering the park gets everyone on equal footing.

If you're really nervous then puppy classes are a great idea. There's usually free play time and a lot of structured learning around someone who knows dog behavior and what could be a problem versus what's just dogs being dogs.
posted by mikesch at 10:05 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A cute pup!

You have a high energy, smart, and naughty breed, trust me, I know.

Dog Park.. me and three year old Lara have been going to the dog park for about a year now, here are my observations:

The worst thing you can do is bring a dog into a dog park and keep it on a leash. The leash creates tension, the dog knows it can't "flee" if it needs to. My pup is more likely to be stressed if she's on the leash around another dog. My advice is to, as you enter the dog park, let the pup off the leash (this is, of course, assuming your pup is not agressive (in a dangerous way) towards other dogs, in which case you probably don't want to go to a dog park until you've dealt with that).

Your concern about how the other owners will respond when your dog wants to roughhouse and play is unnecessary. Owners familiar with dogs and dog-play know that's what's going to happen. There might even be some barks, play-bows, pounces, and "I'm the boss" growls in the mix. That's what dogs do. Typically the dogs will set their own limits, and that's OK. The park I go to we pretty much throw the dogs at each other to get them to wrestle, play and run...that's the point, they can sit on their butts being lazy at home.

And, the more opportunity your pup has to spend time with other people and dogs, the better. I started taking Lara to work with me (a school) when she was 8 weeks old. She still goes every day. We started doing some "doggy day-camp" once a week or so when she was about 6 months old, to get her socialized with other dogs.

When walking, I've trained Lara to "walk nice" when we pass another dog. I did that by having a very desirable treat in my closed hand that she can smell. As we walk past the dog, she's sniffing at my hand, ignoring the other dog, I'm saying "walk nice". Eventually just the "walk nice" will work and she'll come to my side and look at me and my hand, ignoring the other dog. This is reinforced once in a while with a treat. I tend to NOT let her greet other dogs I don't know, especially on the leash, the combined tension and the unknown dog is too much of a risk. I've run into more than one person walking dogs that are agressive, and they seem to be in denial about that.

Have fun! If you have any questions, feel free to memail me.
posted by tomswift at 10:05 AM on May 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Get her appropriately fitted for a pinch collar (also referred to as a training collar. NOT a choke collar) Learn when and how to pull on the collar with a command like "no pulling." Learn also that a gentle tug on the collar will be enough to get her to obey a command without you having to repeat the command. Start with the gentlest tug and increase the pressure until she obeys. Do not start with a huge big yank, that won't be effective. (starting with small gestures and moving up works with horses too, and it's the way animals get each other to do things they want. First, they approach, next they make the crazy eyes, then they enter the personal space, then they might nip at the back of the neck, and after that maybe a tackle.)

If she gets away with pulling sometimes, she will always try when something excites her.

Another command to practice is "Leave It." Use this with treats in the beginning and have a "release" command that lets her get the thing she wants (the treat) sometimes. The Leave It command will (eventually) work with things she likes to play with and things she likes to chase.

Work on her "sit, stay (or wait)" command, so that other dogs can approach her without her getting all...jumpy. Sit is also very good for crossing the street, and giving you enough time to look both ways before she charges across (usually toward another puppy on the other side...).

A useful command (for male dogs especially) is "Go Pee," and you can even train your dog to poo on command (this is easy, but not necessarily quick. You just say "go pee, go pee" the whole time she's peeing. Then when she's done you tell her, "Good pee!" Same with poop. Very useful for cold winter or rainy days.
posted by bilabial at 10:17 AM on May 15, 2011

tomswift makes a very good point about not leashing in dog parks. But you have to have a dog that reliably always obeys before you can unleash her.
posted by bilabial at 10:19 AM on May 15, 2011

One thing I've found helpful is the "easy" command. I use it when I want my huge, strong German Shepherd to go easy on something. I mostly use it when she's taking a treat from a kid or when I'm letting her in to the house (where she just wants to bolt), but it also works well when we're on walks and I just want her to stop pulling.

For her it just means she can keep doing what she wants, she just has to do it slowly. I taught her the command by using treats. When I'm holding a treat for her I'd give her the "take it" command and then say "easy" if she went for it too quickly I'd make a sharp "Anh Anh" noise and we'd do it over until she went for it slowly. Then I'd not only let her take the treat, I'd give her lots of praise and loves.

To teach her "easy" while we're out on walks I would keep her leash taut and give the command while I was slowly letting her do what she wanted (usually sniffing something.) If she didn't pull on me I'd give her a "Good girl easy! Good girl!" and let her sniff, if she pulled too much I would just continue on our walk without her being allowed to stop. When we were first learning this I found it really helped to tie a loop in her leash about two feet from her collar and keep that loop in my right hand, then I held the top of the leash in my left hand with the leash actually going behind me. That way I could literally throw my weight into keeping her back. I'd also toss a treat ahead of us and work on "easy" by letting her go after it. Usually there are enough things to sniff that I don't need to use the treat, but it was helpful when we were getting started.

I've used the easy command when we're meeting other dogs for the first time. Since we have lots of practice with it I think it helps her realize that meeting other dogs is a good thing (I only use "easy" when she's going to be getting something good after) and keeps her from rushing up to the other dog which can put them on their guard and cause unnecessary aggression.

As for new dogs meeting mine, as long as the owner keeps their dog under control I'm pretty happy. My dog can be a little rough with small breeds, so I usually warn the owner. If another big dog is acting excited and jumping all over mine I'm thrilled as long as my dog is enjoying it. If my dog seems upset then I'll pull her out of the situation, but that hasn't happened yet. She loves other dogs. (We haven't been to an off the leash park yet, so I can't speak to that experience. We've only done "play dates" where another dog comes over to our yard or we go to theirs.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:23 AM on May 15, 2011

Best answer: So adorable!

I realize you are asking some specific questions, but the best thing I can say is to try to relax and let the dogs figure this out. They are dogs; they mostly know what to do. Dogs are the dog park are usually dog park dogs--which is to say, pretty well-socialized. In fact, I think you should be at the dog park pretty regularly. That's the best way for your cutie to know what's okay and what's too much with the other dogs. Right she's probably craving some company of the dog-kind.

It's important to recognize the difference between your anxiety and actual problems at the park (I say all this as a formerly anxious dog owner).

So it might be good if stopped by a busy dog park without your pup and just observe the interactions there. You'll see lots of high energy romping that previously might have seemed like 'too much' if your dog was in the mix. Dogs' energetic playing can look like fighting to an untrained eye. Dogs correcting each other with little nips and whines can look awful when it's your dog.

Obviously I can't just assume that the other owner is okay with that level of play, but are there likely any cases in which the other owner would be happy for their dog to engage in that kind of excitement? How do I ask? Is it even a good idea to let her play that way, or do I need to continue to teach her better manners before she's allowed to greet other dogs?

I think, at a dog park, it's totally okay to assume that the other owner is okay with whatever their dog is doing. It's not your job to hold your pup back from another dog who wants to play. If your pup is too persistent, the other dog (not the owner) will let her (and not you) know.

Etiquette on walks is great. But dogs are for high energy playing and running.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:28 AM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

But dogs are for high energy playing and running.

Heh, I mean dog parks are for high energy playing and running.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:29 AM on May 15, 2011

Have you looked into puppy playgroup-type classes from a local organization? They mix supervised off-leash time with some basic obedience work. The dogs are usually of the same age range and sorted by size/temperment to some degree - and are run by a trainer, who ought to be able to keep an eye on behavior and intervene as needed. That should be a less stressful environment for both Belle and you!

I'm not a huge fan of off-leash dog runs for puppies. As mentioned above, you don't have voice control over your dog and as a puppy your dog may be less able to socialize safely with older, pricklier dogs (still working on doggie manners). I think a puppy playgroup would be the best of both worlds!
posted by handful of rain at 10:32 AM on May 15, 2011

Best answer: Good advice already. Agreeing with the notion that being at the dog park pretty much is tacit agreement that regular dog-play is OK and anything goes, short of outright, overt agression.

I've gone to our local dog park dozens of times over the past 5 years and only once have I ever seen any play escalate to a scary, OMG-someone-pull-them-apart level. I just follow my dog around the dog park, watch from a distance and make small talk.

So stop worrying about your obligations to other dog owners when in the dog park setting- you walks in, you takes your chances. I take it for granted that after a trip there, my dog will probably need a bath, brushing, etc. from mud, dog-slobber or other things. Those who can't deal with that outcome usually don't come back.

When walking, though, I understand your situation. My dog was a jumper too and for a while I'd just cross the street to avoid other dogs, or bow out of sidewalk interaction with a smile and, "Not just yet, thanks; we're still working on a few training issues." Don't feel like it makes you antisocial. I think it makes you a responsible owner.

Oh- and your new baby is ADORABLE.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:38 PM on May 15, 2011

Cute dog! I have had many dogs in my life (10+). Sometimes at dog parks there is a puppy area. It might be an official puppy area or just an area the puppies and their people congregate. Look for that area. As for introducing the dog, I usually just let my dog go and sort it out herself. When I lived in NYC I had a Shetland Sheepdog. We were at a park with some very big dogs. We never had a problem. Dogs generally are kind to puppies. Of course, you want to keep an eye on things! The only bully we met was an adorable Scottish Terrier. He would run after puppies and nip their butts. He had a 6-month old Great Dane terrified.
posted by fifilaru at 3:03 PM on May 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everyone-- very reassuring. Part of my concern is that I live in very small town and it seems especially important to be considerate because there isn't the same anonymity one gets in the city. But mostly I've got a touch of the stereotypical Canadian politeness.

Unfortunately our very small town is in a very remote location and the nearest dog obedience or even socializing classes are a 5.5 hour drive away. I was very surprised to find out that this town even had a fully fenced off-leash dog park. We have just the one, and it's very bare-bones, but I'm glad to have it!

Tomorrow I'll take her in, remove her leash, and be very observant, but it's a great relief to hear that everyone's there for the same thing-- to let their dog have some crazy socializing time and burn off some energy. I'm good with letting other dogs teach her where she fits in and what's acceptable and what's not, but I wasn't so sure about how other owners felt about that approach. I might leave her in the car for a couple of minutes while I go in and check out the scene/mood, then bring her out to play.

For walks I'll just continue to keep her back and gauge her ability to say hello nicely-- maybe the additional socialization at the park will help her with this, along with continued training.

Thanks also for the compliments-- although I must say that in daily life people often tell me how pretty she is, and it feels strange saying "thanks" for something I had nothing to do with, so I've just started saying "I know, right? And she's not even stuck up about it". :)
posted by mireille at 3:23 PM on May 15, 2011

You do NOT need a pinch collar for goodness sake! This is a puppy who has no idea how to behave, you don't need to hurt a dog to train it and you most definitely shouldn't even remotely consider a pinch collar when you have no idea how to use one. If the pulling is a safety issue, consider an Easy Walk harness or a Gentle Leader, not a device like a pinch collar that can cause far more problems than it will solve, especially when used completely inappropriately as would be the case with a puppy!

I would suggest you find a good positive training class for your puppy (you're dealing with another species here, learn how to do it properly from people who use modern, science-based training methods) - most are geared towards teaching basic manners, and if they are run by people who have a clue, they will also teach you about how to manage your puppy in a dog park. That said, dog parks are potentially very dangerous places (I avoid them like the plague, myself, my dogs play with dogs I know, not random dogs whose owners likely have no idea how to manage them properly), I would suggest you find a supervised play group (many dog daycare/dog training places offer them), which will help keep your puppy safe, and prevent her from being bullied, which can lead to problems down the road.
posted by biscotti at 5:24 PM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, let me throw in against the pinch collar as well, not necessary. As biscotti said, a gentle leader will work.

And, your idea of spending some time without the pup is a good idea. I did the same thing, stopped by when the dog wasn't with me and spent some time talking to people about what they thought about the park, what concerns they had, did they ever have any problems, etc.. folks love to talk about this stuff....

I get the same, Beautiful Dog comments, I just say "Thanks, I designed her myself."
posted by tomswift at 6:00 PM on May 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: We actually use the Gentle Leader Easy Walk and find that after trying a number of others (we don't have kids, so we threw all kinds of money at finding the best solution), it really is the best for Belle. The front-clip and the position of the straps (chest/back/stomach) reduce the pulling, make it impossible for her to pull with any speed (as she just pulls sideways the harder she goes) and it's making it easier to learn "walk nice"-- it's the best we've found. Nonetheless, she's surprisingly strong, so the manners need to be developed early in conjunction with the (miracle?) harness.

Again, I really do wish we had access to classes, but there are simply none within a 500km. radius. Doggy daycare and day-camps don't exist here either (check the Google Maps location in my profile for a sense of the remoteness). I spent almost my entire life in both Seattle and Vancouver and prior to moving here couldn't have imagined a world without such amenities (and many others), but in general we seem to do fine in the middle of nowhere (though I shudder to imagine having to be here before the age of the internet). I would love for Belle to be able to go to obedience school or have some sessions with a dog trainer, but I've got to do it old-school (i.e., by myself).

And tomswift-- I hope you don't mind if I steal that one for variety!
posted by mireille at 6:10 PM on May 15, 2011

I found this article about dog parks helpful. The article mentions some of the advantages and disadvantages of dog parks, and it includes some tips on how to recognize signs of stress in your dog, and how to keep your dog happy and safe while playing with groups of dogs.
posted by catrae at 6:13 PM on May 15, 2011

Mireille... feel free to use it, just send a photo of the pup with each use... I showed Belle's picture to the wife, she was hoping I was showing her an available rescue pup and was actually reaching for the car keys....
posted by tomswift at 6:14 PM on May 15, 2011

Be careful about over-restraining your pup when she meets other dogs. It is natural to try to reel in the leash, but canine courtesy often requires a sort of slightly side-ways approach rather than a nose-to-nose greeting which can be seen by the other dog as aggressive or challenging.

Don't get over excited if at some point there is a little disagreement among dogs. They do that. It very, very rarely goes beyond a bark or three and a snap to say, "Back off."

Relax. Your body language, facial expression, and vocal tone are being constantly monitored by your pup. If you are tense, nervous, or fearful when introducing her to other dogs, you will significantly increase chances of a negative encounter simply because she will be "on guard" on your behalf.

Start early. Dogs need to be socialized -- and it is much easier when they are somewhat smaller and more impressionable. Older dogs tend to get set in their behavior patterns.

(The pics are adorable!)
posted by driley at 7:19 PM on May 15, 2011

I agree that without training for the owner, a pinch collar is a bad idea, but used properly, a pinch collar will not hurt the dog.

If she's still pulling in the set up you have now, that's not working yet. A little bit of disobedience does not equal obedience, so keep training her until she's consistent.
posted by bilabial at 8:48 PM on May 15, 2011

used properly, a pinch collar will not hurt the dog.

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be argumentative, but yes it will. That's how it works, and it is not necessary, especially for a puppy. It's an aversive punisher, and a fairly strong one at that, and as such carries a very strong risk of having the dog associate the pain of the correction with whatever happens to be around at the time (like a child - dog wants to go see the child, gets a nasty bite around the neck, associates the pain with the child, isn't so happy to see a child the next time), there is also a very high risk of redirection aggression. This isn't my opinion, this is how aversives in training work, and their unintended associations with things is a known risk, which is one of the reasons why veterinary behaviorists do not endorse the use of aversives anymore (and is also why they can be and are used to CAUSE aggression in dogs). There may be ethical and appropriate ways to use aversives in dog training (although I think there are better ways to train), but they are limited to proofing and reinforcing behaviors which are already trained, they should not be used for actually training the behavior (and should never be used in puppies). Again, not my opinion, the opinion of people who actually study dog behavior and its modification scientifically.
posted by biscotti at 9:10 PM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like there is only one dog park for all sizes of dogs? If so, it might be prudent to ask around if there is a certain day/time when bigger dogs tend to be there, vs. smaller dogs, vs. puppies. In my experience, owners of smaller dogs can sometimes be a little nervous about bigger dogs interacting with their preshus snookums, even if the big dog wouldn't hurt a fly.

Also, working dogs do really well when they have jobs. Maybe on walks you could give her something to carry, or invest in a doggie backpack?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:34 AM on May 16, 2011

Response by poster: Funny you should mention the backpack. Over the weekend I went to check in on the open house event for the town's brand new Humane Society-- I've just recently joined the board as a volunteer, and was trying to get a sense of where they're at and where I can fit in to help. While there I spoke with a woman who was the one who told me about the time everyone meets at the dog park. She mentioned at the time that a small dog only showed up once and never returned (high-maintenance owner, apparently), but that it's all larger dogs that hang out there at that time of day.

She also told me that her dog responds really well to the backpack as he likes to have a job, and offered to let me try out hers before I decide to buy one, which is a pretty awesome offer. I'll probably arrange for that when I see her tonight. In the wintertime we're planning to build her a little sled to pull around, which by all accounts should make her a very happy little husky too!
posted by mireille at 8:19 AM on May 16, 2011

Nthing that dogs in a dog park generally sort themselves out pretty well on their own. As far the rest of the training goes, repetition is a dog trainer's best friend. When my own pooch was a pup I'd spend at least 10-15 minutes a day just going over a routine of "Come, Sit, Down, Good Dog," just to drill those basic commands into him (with mixed results, "Shake" is still interpreted as "Roll onto your back and expect a belly rub").

I also come down on the anti-choke/prong side of the debate, though I have had good experiences with martingale collars for more Houdini-like leash-slippers. Sounds like the harness is a good fit for Belle, though, and the whole sled idea sounds adorable.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:03 AM on May 16, 2011

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