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San Diego Humane Society

Dog Parks: To Go or Not to Go

Dog parks provide an off-leash space where your companion can get exercise and socialize with other dogs and people. For dogs who truly enjoy exposure to new people, dogs, and environments, dog parks can go a long way towards enriching their lives and providing fulfilling experiences.

Dog parks are not without risks, however, and paying attention to your pet is important for successful outings. Dogs entering the park are often required to be fully vaccinated and social with other dogs, but this is never a guarantee, and animals can be exposed to illnesses, parasites, and potentially dangerous interactions while at the park.

Below you’ll find tips for dogs who may or may not enjoy the dog park experience but would still benefit from time outdoors in novel environments.


If you think your companion is a good fit for the dog park, follow these tips to ensure a safe experience: 

Be Prepared

Always come prepared for anything to happen, in case you need to intervene and protect your dog. A small, handheld travel umbrella is a great option that can create instant space between dogs. PetSafe makes a product called Spray Shield which is a non-toxic deterrent for dogs (made from citronella) that you can clip to your belt. A Pet Corrector is a can of compressed air that you can carry with you that can help you get out of a bad situation. Never point a Pet Corrector at a dog; point it at the ground to gain a few seconds of space to leash up your own dog and move away. When incidents happen at a dog park, they often happen very fast, and you’ll be glad you were prepared to leave the situation quickly. Keeping an eye on your dog and watching for signs of less appropriate play can help you avoid unwanted escalations. This B&T Lecture: Dog Park Etiquette has many additional tips on this topic.

Spend Time Outside the Park

When you are approaching the dog park, your dog should be calm enough that they can still turn back to you when you call their name. If they are too focused on entering the park, they are too excited to remember all their manners. You may need to spend the first few trips to the dog park on the outside of the park doing some “settle down” training (see this video: The Calm Settle). This will be well worth it in the long run, because by the time you both are ready to enter the park, you will be able to communicate with your dog and be more comfortable during your visit.

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Most parks have a double-gated area where you can take off your dog’s leash before entering. This is an important step: your dog’s body can be more tense on-leash, which may tell the other dogs that they are a challenge – even when they don’t intend to be. Keeping your dog on leash also puts them and other dogs at potential risk, as they will have no way to get away and may feel like they have to defend themselves.

Avoid The Rush

It’s not uncommon for other dogs to rush to the gate to greet you. It may seem friendly, but again, your dog may be overwhelmed and feel the need to defend themselves. You can avoid any potential problems by simply staying in the double-gated area until most or all of the dogs have left. You may have to wait for a little while or ask other owners to call their dogs away, and you can use that time to ask for polite behaviors from your dog (such as a sit or focus). Reward these behaviors with entry to the park. If you are already inside the park and your dog is gathering at the gate as new dogs arrive, call them to you or go get them to avoid any canine miscommunication.

Pay Attention to Your Dog DoesMyDogLoveOtherDogs.jpg

It’s important to take note of what your furry friend is saying with their body language and behavior. For a deep dive on this topic check out the B&T Lecture: Do You Speak Dog & Cat? Dog parks can be a lot of fun for some dogs, while others might feel too anxious or overwhelmed to enjoy the experience. There is a chance that your dog won’t be appropriate for the park or that they won’t enjoy socializing with other dogs.  Keep in mind that dog sociability, or their social preferences, change throughout their lives and experiences.    

  • Is your dog afraid of other dogs? Your dog will let you know if the park is too overwhelming for them, so pay attention! A tucked tail, stiff body, and ears pinned to the side of their head are telltale signs that your dog is uncomfortable. Additionally, the park probably isn’t a fun place for your dog if he is constantly defending himself from the other dogs. If you notice your dog “snapping off” other dogs, hiding under benches, or moving away when other dogs try to approach, they aren’t having a good time.
  • Is your dog being a bully? It’s also important to pay attention to how other dogs react to your pup. Dogs are expert communicators and will make it clear if they are uncomfortable or fearful. A dog who behaves appropriately will respect that another dog is uncomfortable and leave them alone or back off the first time they are asked. If your dog does not ease up or is chasing smaller dogs, remove them from the situation or consider leaving the park for the day.
  • Is your dog just not 'feeling it': Other signs your dog may be disinterested include spending all their time sniffing and either avoiding or quickly disengaging from interactions from other dogs. Similarly, dogs seeking interactions with only humans may prefer alternative environments over dog parks. Sometimes you, as an owner, may encounter one of these dogs at the dog park – they might be the ones off on their own or playing with a toy with their owner or by themselves. These dogs are choosing to be on their own and their owner is likely keeping them at a distance for a reason. Feel free to share the information you’ve learned in this article with their owners if you can do so safely – many folks are unaware of the range of dog park alternatives!

Dog Park Alternatives

If dog parks aren’t for you and your pup, you have plenty of alternatives! Here are some other experiences you can give your dog for novelty and enrichment:

  • Sniffari: Dogs have 300 million scent receptors (compared to our 6 million), making their nose an incredible tool for learning about their environment. Taking your dog on a longer leash (we suggest 20’) and exploring a quiet park together can be a tiring and enriching experience for them as they learn about the world through their nose. See a sniff walk in action in this video: Take a Sniffari!
  • SniffSpot: The SniffSpot app was created to give an off-leash opportunity to every dog. Each spot is rented by the hour and available only to the person who books it and their dog(s) during that time. The booking will tell you if the spot is fully fenced and provides a buffer between you and the next patron.
  • Dog-Friendly Hikes: Going on adventures with your dog can also mean an adventure for you. Find dog-friendly hiking spots on the Get Outside San Diego map, and always remember to bring water and poop bags with you, and to check the temperature at the top before you head out.
  • Training classes:
    • San Diego Humane Society offers a wide range of classes to keep your pet engaged and active, including classes for Nose Work, games and enrichment, and tricks. Browse our upcoming classes here.
    • Zoom Room: San Diego has 2 Zoom Room locations that offer indoor play groups, trick training, and agility classes.
  • For more ideas, check out our article Enrichment: Brain Games for Mental Health

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s a good idea to take your dog to the park. If you do choose to visit your local dog park, everyone will have a more pleasant experience if you understand the benefits and potential problems and carefully watch what your dog, and the other dogs in the park, are communicating to you and to each other.

Behavior Helpline: Contact Our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within seven days, but responses may take up to two weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, but it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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