Lacking in the Social Grasses

If you take your dog to a dog park, there's a good chance either you – or someone you know – needs to bone up on petiquette.

Take Nick, a rambunctious Lakeland terrier with a fearless heart and, so far, just enough sense to avoid getting eaten by larger animals.

Exercise for this 23-pound bundle of bad manners usually comes at the end of a leash. It isn't that he's mean; it's that an off-leash dog park is Nick's idea of a five-keg fraternity party. It's Lala-pup-looza and the last day of school rolled into one. For Nick's parents, the outing is fraught with apprehension, embarrassment, and apologies.

Consider this scenario: After four days of pouring rain, Nick wins a trip to the dog park. Within minutes of arrival, however, the exuberant pup applies a matching set of muddy paw prints to a stranger's white pants. Nick's parents apologize profusely, corral the terrier, and head home.

Petiquette quiz:

Should Nick's parents have...

a) insisted on paying the fellow's dry-cleaning tab, or

b) stayed at the park, feeling that their apology was sufficient?

Perhaps you answered c) Why would anyone wear white pants to a dog park? If so, you have a sense of humor similar to Nick's.

Most dog park etiquette boils down to common sense. Yet even though many off-leash recreation facilities post rules and codes of conduct, few visitors seem to follow them. An informal poll of pet owners indicates that plenty of pooches – and their parents – need a crash course in Petiquette 101.

Here are some simple dos and don'ts:

DO due diligence to doo-doo duty. Far and away the number one peeve of dog park visitors is failure to pick up poop. Don't leave home without plenty of plastic bags. Remember that it's an issue of safety as well as cleanliness: Someone might slip on your dog's mess. Due diligence includes letting others know – the first time, politely – when their pooch has left a pile.

DON'T allow your dog to be a nuisance to anyone or run roughshod over smaller dogs. A dog that bullies other dogs makes a trip to the park feel more like work than play.

DO take extra care when children are present. Many off-leash facilities prohibit children simply because some dogs get skittish if a child screams, even in play. If your dog is not utterly kid-safe, put him back on the lead.

DON'T bring vicious or aggressive dogs to the park. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it happens. If a fight does occur, separate the dogs carefully, collaring an agitated dog from behind the head so you don't get bitten.

DO teach your dog to listen, but DON'T assume others have done likewise. Dogs allowed off-leash should respond to voice commands the first time. None of this “Come, Ginger. Come on, girl. Come. Come!” Meanwhile Ginger is bounding in the opposite direction.

DO socialize puppies, but wait until they are 4 months old and have had all their vaccinations. Before this point there's too great a chance that they'll contract Parvo or another contagious and life-threatening illness.

Why so many rules, when the atmosphere of a puppy playground should be playful?

Because the ultimate issue is this: Dog parks are granted by a city council or other local agency. If there are complaints that the dog park's social structure is devolving into anarchy, with aggressive animals and unsanitary conditions, that same group can take away dog owners' privilege of using the area.

Then it would be back to the leash for the pups, that aren't really to blame – they just haven't been taught a little courtesy. Look at it this way: Good manners go a long way toward keeping the peace, if you'd call a field full of frolicking dogs and grinning owners “peaceful.”ave no choice, postpone important meetings and tasks for a day or two.