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September 27, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Trainer Q&A: Good manners for dogs and owners in public parks

dogleash1.jpgOwners take their leashed dogs hiking in Meadowdale Beach park earlier this month. Photo by Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times

steveandflavio.jpgSeattle pet behaviorist and author Steve Duno discusses pet etiquette in public parks in the first of a three-part series on pets etiquette and safety/health issues in parks and off-leash areas.

When I take my dog Rico to Magnuson Park's off-leash dog area, he generally has the time of his life. Save for the occasional grumpy old cur who can't abide Rico's swashbuckling ways, he does okay, and usually sleeps well that night. It's a park for dogs to learn some needed social skills, and exercise their bodies, minds and senses.

But when I take Rico to a regular public park such as Green Lake, a new set of rules must apply. It's not his place, it's ours -- humans, that is. Rico's just along for the ride, and must obey a different, more structured set of rules if he's to get along, and be asked back. And, as his owner, I too must abide by a more comprehensive set of regulations and behaviors, if I'm to be welcomed back.

Etiquette matters. Who wants to go for a nice walk around Green Lake, only to have a trio of jumpy mutts rush up and make a try for one's ice cream cone? Or, while walking, step into an unholy mess that should have been picked up and disposed of by a courteous owner? Not me.

In any regular community park, people have dominion. Though dogs can certainly be present (as long as local rules allow), really, it's a place for people to relax and enjoy themselves. Doing so might certainly involve having one's trusty dog along, but only if the pet is kept on leash, and made to behave in a civil, non-confrontational manner.

Unfortunately, dog owners sometimes forget etiquette, making public parks a stressful experience, instead of a relaxation. Disobeying leash laws, failing to clean up after their dogs, or even taking antisocial pets into park environs and risking an aggressive event- these are but a few of the etiquette gaffes.

No off-leash dogs!

In any public park, unless specifically noted, all dogs must be leashed, period. Even the best dogs can get into trouble if off-leash, even for a moment. An untethered dog that trots up to another anxious or rowdy dog can result in a fight that you can't stop, so, even with that obedience champ, keep that leash on!

Extendable leashes, though handy tools, can often be problematic at a busy park. When two dogs are both out at the end of fifteen-foot leashes, and then begin to greet or play, it's inevitable that the long, thin leads will become impossibly tangled, perhaps resulting in panic by one or both pets. In trying to detangle the leads, owners could end up either provoking a fight, or even losing one or both dogs.

The more courteous approach would be to either use a standard six-foot leash, or else retract the extendable leash down to a more manageable length whenever other dogs are present. This will provide more control, and avoid problems. Additionally, dogs allowed to pull out to the end of a fifteen-foot extendable leash often lose focus on their owners, and end up invading someone else's space. Better to keep your dog close by, and not on someone's picnic blanket.

Clean it up!

No matter how many signs get posted, someone always fails to pick up after his or her dog, resulting in not only a mess, but in the potential spread of disease, to dogs or people. A simple rule of thumb is to not expect the park to have bags available, and to instead bring a few with you, perhaps tied to your dog's leash. Just pick it up and toss it!

Who not to take

Not all dogs should be allowed into a public venue. Puppies under four months of age have not yet received all of their needed vaccinations, and as such should not be exposed to other animals. Similarly, any dogs with an ongoing illness or injury should be kept away, for the safety of other pets, and for their own. If your dog is recovering from a broken leg, for instance, it won't be able to defend itself in a fight, or even run to safety.

Take only reasonably well-trained dogs to a busy park. Yours should be able to walk well on leash, sit, come on command, and have a good level of focus. If your dog acts like a dervish, jumping up on people and pulling you all over the park, you'll be unfairly diminishing the experience for others.

If your dog shows aggressive tendencies toward people or other dogs, do the right thing and stay away from a busy park. It's just not fair to expose others to possible injury, or risk the lawsuit. Instead, have your dog evaluated by a professional, and then work on behavior modification techniques to help minimize the problem. And, if your dog has not yet been spayed or castrated, keep him home until you have it done, to minimize aggression caused by raging hormones, or females in heat.

dogleash2.jpgA pair of leashed dogs take a sniff in Seattle's Seward Park earlier this year. Photo by Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Social decorum

Even sweet dogs can get into tussles at a busy park, particularly with other dogs who might not be as even-tempered. Though dogs are highly social animals, they are also somewhat reserved around those not part of their family. The same dog that fares well among a group of familiar people and pets might become nervous and defensive if taken to a busy, chaotic park filled with strangers.

While at regular park with your dog, resist the temptation to let your pet greet every dog that comes along. Even dogs with wagging tails can often be harboring a nervous energy that might turn into a defensive snap.

Compounding the issue is leash tension, which often increases whenever owners let their dogs come together. When a dog feels you tighten up on your leash, it interprets it as a signal of possible anxiety on your part; this worries your dog, increasing the chances of fear, and fighting.

The best way to let dogs greet at a park is to first walk beside another owner/dog team, briskly, without even letting the dogs nose up. After a few minutes of this, the dogs will begin to feel a certain sense of purpose, almost as if they are part of a new "team."

They'll feel your confidence, and that of the others; then, simply stop for a moment or two, let the dogs sniff each other, then move on again. But, if your dog just seems too nervous to greet another, don't force the issue.

The same goes for people who greet your dog.

For some reason, people at parks often feel a responsibility to walk up and say hello to your pooch, almost as if not doing so would be an affront to you. Then, they crouch down and stick a probing hand out, thinking this to be the best way to greet.

In fact, it's the best way to get a strange dog to bite you. This head-on, probing, eye-to-eye method of greeting, taught to us for decades, is interpreted as a threat by most dogs and should be avoided at all costs.

Instead, if you see someone interested in greeting your dog, take charge and greet the person first, shaking hands, and not even paying attention to what the dog is doing.

In a moment your dog will begin to sniff at the stranger, and slowly decide that all appears well. At that point the new acquaintance can casually reach down and pat your dog, then continue talking to you.

The key here is to take a casual, non-threatening attitude, instead of an "in-your-face" approach to greetings. And if you desire to greet a strange dog, ask permission first, then follow the aforementioned strategy.


While at a busy park with your dog, avoid using toys if at all possible, if other dogs are present.

Your dog will be on leash, of course, limiting the use of balls or Frisbees. Nevertheless, some owners will often pull out a squeeze or rope toy in attempt to focus, distract, or amuse their pets; this can lead to "toy envy," theft, and possible clashes.

The same goes for food; pulling out a handful of cookies, a rawhide, or a hunk of turkey can cause a dog riot. So, if at a busy park with many dogs around, keep toys and food out of the equation.


Avoid taking your dog to a regular park if it barks incessantly, and you can't get it to stop. It's annoying to the people present, and also indicative of your dog being nervous, fearful, or potentially antisocial. Work on solving the misbehavior before subjecting others to the racket.

Pay Attention

While at a busy park with your leashed dog, be aware of your surroundings, and to possible problems. If you spend your time talking on your cellphone, texting, or even reading that great book, you might not notice an edgy off-leash dog approaching, the strange object your dog has picked up in its mouth, or the squadron of skateboarders headed toward you.

Being on the ball could save you or your dog from needless bother, or danger.

One dog per person

Even if your dogs are well-behaved and sociable, it's a good idea to limit your responsibility to one dog only. If while walking three dogs into a busy public park, several off-leash troublemakers come by, you won't be able to adequately deal with the situation.

Better to bring friends or family, and have each person be in charge of one dog.

By following some simple rules, and by respecting the rights of others, you and your dog can enjoy each other's company in any public venue that allows friendly, leashed pets.

Just remember that your dog is a guest there, and that showing courtesy and control is the best way for it to be invited back.

Pet behaviorist and author Steve Duno has authored 19 books and scores of magazine and Web articles. He has covered a wide variety of subjects on both dogs and cats, including basic training, aggression, environmental enrichment, behavior modification, breed profiling, trick training, and pet health care. Formerly a teacher in New York City and Los Angeles, he now lives in Seattle with his family and an ever-changing assortment of rescued pets.

Next week: Pet etiquette in off-leash parks

•   •   •

Do you have a question about veterinary health or pet behavior? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local trainer in an upcoming post.

Read earlier Q&A columns here.

Most Popular Comments
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Mr. Duno and his great advice are so welcome in Seattle! Even some of us who like... MORE
Thanks. Great advice. They need to ticket for more off leash dogs at the botanical... MORE
Excellent article. Also, please don't allow your dog to lunge at or run up... MORE

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