Dog Parks: Rules of Off-Leash Parks for Dogs, Safety and Etiquette

For some people and their furry friends, the dog park can provide a wonderful opportunity for dogs to meet other dogs, practice social skills and get exercise. For others, a dog park is an anxiety-provoking, or even dangerous prospect. So we’ve put together this Q&A to help make your trip to the dog park as safe and fun as possible.

A “dog park” is a general term used to describe any place that humans bring their dogs to play, sometimes in unofficially designated and unenclosed areas of public land. For the purposes of this column, “dog park” will mean an officially designated (usually by local public services) and enclosed area for humans to take their dogs to run off-leash.

Is my dog a good match for an off-leash dog park?

A dog who has a history of playing well with other dogs may be a good candidate. If you know that your dog has fought with or attacked other dogs, however, it’s best not to take him to a dog park. Some dogs simply don’t like other dogs. If your dog’s social history with other dogs is unknown, try introducing him via a private play date to one other very social dog first, to see how he does. The dog park is not a safe place to test the social skills of a dog with an unknown history.

What makes a good dog park?

Good dog parks are well-maintained and have secure fencing and air locks (enclosed entry/exit areas between two gates). The very best dog parks also have posted rules. It’s a good sign when a dog park requires that all dogs entering are licensed and vaccinated. Some dog parks even require that dogs are pre-registered (in other words, you need a pass to get in) and are spayed or neutered. Although the rules may seem onerous, the better-regulated dog parks are usually safer.

Should small dogs go to dog parks?

Very small dogs should go to special parks only for dogs their size, to keep the play safe.

White puppy with red toy in mouth leaping up through the air in a puppy park

What about etiquette — for dogs and for humans?

A good dog park will have clear (and, ideally, posted) etiquette rules for both humans and dogs. As in any social situation, being polite and considerate goes a long way toward keeping everyone safe and happy. These rules may include whether food or toys are allowed, and whether there is a restriction on small children. Even if kids are allowed, it’s never a good idea to take small children to a dog park, since they can get scared, knocked down or hurt by dogs running around and playing. Other good practices include keeping your dog on leash until you are safely in the air lock and removing your dog’s leash before entering the play area.

The humans who use the dog park matter as much as the dogs. Dogs have a way of bringing people together, and most dog people are empathetic and respectful. Your dog park may have a lot of regular attendees, which can be great because it keeps things predictable. Try to be as inviting as possible to newcomers, though, as all social dogs can benefit from an expanded circle of polite canine playmates.

How to improve a dog's social skills

How can disagreements at the dog park be resolved?

As with any social circumstance, there will inevitably be disagreements at dog parks, both between dogs and between humans. It’s best to think of these as opportunities to find ways to keep everyone safe and happy. Sometimes a dog will “disagree” with another dog about whether play is appropriate. This can lead to squabbles, which do not necessarily lead to fights. In fact, a brief scuffle with growling or barking, with little to no physical contact, can be an opportunity for dogs to learn from each other. With that said, any dog who becomes agitated or upset — or starts fights — should be removed from the park.

The most important thing for humans at the park to agree on is that everyone, dogs and humans alike, should feel safe there. If you are uncomfortable with the style or intensity of play, your dog may start to feel uncomfortable, too. The best thing to do in a situation like that is to ask for a “consent test”: Separate the dogs briefly and then, if both want to go back to playing, let them. If any dog looks happy to stay away from the play, give him a break. There’s never a bad time to do a consent test; the worst that will happen is that play will be interrupted for a few seconds. It’s healthiest for the dogs when their humans are respectful and considerate of each other.

Two black puppies running and playing in the grass of a puppy park

What social opportunities are there for my dog besides going to the park?

If you and your dog decide that going to the dog park isn’t for you, there are alternatives. You can schedule private play dates with friends’ dogs or participate in classes with a relationship-based trainer that include free play or social time. Another option is to have your dog go to a well-run day-care facility periodically, even if you will be home. It’s an opportunity for your dog to meet other dogs in a safely supervised environment.

Fun things to do with your dog