Brush Up on Your Dog Park Etiquette

By Cynthia Kopkowski
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 15, 2007

With the explosion of dog parks nationwide -- roughly 700 at last count, including about 50 official and unofficial parks in the Washington area -- the need to mind Spot's manners, as well as your own, has never been greater.

Pet expert Charlotte Reed has seen it all in her daily trips to the park with her four dogs, including fistfights, alcohol consumption and romantic relationships that end badly. "It's like a soap opera meets high school," Reed says. All that drama was enough to fill an entire chapter in her new book, "The Miss Fido Manners Complete Book of Pet Etiquette" (Adams Media, $12.95).

Here are some doggie do's and don'ts from Reed and us to help you stay on fellow park visitors' good sides. "Good discipline begins at both ends of the leash," Reed says.

DO ABIDE BY THE POSTED RULES. Whether you're in one of Arlington's seven Community Canine Areas, Gaithersburg's expansive Green Park dog park or Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington, there are regulations posted clearly at the entrances for a reason. Your hound taking a fancy to someone's leg is the least of your problems if it hasn't been properly immunized and flea treated.

DON'T BE A KNOW-IT-ALL. Even if you consider yourself the next Dog Whisperer, keep quiet when it comes to dog-rearing techniques unless asked. Never discipline someone else's dog.

DO LEAVE THE LATTES AND LONGNECKS AT HOME. Collisions with rambunctious dogs are common, and it doesn't take much to upend a steaming beverage on someone else or a dog. And even if it's not already prohibited by the posted rules, don't bring alcohol or come tipsy.

"For the most part, the only problems I've ever heard of is when someone came into the park intoxicated and things escalated from there," says Claire McHenry, 28, who takes her chow-shepherd mix, Stella, to Walter Pierce Park in Adams Morgan nearly every day. She's seen this happen more than once? "Two or three times," McHenry says.

DON'T OVERDRESS. No, it's not polite for dogs to jump on people. But it is also impolite to throw a fit if Murphy, that lovable galoot of a German shepherd, slaps mud on your new white Ella Moss dress. The truly hip dog owner knows that grime is part of the scene and dresses for the mess.

DO BE DISCREET. Boyfriend left you for the new intern? Getting invasive surgery this week? Your Saturday morning acquaintances probably don't want to hear about it. "Keep your personal affairs to yourself," Reed says. That includes, ahem, personal affairs. Blabbing about your big weekend to Baxter's owner makes people uncomfortable, especially Baxter's owner.

"I've known of some people who've had dog park romances, and then when it goes sour they have to switch the dog park they go to," says Andrew Miller, 34, who takes yellow Lab Tucker to an unofficial off-leash park near Dupont Circle. "If you like the dog park you go to, it's probably best not to mix romance with your dog's activities."

DON'T MAKE IT A "MEAN GIRLS II" AUDITION. Say hello or at least nod as you and others enter the park. Nothing says junior high like getting snubbed by a dog park clique. But there's also no need to walk around chatting up everyone and shaking hands as if you're running for park president.

DO BRING EXTRA ESSENTIALS. The District's relatively new foray into officially sanctioned dog parks (the D.C. Council voted in late 2005 to allow them and is still hashing out rules for their creation) means that amenities such as water fountains and waste bag stations are in short supply. Owners caught off guard by a pet's needs will always appreciate it if you have extras.

DON'T PLAY DUMB. No one likes an owner who pretends not to notice when his pooch is relieving itself five feet away. Or when his dog is repeatedly trying to deflower the poor beagle in the corner. Or when his dog is vying for the title of Ultimate Fighting Champion, to the chagrin of irritated or scared four-legged peers and their owners.

DO KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE. This is perhaps the biggest etiquette breach of all, Reed says. If your dog is being too aggressive (teeth bared, growling, biting, eyes narrowed), get it out of the park immediately. Boorish behavior can quickly escalate to an injury. "It gets so confrontational, and everyone gets involved and people take sides," Reed says. "Those are the worst scandals in the dog park."

And in this town, nobody wants to be at the center of a scandal. Not even dogs.

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