Everything you need to know about dog parks

Some hate them, others adore them. Going to the dog park sounds like a great ressource in a city where your pup cannot be off-leash anywhere else, but is it really a good place to burn out your dog?

Do dogs need to play with other dogs?

There is a popular belief going around that dogs must regularly be in the presence of their species in order to live a happy life. That is completely false. Yes, the dog is a social animal, but this need can be entirely fulfilled by the dog’s family. What that means is that, if your dog doesn’t meet many of the criteria for dog parks listed below, it is perfectly acceptable to just never go there.

You can give your dog its social interaction through play, training, dog sports or cuddles. Your pet’s needs will still be fulfilled!

What about the dog that really likes to play, but big crowds are too much for it (or you)? You can join local group chats and ask around for a play-mate. You’re likely not alone with a slightly social dog that just can’t handle a party!

Going to the dog park is a good idea, for some individuals

A place where all are free to run and play together can be a great way to burn out your dog. However, it is important to have the right type of personality for it. You’ll also want to be able to spot the dogs who shouldn’t be there to prevent the oh-so common horror stories we hear about.

The first danger at the dog park is the presence of those that just shouldn’t be there. Even if your dog is well behaved, it is imperative to be able to spot problem individuals so that you can leave before anything even happens.

Who should go to the dog park?

The ideal dog is what we call “hyper-social”, which means it:

  • Likes all types and sizes of dogs.
  • Communicated very well: knows how to politely ask for space and respects when others do the same.
  • Loves to play for a long time, and in many different ways.
  • Is capable of disengaging when conflicts occur.

Dogs that check all of those boxes are pretty rare, you might say. Right you are! Most dogs will only have two or three of these traits, and will still spend a pleasant and safe time at the park. You simply need to watch out for the things your furball is less good at.

Who should not go to the dog park?

On the flip side, we have the dog types who aren’t fit to visit this public space. Given the “open to all” and “without professionnel supervision” (as you would in a public pool) nature of dog parks, you can’t afford to miss the signs of a potentially dangerous situation.

Puppies under 6 months

Socializing your puppy is important, but the golden rule is quality over quantity. Unpleasant events weigh much more than fun ones when it comes to a puppy’s new experiences. It is therefore much safer to teach your dog to play and interact in a more supervised setting, such as a puppy class. You can also set up play-dates with known dogs or other puppies, where you can better ensure things go well.

Sick or injured dogs

If your dog isn’t feeling like itself, whether it is contagious or not, it will have much less patience than it might usually have. This greatly increases the risk of fights breaking out.

Reactive dogs

Whether it is towards humans or other dogs, if your dog barks, lunges, growls or bites out of fear when others approach, it really shouldn’t be in a dog park. The dog park is not the place to work on your dog’s aggression or fear issues: the other users didn’t sign up for this risk and you don’t have the level of control you need to make sure it goes well. Once your dog’s reactivity is under control, and with the approval of a professional, you may then begin teaching your dog to how to play with friends.

Dogs that have resource guarding issues
  • A dog that guards toys, big sticks and food can, with a lot of vigilance from its owner, still go to a dog park safely. You’ll have to stay alert at all times and either ask people to put things away or, if they won’t, leave immediately before any toy gets thrown.
  • A dog that guards water access (bowls, pool), its humans or other things that can naturally be in a parc and are hard to see from afar (small sticks, poop, smells), simply cannot safely be in a dog park.

Mixing small and large breeds: be careful

If your dog is of a small breed, you’ll need to be very wary of an extra risk: prey drive.

Larger breeds, especially hunting lines, can sometimes mistake a small dog that runs and makes noises for prey, which means they will start to hunt it. This isn’t your “play chase” kind of game, and it rarely ends in a very pleasant way.

It goes without saying that a person with a large breed that has prey drive towards small dogs shouldn’t be in a park with small dogs to begin with, but many people aren’t aware of this danger, nor will they see the signs before it’s too late. The worst part is that, sometimes, a dog that has never had that problem or shown signs of it can unexpectedly chase down and injure a smaller dog. Be very careful.

Read: what does GOOD play look like?

What does the ideal dog park look like?

Let’s be honest here: not all dog parks were created equal. Here’s everything we hope to see:

  • A segment for small and a segment for big dogs.
  • Two distinct entrances to make leaving when an incompatible dog shows up easier
  • “Airlock” style entrances: one door, an empty space to remove or put on your leash, another door that leads to the park.
  • Enough room to run around.
  • Water tap and bowls
  • Shade for hotter days

Based on what’s available in your area, you may not get all of those elements and you’ll have to adapt. For instance, make sure to bring water, and don’t to stay too long if there’s no water or shade available.

Recall: an invaluable tool for dog parks

Your dog needs a break? Recall. It’s a bit too intense with a play-mate? Recall. Wanna leave? Recall. Fight breaks out? Recall.

Your dog running at you full speed when you tell it to, regardless of distance or what’s happening around it, is by far the most important behavior to train in preparation for any situation where your dog will be off-leash.

Get into the habit of recalling your dog often, even when everything is fine. You want the behavior to be well rehearsed when the actual emergency which requires your dog to come occurs.

Want to never have to chase down your dog again? Contact us to get started on a perfect recall!

How to behave in a dog park:

Regardless of the type of dog you have, there are habits that you, the human, will want to adopt to keep your visits safe and pleasant for all. In most parks, this advice is actually part of the rules posted at the entrance and must be respected to avoid hefty fines.

Respect the limits of other dogs and people
  • Even if you are certain that what your dog and its friend are doing is fine, respect the comfort level of other humans anyway.
  • Call your dog and do consent tests if someone isn’t sure that both dogs are having fun. If they’re still uncomfortable, encourage your dog to do something else.
No leashes in the dog park
  • You should put on and remove your leash in the airlock or just before you let your dog through the door.
  • It’s not that bad to put your leash to in the park right before leaving, but you’ll want to keep it short and leave quickly. A tensed up, long leash can quickly become a hazard to running dogs and lead to injuries. On top of that, dogs can’t communicate and move as they normally would on leash, which can cause conflicts.
No toys or sticks without the consent of everyone present
  • Often flat out forbidden, toys can quickly becomes the reason behind a fight.
  • If it’s just you and your dog, then there is no reason to worry!
  • If there are other dogs, make sure to check with everyone before even taking out your toy. If someone new arrives at the park, ask them if it’s okay before they come in. If you have any doubt or if someone asks, remove the toy immediately.
Keep an eye on your dog at all times
  • You are responsible for your dogs actions, but also of its security.
  • With a good knowledge of canine body language, you can see the beginnings of a problem well before you can hear anything.
Pick up the poop
  • You probably don’t like stepping in feces. Neither do we! If you don’t pick up after your dog, there’s a snowball effect. Why would others do it if you don’t? We quickly end up in deep shit…literally.
  • You think your dog relieved itself, but have no clue where that happened? Pick up the first poop you find! That way, you leave the park having added a net total of 0 poops.
Careful with food
  • It is often forbidden to “feed your dog” in the park, but calling and rewarding your dog often is a really good habit that can save its life.
  • Make sure you never give food to another dog. They’ll eventually figure out that you don’t pay and leave you alone.
  • Never put food up to your dog’s nose when another dog is nearby. Back away and reward your dog a few seconds later, when there isn’t anyone else around. This will help prevent resource guarding issues.
  • If the mere presence of food on your person seems to make a dog agressive, put your treats very up high or outside of the park, grab them back on your way out.
Control your dog’s barking:
  • In the context of play, barking is a perfectly normal behavior. Some breeds will bark way more often than others, and that’s also normal.
  • However, depending on where your dog park is, you may have to recall your dog and encourage it to do something else or just leave if there’s too much noise involved in its play. Some parks are very close to residential areas, and we have to be respectful of the neighborhood. If enough people complain about the noise, parks can get shut down.
  • That doesn’t mean you should get angry at your dog for yapping while it plays! It’s a normal and healthy thing to do.
  • If you have a particularly vocal dog, opt for a dog park that is further away from housing so it can howl to it’s heart’s content!

Fights, conflicts: what to do?

If you visit the park regularly, it’s almost inevitable that your dog ends up upset or upsetting another dog and it escalades into a more or less serious conflict. Knowing how to react will have a huge impact on your future visits to the park.

A conflict is a few angry barks and growls. Dogs will usually split by themselves.

It becomes a fight when one or both of the dogs move to attacking: there are bites or attempted bites and one or both of the dogs won’t let up.

In both cases, don’t get angry. Your dog is already stressed out and your anger isn’t going to reduce the odds of that happening again. Quite the opposite, in fact.

One conflict, happens

If your dog has a bit of a bark-out with another dog, simply call it back and prompt it to go do something else. If it moves on to another activity, everything is fine!

Two conflicts, time to go

Whether it’s with the same dog or another, if your dog once again ends up upsetting another dog or getting upset at another dog shortly after the first time, you should go. Maybe your dog is having a bad day. Maybe your dog is hurting somewhere. Doesn’t matter: staying will likely lead to more conflicts and, most importantly, an actual fight. Come back another day!

An actual fight, leave immediately and take a break

After reaching the point where it becomes agressive or has been attacked, the stress levels of your dog are way too high to stay in the park, regardless of whether the dog with which it fought is still there. It’ll also help a bit if you give your dog a few days to cool down before coming back to the park.

A very common advice you’ll hear in dog parks is “always leave on a good note”, which is used to encourage people to stay after a fight so that the dog keeps a good souvenir of the visit. An even more dangerous statement is that “the dogs who fought need to make up before you leave”.

Put yourself in your dog’s shoes: you just got into quite a tussle with a stranger and your friends force you to stay in the same room, to hug them. No thanks…

Now you obviously don’t want to just flee the scene if there was an actual fight. Get out, but stay close enough to communicate with the other dog’s human. Make sure everyone is safe and okay before leaving.

Splitting a fight: a sensitive topic

When a dog feels in danger, it can bite anything that gets too close, including its family. Since the methods to separate two dogs that are going at it pretty much all including risks of injury to either the dog or the people, we can’t really get into this topic on a public platform. We can, however, give you these two general tips:

  • Make sure you keep your hand away from the front part of the fighting dogs, especially the head. Grabbing the collar or the neck is quite the risky thing to do.
  • Don’t hit the dogs, you’ll just give them even more of an urgency to defend themselves.

Bonus: For a complete list of Montreal dog parks, you can find an interactive map here!

Want to go to the dog park with the supervision of a pro until you feel confident? Get in touch with us!

écrit par Stéphane Fiset, éducateur canin

Stéphane est un éducateur canin qui se spécialise en réactivité canine, ainsi que dans l’éducation des chiots. Il a écrit plusieurs plans d’entraînement complets pour les chiots, disponibles sur notre blog!

Mis à jour le January 1, 2024