This particular dog park was lacking one thing: posted rules. And I had not done my homework enough to know the underlying rules of engagement at dog parks that other owners most definitely knew before taking their dogs here.
Before I even stepped foot in a public playground with my children, before I enrolled in preschool or even thought about joining story time at the local library, I researched. I read and read and read. I knew what kinds of behaviors were expected of me, and my child, when visiting these types of places. I knew which behaviors would buy us a one-way ticket out of them too, complete with dirty looks from the other parents as we left shamefully for throwing a Duplo block at another child . . . not that I speak from personal experience.
The thing about our first visit to the dog park that set it aside from our first visit to the playground was not the fact that we were dealing with canines instead of humans (although we brought a few human children along just for good measure), it was the fact that we had no idea what would be okay. Sure we knew our dog was social, we knew he loved to play and would not be mean to other dogs. But at what point do you “let dogs be dogs” and at what point do you, as the dog’s “parent,” need to intervene?
Just as we would if our child were taking a truck away from a playmate, we felt like we needed to step in when our dog was annoying another dog park patron. This made for a rather exhausting time for us, as our dog found great pleasure chasing a 5 month old puppy. Thankfully the puppy’s owner was kind and knew more about dogs than we did. “He’ll let him know if he doesn’t want him to do that,” she said in the calm voice of someone who had been down this road before.
In fact, most of the people there had been down this road before we had. It was apparent as they chatted casually in a relaxed fashion about their dogs with one another as we were chasing our “frisky” 16 month old Aussie around like the world’s worst “helicopter” doggie parent.
We must have looked ridiculous.
There was one rule I knew about – the pooper scooper rule. This was evidenced by the numerous plastic grocery bags hanging in strategic areas throughout the dog park. When it was our turn, I knew just where to go and just what to do. That was a proud moment, as a pet parent, for me.
When I noticed another Aussie owner mucking around in the mud, I decided to hit her up for some information regarding this whole dog park thing – just as I would have as a new parent asking a seasoned mom which sippy cup she preferred. I got over my nerves and asked her about the rules.
“Everyone here is really good about letting the dogs just be dogs,” she said, smiling. “Dogs have good days and bad days just like anyone else and sometimes you might need to leave, but for the most part they all get along,” she told me.
I felt more knowledgeable already. She went on to tell me that since this park was “private,” despite being open to the public, that the rules are more about common sense than anything. I was liking her more and more by the minute. I almost felt like I’d met my doggie mama mentor.
By the time I was done probing my new friend for information about proper dog park etiquette, it was time to go.
Amazingly, we had been at the dog park for an hour and a half – longer than any of my first runs to the playground when my children were toddlers! Our dog (and our kids) was tired, thirsty and ready to go home, leaving his new friends to play amongst themselves. He happily walked on-leash (which happens to be good dog etiquette) out of the common area and to the car where his water bowl awaited him.
And he can’t wait to go back.
Edited to add: Also published in the LS Journal, January, 2009.