How to avoid a scuffle—and what to do if all heck breaks loose anyway.

By Sonya Collins Illustration Lindsey Balbierz

Get the Lay of the Land

Before you enter, survey the area. “Watch the interactions in the park, get a feel for the population of dogs and decide whether you’re happy with what you see,” says Suzanne Hetts, PhD, a Denver-based certified applied animal behaviorist. Are the dogs being aggressive with one another? Are the people ignoring their pets? Observe your pup’s response too. He might not want to go in, and you should trust his instincts.

Watch Your Dog’s Body Language

A dog that feels threatened might curl its body inward or raise a paw to show submission. Alternately, dogs spontaneously yawn or shake off—like they do when they’re wet—to release tension. If your dog shows signs of discomfort, leash him and take him away from the interaction or the park. “A dog who continuously feels threatened can react negatively,” says Sandy Miller, professional dog trainer and program director at the nonprofit Paw Pals Assistance Dogs.

Don’t Tune Out

“Owners sometimes turn their dog loose, get on their phones and stop paying attention,” says Hetts. The dog park isn’t your downtime. If you’re distracted, you could miss the warning signs of a possible fight or emergency and someone could get hurt.

Beware of Bullies

Like any playground, dog parks can harbor a foe—and sometimes it’s your pup. Look out for dogs that chase, nip, mount, jump on and put their paws on the backs of other dogs. “Most greetings between dogs are pretty short,” says Hetts. “Prolonged sniffing and circling the other dog for longer than a few seconds should be a red flag.” Know the signs of aggression, which can include a stiff or frozen stance; forward-leaning posture; high-set, forward-pointing ears; a slow, controlled tail wag; and raised hair along the ridge of the back.

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We know—you and your pup are model citizens. But things can still go from calm to crazy in an instant. So be prepared. If the fur starts flying, follow these dos and don’ts.

How to Break Up a Fight

  • Don’t yell at the dogs—it will only escalate the situation.
  • Do startle them with a sudden loud noise. A mini pocket air horn works well, but clapping your hands or two garbage-can lids can get the job done too.
  • Don’t pull on your dog’s collar, step in between the dogs or put your hand anywhere near their faces—that could get you bit.
  • Do toss a jacket, towel or blanket over them to distract them and break their eye contact, which can bring the aggression way down.
  • Do throw water on them, even if it’s just the few sips remaining in your water bottle.
  • Once you’ve ended the confrontation, quickly leash your dog and take him away before inspecting him for injuries.