Play Time!: Dog Parks? No thanks.

Elevating Dog | Dog Parks #knoxdog

Knox’s air-zoomies technique

When we first got Knox, we made the same rookie decisions as most owners: let’s socialize him at the dog park!

Lesson 1: This was a stupid idea because dog parks are a crap-shoot of behaviours.

For the first 7 weeks, we were the 5:15pm regulars at one of our local, enclosed dog parks. Knox made some awesome friends and played super hard every time he saw his friends. He still gets all wiggle-butt when he sees Bubbles the shiba inu, Sity the blue heeler, and Penny the pocket pitty (pictured above after a great play session!). We were addicted to how calm he was after a great play session, and how he would just sleep after getting home.

Unfortunately, we also started noticing new behaviours: he was becoming more obnoxious to dogs that didn’t want to play. His focus on those dogs have become heightened and in turn, whenever they came to the park, he’s rush to the gate and bark his head off. He started to get in another dog’s space and if another dog was barking or playing too rough, he’s join right in. All these bad dog park behaviours would inevitably lead to Knox becoming over aroused from play and becoming a bit of a menace.

We had 5 incidents at the park with the same 4 male dogs, two being intact. These were the scariest moments in my time with Knox, and they’ve taught me some incredibly valuable lessons in reactive dog wrangling.

Let me first pause to remind people that reactivity is not the same as aggression. They are not interchangeable.

Reactivity can, and usually does, lead to aggression if it’s not managed properly. But properly managed reactivity through identifying triggers, minimizing, and counter conditioning, dramatically reduces the chance of something bad happening.

Which leads us back to dog parks, reactivity, and aggression:

Inappropriate dog park experiences often exacerbate, if not directly cause, aggressive and reactive behaviours. – Sophia Yin

Dog Parks #knoxdog

Domino, the bigger, female, smarter version of Knox

The first few introductions with the dogs he later had fights with, seemed okay. Looking back, I can see that there was a ton of nervous energy from Knox when the new male dogs came into the park; he’s generally friendly and loves to play, after all. He was cautious but quickly went into a play bow. He gave a width arc of space to some of the dogs that didn’t seem interested in playing with him but wanted to be part of the game.

Lesson 2: dog parks are often uncontrolled, unstructured, and unsafe spaces for socialization.

With each of these dogs, they would go from either super standoffish then “correction” bites, or super playful then too rough. While Knox is able to keep up with rough play, it would soon escalate above threshold for all dogs involved and lead to a fight.

These fights were started due to a number reasons, but the top three start and end with:

  1. All owners not paying enough attention
  2. Not stopping play early enough
  3. Not limiting the type of play or number of dogs playing
Dog Parks #knoxdog

Knox stole Slater’s tunnel. Slater later sat on Knox’s face.

A huge red flag that we missed at the beginning was the tension in play between two large bonded male dogs (one intact, one not) whenever another joined in. Whenever the third wheel would get too much for the older male, he would snap. When he snapped, the younger one would join in.

Lesson 3: Pay attention, always.

This happened on our last routine evening dog park session: Knox was the third wheel, became a little too much, and the older male snapped. The younger one ended up drawing blood from Knox along his neck, face, and body.

Now, we avoid dog parks unless we know the dogs in there. Completely unenclosed parks have been nice because the environment is so interesting that Knox is distracted (by the mud, haha) and get bored by the dogs. It is, however, risky since you just never know what could happen and frankly, his recall isn’t that great yet.

If we do go to an enclosed dog park, we following these rules and procedures:

  1. Must be calm (i.e. sit and look at me) before entering park.
  2. No entering park if he pulls or becomes over-aroused in any way (barking, whining, fixation on a dog, etc.)
  3. No more than 1 or 2 mid to large dogs in the park.
  4. No small dogs or puppies in the park.
  5. Play can only last 30 to 60 seconds at a time.
  6. Must come when called, and rereleased on command to play.
  7. Never allowed near the park gates or fence when a dog is entering or exiting. Must be paying attention to me.
  8. Never allowed near the fence when a dog is walking by. Must be paying attention to me.
  9. If other dogs have a good thing going on, he cannot join unless invited (by those dogs).
  10. Leave on a hight note, not because of a fight.
Dog Park Action

Back before we had rules..

While these rules may seem a bit strict, it introduces a structure of calmness for before, during, and after play.

Lesson 4: manage the reactions. 

We learned that the more he’s allowed to go over threshold (i.e. barking at the fence/gate, stalking other dogs, intruding on play…), the more practiced it is and easier for him to get to a bad place.

We want to have great experiences. We want to have our dogs remember that being calm at the park and playing nicely means they get to play more again.

We’re still having some issues when we walk beside a dog park, but Knox gets a super high rate of reinforcement whenever we’re getting closer to the dog park. As we walk, attention, and treat earlier, it means he’s more likely to look at me when we’re going by the super exciting dog park! than to go into high-alert play/bark/whine mode.

Don’t take my word for it – obviously we’re still figuring it out – but here are some great resources:

Do you still go to dog parks? Have you had good or bad experiences?



  1. mytwopitties · December 3, 2014

    I completely agree with all your points and I’ve had the same experiences at the dog park. I was convinced Kaya needed socialization early on & I was impressed that she could really “hold her own” as a puppy. She quickly became too big for her britches & acted out as tensions rose in big play groups, leading to fights. On the opposite end, Norman, I now realize was too submissive for the dog park, would be picked on by dominant dogs & attacked a few times through no fault of his own.

    Like I said in Instagram, I do still take them to off leash areas where they meet & play with new dogs but I have strict rules like yours. I realized some time ago that I’d much rather have my dogs have a boring time than a bad time (but they are never truly bored) 😉 Here are my rules, only broken for dogs we know and small dogs & puppies(they are always a-ok with my dogs, they easily ignore the nasty ones).

    – only play with 1 dog at a time, 2 max but that is rare
    – only let 1 of my dogs play with another dog at a time, usually an easy choice because Kaya plays fetch with me
    – do not let my dogs around another dog playing fetch or holding a toy, stick, etc.
    – do not let my dogs bother nervous or timid dogs
    – do not let play continue if either dog seems overwhelmed, dominated or intimidated
    – do not play with humpers
    – do not play with dogs who bark or growl during play, I know this is some dogs’ style but it can raise tensions
    – read dogs’ behavior & body language as we approach, avoid if they are too hyper, excited or standoffish
    – also read owners’ body language as we approach
    – do not let my dogs approach leashed dogs, even in off leash areas
    – I offer to stand on the side of the trail to let leashed dogs pass
    – on hikes I usually let Kaya meet dogs first, she is more confident & has excellent recall if I need her to leave the dog alone quickly. Norman can act like a deer caught in the headlights if he doesn’t trust the dog, it relaxes him to see Kaya meet the dog first.
    – avoid dog walkers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nicolb · December 11, 2014

      Thank you so much for sharing your rules! I kept them in mind when we took Knox for an island vacation recently (secluded beach with tons of rocks and driftwood to climb and explore; hike through the woods) and he LOVED it. His recall was excellent the entire time and his little brain exploded with excitement.

      I’m going to share your rules in a separate post. 🙂


      • mytwopitties · December 11, 2014

        Yay! Sounds like a blast. Go Knox!!


  2. Gloria · December 4, 2014

    Great post! I have taken Maeby to dog parks since she was a puppy, and was fortunate because the park I took her to in Connecticut had a separate section for small and big dogs. When she was little, on days when there were aggressive big dogs, I’d put her in with the small dogs, but if I knew the big dogs were friendly, I’d let her play with them. This helped her learn her place, but I also followed many of your tips. I’d make her sit and wait before we went in, and kept a close eye on her (and stayed close to her) in case anything happened. And when it was time to go, she followed me right to the gate to leave.

    The park we go to now we haven’t seen any significant issues at. It seems like all of the owners pay close attention and many of the dogs are really well-trained. One thing I have noticed (and one piece of advice, which probably won’t be an issue since it seems like everything you do now prevents it from getting to this point), but when there are dogs that get a little too aggressive, everyone freaks out, panics and starts yelling. I think dogs pick up on this energy and it makes things worse. Like I said, it seems like you have a good handle on what works best for Knox, so I don’t think it would get to that point – it’s just something I noticed.

    Anyway, sorry to hear about Knox’s experiences but I’m so glad he’s okay! He’s lucky to have you 🙂


    • nicolb · December 11, 2014

      It’s so true. Our dogs are sensitive enough to pick up on our energy. It just takes one nervous owner and one nervous dog to get the whole gang going. Unfortunately, Knox is usually the one who reacts first to the nervous dog. I’m really happy to hear that Maeby does so well at dog parks and the owners are pretty attentive. It’s important to have owners call their dogs away from play when it’s still mellow so it never gets close to reaching over-threshold!


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