No More Fights at Dog Parks

Small white dog sitting in grass while a large breed dog is approaching with very forward body language. The small dog has ears pinned back and is leaning away from approaching dog.
Photo by Izumi on Unsplash

5 High Risk Behaviours at a Dog Park

  • letting your dog walk unleashed from vehicle to the dog park entrance. This is a high risk area for encounters with dogs in a high state of nervous system arousal. Your dog and other people’s dogs are not at their best for making good choices.
  • Standing still or sitting inside the dog park, especially near the entrance/exit and amenities like water stations, shaded areas, play structures. It’s best to keep dogs moving along to avoid congestion and forced interactions with incompatible dogs
  • looking at your phone. You need to pay attention to dog body language and behaviours — from your dog and other dogs nearby in the park. Your phone is a dangerous distraction and can take your attention away from noticing early signs of trouble.
  • tossing a toy near the entrance or other area that is high risk (congested and/or dogs are generally amped up in that area). Your dog might be the best trained dog there with the best social skills, but that doesn’t mean other people’s dogs aren’t going to have a conflict with your dog. Some dogs might be very possessive or highly amped up by balls, squeaky toys, or sticks.
  • Not interrupting mounting behaviours (humping). Humping leads to a dog fight 50% of the time. Humping is often a sign that a dog is too amped up, doesn’t have appropriate social skills, or has learned that it’s fun to do. Humping at the dog park is unlikely to be a mating behaviour (unless there is a female dog in heat, coming into heat, or coming out of heat — yes, there are some people who don’t know this is a really bad idea).

How to Prevent a Fight at the Dog Park?

A dog park is a very stressful, intense environment for dogs. It’s not the place to teach your dog social skills or to get over their fear of other dogs. It’s quite the opposite. A dog park is often the best place for a dog to learn that being rude or being a bully is fun or that other dogs are scary. Some people whose dogs behave aggressively or rudely will purposefully take them to a dog park in the hopes that other dogs will train their dog. Some dog owners will take their dogs to a dog park as a test to see if their dog is still aggressive towards other dogs.

The most effective thing is not to go to the dog park. The dog park might seem like a great idea but consider carefully the dog you want to take there. Would you take a young child to a swimming pool if that child was afraid of water or disliked swimming? Would you enjoy yourself if you accompanied a friend to an amusement park but you had a strong dislike of amusement parks (the rides, the sounds, the smells, the crowds, etc.)? Not all dogs are highly social. A dog doesn’t have to enjoy all other dogs.

What Should Dog Park Users Start Doing ASAP?

There are a few simple things dog park users can do immediately to help reduce the chances that their dogs are involved in a dog-dog conflict. Most of them may seem like common sense.

Avoid crowded conditions

This should be obvious: when there are more dogs present, the odds are in favour of a conflict because there are more opportunities for a conflict to occur. But the connection between crowded conditions (dog density, if you will) and inter-dog conflicts (fights between two or more dogs) is more complex.

An important part of the way dogs avoid conflict is by avoidance: dogs will move away to avoid conflict. Well socialized dogs that are not stressed out are naturally Conflict Avoiders. If the conditions are crowded — as in, the size of the entire dog park is small (dog runs) or if an area of the dog park is congested — the dogs have less room to move away from a conflict. When a dog cannot avoid a conflict they are more likely to become a victim of the aggressor they cannot appease/avoid, or they are more likely to aggress towards the other dog. And the recipient might not be fully responsible for the stress the aggressor is reacting to: the recipient might be the nearest target. This is a big reason why crowded dog parks or congested areas in the dog park are so dangerous for people and children, as well as dogs.

Don’t hang out near the dog park entrance or exit

The entrance to the dog park is a very intense location for many reasons. Firstly, when a dog first arrives to the dog park, their nervous systems are highly aroused with the anticipation of what they will get to experience. If the previous experiences were intense, the dog’s nervous system will already be responding as if they have already experienced the thing they are anticipating. And if the dog has an intense feeling about vehicle rides, then they are doubly “amped up.” Their nervous systems are primed to react intensely — like an engine primed with fuel waiting for a spark or flame.

Secondly, people tend to stop moving once they are inside the dog park. Sometimes they do this because they meet friends there and start chatting. Or they think that once they are inside the dog park they don’t have to pay attention to their dog and instead they will look at their phones. When a dog owner loiters, often their dogs will be nearby.

Often the dog parks are designed in such away to encourage people to stop and linger in the area right after entering — seating, water stations, and other dog park amenities are often placed near the entrance, which is a terrible idea for a dog park. It might make sense for a people park, but it doesn’t make sense for a dog park. We need to design them for dogs to use safely, and a big part of that is discouraging crowded conditions.

When dogs are hanging around the entrance to the dog park, they are more likely to mob new comers trying to enter the park. Now we have a dog fight ready to happen: amped up, excited dogs in crowded conditions all trying to meet the new dog arriving (who is also amped up before even entering). Can you imagine trying to enter a public recreational area and being mobbed at the entrance by a crowd of strangers who are greeting you intensely — perhaps in an overly friendly way or perhaps in a very assertive way (and even threatening way). Now imagine you were attached to someone and had to follow them into this chaos.

And to make this area even more of a powder keg ready to explode, many dog parks have the entrance near the exit. Or worse, the same gate system. Now there are tired dogs (who may be overstimulated) leaving the dog park encountering a crowd of dogs ready to get the party started.

Do your dog a favour and use an alternate entrance or exit. Avoid the congestion Avoid dog parks that are too small for the number of dogs there. Avoid going at peak use times.

More tips for avoiding dog fights at the dog park

Here is a short article in the Whole Dog Journal entitled “5 Tips for Avoiding Fights at the Dog Park” and an article from the APDT Chronicle of the Dog Summer 2020 (see page 44) outlining some simple ways park users can change their own behaviours to drastically reduce the risks. 

Changing Human Behaviour to Affect Dog Behaviour

Problematic dog owner behaviour at dog parks is not rare; one only has to look at the posts on a dog park social media page to get a glimpse into the problem.  But how much can dog owner behaviour influence dog-dog conflicts at dog parks? A lot, actually. Even something like bringing a dog in an e-collar can be dangerous.

Education and Accountability of Dog park Users

One of the biggest factors influencing dog-dog conflicts at dog parks is the behaviour of human park users, and the two most effective ways to change the behaviours of park users are Education and Accountability.  Many dog parks rely on Bylaw enforcement to address the unwanted behaviours of dog owners, and there is a place for this: holding people accountable through heavy fines can be effective, but it requires a lot of resources (money) to enforce the Bylaws. And as anyone who studies the science of behaviour knows, punishment and coercion are not the most effective methods to changing future behaviours. It’s essential that Cities put efforts into helping to educate dog owners and give them some tools to help them change their behaviours.

Dog owners need to be educated in how to read dog body language — particularly canine stress signals — and how to use dog parks in ways that will mitigate the risks to all the dogs present.

3 Ways to Educate Dog Park Users

Here are three simple and effective ways to educate of dog park users:

  • posters at the park illustrating dog-body language to watch for. Here are some good examples of dog park signs). Any municipality in Canada wanting the rights to use this artwork for dog parks (for no charge) can contact the Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
  • Dog Park Ambassadors (volunteers who use the parks frequently) that have been trained by the City to help educate park users about A) the rules and Bylaws for using the park safely; B) dog behaviour/communication as it relates to dog parks; and C) how to interact with people at the park to help keep the experience positive.
  • free dog training lessons for dog park users taught by Certified Professional Dog Trainers hired by the City. (Calgary’s award winning Responsible Pet Ownership model used CPDT certified trainers to help avoid the problem of improperly trained and unethical dog trainers. The CCPDT is the leading certification program for the dog training industry.)

Use positive reinforcement with dog owners

Education can help empower dog park users to use the dog parks in ways that help make them safe and positive for everyone, and adding “perks” can further motivate and reinforce dog owners for their “good” behaviours.

Changing behaviours and a “dog park culture” will take time and an effective approach. Simply relying on Bylaw enforcement to punish dog park users is not effective or efficient.