Whether you live in a metropolis high-rise or in a rural community, activity, and play are important to your dog’s well-being. For dogs that live in the city or don’t have a backyard of their own, the local dog park can be a great option for a bit of exercise, as well as fun interaction with other dogs. I sat down with one of our in-house veterinarians, to get some tips on making the dog park a positive experience:
Online guidelines. Before your initial visit, check to see if there are rules posted online for your local park. Some dog parks even offer online handbooks to help you prepare for your dog’s visit, and to help ensure all dogs have a good experience.
Make sure your dog is healthy. the dog should be current on all vaccines and wearing an up-to-date rabies tag. Puppies should be fully vaccinated (usually by 16 weeks of age) before their first visit to the park. Dr. Hillestad also suggests using a monthly flea and tick preventive, along with a monthly heartworm preventive that contains a de-wormer.
Don’t take your dog to the park if he’s not feeling well, and never bring a female dog in heat to a dog park.
Take your dog for a walk (or a run) before you get to the park. The dog park is meant to be a place for fun and socializing, not your dog’s sole source of exercise. Dog parks are highly stimulating and without some exercise beforehand to take the edge off, a dog may rush into the park and be over-exuberant in greeting or playing with other dogs- unwelcome behavior that can lead to fights.
Be courteous, and help keep the park clean. Bring plastic bags and pick up after your dog.
Bring your own water bowl. Communal water bowls can be breeding grounds for bacteria and certain intestinal parasites like Giardia.
Think it through. Consider whether your dog will truly enjoy the dog park, based on age, personality, and experience. Young puppies often don’t know how to interact with bigger, older dogs and may feel overwhelmed or be injured. They usually do better starting in a puppy class that includes off-leash playtime. Older dogs may not enjoy rough play and might do better with a one-on-one playdate with a more mature friend.
Think about how your dog acts when you take him for a walk, and how he’s interacted with other dogs in the past. Dogs that are fearful or dog aggressive need a calm, quiet atmosphere to learn to interact properly, and the dog park is much too busy and over-stimulating for that. Dogs that refuse to share toys or tend to guard food, treats, or their humans are not good candidates for the dog park. For young, energetic dogs who have played well with other dogs before, the dog park can be a great choice
Train. Train your dog to come to you when you call. No matter what your dog’s age or experience, it is essential that your dog has been trained to come to you on command. This will be very important if you see a fight about to start or notice bullying going on.
Know the Basics. All dog owners should be familiar with basic dog body language. When dogs play it is normal for there to be some growling, barking, snapping, chasing, etc. but dogs should trade-off being the ‘aggressor’. Play bows and tag-and-run are normal play behaviors in dogs, but constant nipping, mounting, or chasing are unwelcome and can lead to fights. If you think your dog is being bullied, ask the other owner to call their dog to them, and remove your dog from the area. Be proactive. Doing nothing and leaving dogs to ‘work it out on their own’ can lead to serious fighting and injury.
Focus. Keep an eye on your dog at all times, especially off-leash. Always be aware of where your dog is and what’s happening with him. Is he happily involved in a game of chase, or is he scared and trying to getaway? If you see the level of play getting out of control, call your dog to you for a short break. If he’s obviously not having fun, it’s time to call it quits for the day.
Keep Moving. It’s fine to socialize with other dog owners at the park, but keep in mind that some dogs become more protective of their people and their space when owners gather in large groups. Staying in pairs or smaller groups and moving around while you’re chatting can help keep things more neutral and relaxed.
Sort by Size. Keep small dogs separated from larger dogs. Some larger dogs instinctively see smaller dogs as prey, and this can lead to serious injury. Look for a dog park that has separate large-dog and small-dog areas.
Have Fun! Many dogs have a wonderful time at the dog park and have ‘buddies’ they see on a regular basis and love playing with. For a lot of dogs, the dog park can be great fun and a welcome part of their regular routine.