Dog Park Etiquette

Dogs playing with ball

I love taking my dog, Scout, to the dog park. There are eight off-leash dog parks in Madison, two in Verona, two in Middleton, one in Monona, one in McFarland, and a future one coming to Fitchburg. Scout can play with other dogs, greet people, and wear himself out, and I enjoy the fresh air, sun, talking with other dog owners, and playing name that breed.

There are some experiences, though, that can ruin the enjoyment. I polled a number of visitors and all were in agreement that dog park etiquette is important, and not everyone follows it. Hopefully I’m preaching to the choir so you can leave this article open on a picnic table at your favorite dog park for those etiquette scofflaws!

First, please pick up your dog’s poop. All of it. Every time. I deal with poop on a daily basis, and pet owners even send me pictures of their dog’s poop from time to time. But even I don’t like coming across stray poop piles while at a dog park or even on a walk in my neighborhood. Dog poop can carry a lot of different parasites, including intestinal worms, Giardia, and coccidia. If not picked up quickly, the worm eggs or protozoal cysts can get into the ground, where they will stay happily for months to years. Then when dogs step in the area and later lick their paws, they will ingest those eggs and develop intestinal worms.

Some dogs practice coprophagy (from Greek kopros = “dung” and phagos = “to eat”), which is hard to do if poop isn’t available. Heartworm preventatives help remove some of the intestinal worms, but they only work on the day you give the medication. So for the rest of the month, your dog can be harboring worms and passing more eggs into the environment.

Many dogs poop multiple times while out, so be sure to carry plenty of bags. Most dog parks have bags available at no cost, as well as trash cans. I know Scout will always poop one more time than I have bags. Then I always appreciate the people who give me an extra one when it happens! Because there will be times where you can’t pick up poop, please pick up piles you find on your walk. Keeping the dog parks clean is good for everyone.

Sometimes owners don’t see where their dogs have pooped because they do it when off exploring. This brings up point two: keep your eyes on your dog. Just like you wouldn’t leave a toddler to walk off unattended, you shouldn’t let your dog wander off. It is fine to walk around the park and talk with other people, but always know where your dog is and what she is doing. Dogs don’t always behave nicely with other dogs or people. If a dog is acting inappropriately—jumping on people, humping dogs, growling, barking, or running into others—the owner needs to be there to correct them. It may not be a good day for your dog to be at the park, and so taking your dog on a long walk using a leash might be a better option for all involved.

People with aggressive dogs also go to the dog park, so it’s important to watch your dog and leave if other dogs’ behaviors start to escalate where there is a possible fight. I was at a small park where one dog ran up to every new dog that came in. He had his hackles raised and clamped his teeth on the other dog’s neck before anyone could stop him. Then the dog would run away. The owner just laughed and said, “He goes to daycare, so he’s fine with other dogs.” Well, bullies go to school, but that doesn’t mean they are good with other kids. We ended up leaving and warning incoming owners to watch out for that dog. It isn’t fair for a well-behaved dog to have to leave, but better to forgo the park and be irritated with irresponsible dog owners than to risk leaving the park to go to the veterinarian or hospital for dog-bite wounds.

Scout is a very friendly dog and loves to greet people—I have to stay close by to prevent him from jumping on them—and play with other dogs. But I can tell when he isn’t having fun anymore. We were at a big park where he was having a great time running around bumping into another dog his size. But this dog, while very nice, had way more energy than Scout. She was like the Energizer Bunny and just kept coming back for more. As Scout tired, he started yipping at the other dog and getting mouthy with her. I could tell he was no longer having fun and wasn’t able to just lie down and rest. He couldn’t even get a drink of water without this dog running into him. At that point, I called him over and we said goodbye to the other dog and owner. If I hadn’t been watching him, he may have tried to bite the other dog or gotten hurt because the other dog just kept playing hard. I wouldn’t classify either dog as aggressive, but the situation was getting to the point where Scout was saying “No!” and the other dog wasn’t listening.

High-energy dogs and dogs that tend to be more physical should be engaged with toys or balls, rather than just running free. If they get overstimulated by other dogs, they should be taken away from the activity or allowed to chase their owner for awhile. Once they have had a chance to rest and there has been time for new dogs to enter the park, they can go back to playing.

Both dogs and children can have unpredictable behavior. The dog park should be time for you and your pet; it is not a park for small children. Some dogs will run up to a stroller and be at eye level with a toddler, which can be scary for the child and possibly threatening to the dog. Small children can be knocked down by a dog or might take a ball from a dog, provoking the dog to bite. Kids are also more likely to wander into areas where there might be poop and then be at risk for infection from parasites. If you must take your children, please take another adult so there are extra eyes for monitoring the dog and the child.

Even in cool weather, having water available for your dog is important. I am always impressed with dogs that drink from a water bottle. Scout isn’t one of them, so I bring a jug of water and a small bowl. Bring extra water as water bowls often become communal drinking spots.

Your dog can contract viral papillomas from a shared water bowl. These are raised, pink, slightly fuzzy growths that tend to form in the mouth, on the lips, and around the eyes. They are very contagious, but once your pet has recovered from them, they can’t get reinfected. Usually they go away on their own, but if they are numerous, they can interfere with eating and may need to be frozen off or surgically removed.

Please make sure your pet is vaccinated, is on a flea and tick preventative year-round, and heartworm preventative year-round. I recommend having the bivalent influenza vaccine along with bordetella, parvovirus, distemper, leptospirosis, and rabies up to date. Talk with your veterinarian about these vaccines if you have questions.

Finally, please pick up your dog’s poop. All of it. Every time. Did I mention that already?

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .