At their best, public dog parks can provide a welcome break from your pet’s usual routine and an opportunity to run and play with a pack. At their worst, they can bring stress and anxiety to your canine companion. Conflict between dogs — when not kept in check by owners — can result in injury and, in rare cases, even death.

Larry Gerson, VMD, a veterinarian based in Pittsburgh, is familiar with the dangers of off-leash play areas. “My office frequently treats bite wounds from dog fights that have occurred in these types of places.” Gerson recalls the day a large dog attacked a small one at a city dog park. “The small’s dogs lungs were punctured when the large dog grabbed it around the ribs. Sadly, the little dog didn’t survive,” he says. “The distraught owner took some of the responsibility, admitting he had put his small dog in peril by allowing him to play in the large dog area.”

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Which canines do well in dog parks

While it’s true that dogs are social by nature, not all dogs enjoy dog parks — or other dogs. And some owners are slow to realize these things, says Barbara Nagy, a professional dog trainer. A dog that is overly aggressive with other dogs or shows repeated disinterest in other dogs that want to socialize may not do well in a dog park.

Of course, the least popular dog in a dog park is the one who shows aggression and ruins all the fun. “But there’s nothing to prevent one from entering a public space,” Nagy says. She is quick to point out that more often than not, problems originate with owners who fail to keep tabs on their dog. “When dogs get into trouble, it’s usually the fault of the owner who is distracted by his cell phone or in conversation with another pet owner and not paying careful attention to the dogs,” the trainer explains. “The truth is, the dogs are just being dogs. It’s the people who have misbehaved.”

Gerson agrees. “Not everyone who uses a dog park is reasonable or responsible. Compounding the problem, pet owners may not agree on what constitutes aggression."

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If you decide to give a dog park a try, Nagy says it’s a good idea to size up the park first. “Stand at a distance and observe the dynamics of the dogs inside. Are the humans paying attention? Are the dogs getting along and acting friendly? Are there separate areas for large and small dogs?” (Some large breeds see small dogs as prey, so separate play areas are an important feature.)

Be wary of dogs engaging in rough play. “Aggressive behavior can easily escalate from there,” Gerson says. “To be safe, keep your dog in your line of sight and pay attention to him at all times. Unfortunately, some dog owners see the outing as a social opportunity for themselves as well as their dogs. Play that is overly aggressive must be ended immediately.”

Signs of trouble

The following behaviors should be a red flag and may require human intervention to prevent a problem:

  • A noticeable shift in the tone of the play
  • Ears going back
  • Growling, nipping and riding each other
  • Bodies and muscles that stiffen
  • Yelping or trying to flee or hide behind objects to avoid another dog

How to safely disrupt a dogfight

If a fight does break out, use extreme caution to separate the animals. “Fighting dogs will bite at any stimulus and might even bite you,” says Gerson. “Never put bare hands between two angry dogs. At home a fight can be broken up easily with a chair or blanket, but at a dog park there may be no easy way to intervene.”

He suggests the following tactics:

  • Make a loud noise.
  • Throw water on the fighting dogs.
  • Pull the dogs apart by their tails.
  • Grab the hind legs and pull backwards.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) suggests using a mini leash called a tab that can be attached to a dog’s collar and used as a makeshift handle. Make one yourself by using a scissors to trim a lightweight leash. The tab should be short enough not to interfere with off-leash play, but long enough to allow an owner to grab it and pull her dog out of danger.

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Dog park etiquette

Here, some basic rules for dogs and their owners.

  • Never bring an unneutered dog to a dog park. Male dogs will fight over a female who isn’t spayed, and intact males are known to be more aggressive.
  • Leave treats and favorite toys at home. Some dogs aren’t good at sharing and could become possessive over a toy or treat.
  • Avoid going to a dog park during crowded times — after school, after work and especially on weekends.
  • Be sure your dog is up to date on immunizations and healthy. Allowing a sick dog to interact with other dogs can spread disease.
  • Never scold or touch another visitor’s dog.
  • Always clean up after your dog.

Finally, never use a dog park visit for exercise. All dogs need to be walked. In fact, experts agree it’s best to walk a dog vigorously prior to entering a dog park. A hyped up, overly excited dog can put other dogs off, says Gerson. “Tire him out a little first. He’ll make a better playmate.”

A better way to play

Gerson is an advocate of private dog parks that require licenses and some sort of registration. “Knowing the people and other dogs involved can make for a better experience,” he says.

Another off-leash option that is becoming more common is fenced-in spaces that can be reserved in advance and rented for doggie play dates. Gerson says some vets and shelters, like Animal Friends in Pittsburgh, charge $5 per dog and allow up to 10 dogs to use the space.

If you decide that a dog park isn’t right for you and your dog, it’s still possible to socialize your pet. The ASPCA suggests walking your dog on leash with another dog owner. Introduce the dogs in neutral territory — a place that isn’t home to either dog. Allow them to sniff each other without getting their leashes tangled and take a short walk together if the dogs seem friendly. Overtime, if the dogs continue to enjoy each other’s company, you may be able to allow off-leash playtime in a fenced-in area away from other dogs.

Ann Matturro Gault is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national magazines and many websites. She lives with her four kids, dog, cat and spouse in New Jersey.