Is the Dog Park Safe for Your Pet?

If your pet is well-socialized and enjoys playing with other animals, a trip to the dog park is a great way to help him get some exercise and meet new four-legged friends. But before you head out the door there are several rules and precautions to consider because the dog park isn't for every owner—or every dog.
Before You Visit the Dog Park
Because you have no way of knowing the history of the other dogs, it's imperative that your pet be fully vaccinated, which means that puppies should not visit dog parks until they have received all their shots.
If you're not sure how your dog will behave around strange animals, the dog park is probably not the best way to find out. Introduce your pet to dogs owned by friends or neighbors in a controlled situation, such as a fenced-in backyard, first. If he handles this closely supervised playtime well, you can be more confident about taking him to the park to be around dogs he doesn't know—and more of them.
You Probably Shouldn't Visit a Dog Park if Your Pet:
  • Shows signs of aggression or dominance with other dogs
  • Is unpredictable around other animals
  • Has a high prey drive for smaller animals
  • Doesn't always come when called when distracted or excited
  • Is fearful in busy or new situations or around strange or large
    numbers of animals
  • Has never been "vetted" as safe for doggy daycare
  • Can jump fences
  • If you don't feel comfortable reading and interpreting the body language of dogs 
Your First Trip to the Dog Park
On your first visit, keep your dog on the leash and give him a tour of the perimeter. Let him sniff the fence and greet dogs through the fence. If he seems calm, you can take him in. If he shows signs of fear, high levels of excitement or aggression, today isn't the day to enter the fence. If there are other dogs crowding the entrance, wait until they disperse to go inside. If there is a separate fenced entry area, take your dog off the leash before allowing him to enter the park. A leashed dog in a pack of free dogs creates an uneven balance of power that can make your dog a target for aggression.
Don't plan to sit on a bench and read a book or talk on the phone while your dog roams the park. You'll need to supervise your dog at all times to make sure he's being friendly with the other animals and people in the park. If he's being picked on or bullying a smaller dog, remove him from the situation by putting him back on the leash and taking him to a quiet corner or out of the park. You can try a timeout by having him sit quietly for a few minutes. If that doesn't help, you'll need to call it a day and try again some other time.
The key to a good dog park experience is to understand how dogs communicate and play with each other, which can be quite loud and seemingly aggressive at times. Dog play includes nipping, wrestling and chasing, but the body posture will be loose rather than tense. Playing animals will take pauses to catch their breath and switch roles, the chaser becoming the chased. When playtime starts to get aggressive, look for signs such as lips pulled back to expose teeth, ears pulled back tight to the head, ruffled hair along the neck and back, tails that are sticking up (attentive or aggressive) or tucked under (fear) instead of wagging, and a tense posture. It's better to redirect your dog's attention before the situation escalates. If you can't handle the idea of your pet tussling with another animal, then the dog park isn't a good choice for you.
Dog Park Safety
Be sure there is a clean water source at any park you visit or plan on bringing your own water to keep your dog well hydrated. If the weather is particularly hot, make sure your pet takes plenty of water breaks and has a shaded area to take rests.

If you go to the dog park often, you will witness other dogs—possibly even your own—in dog fight at some point. Most dog fights are not serious, and they rarely cause actual harm to either animal. How you behave during the situation can make all the difference in the outcome. The best way to prevent serious issues from arising is to always play close attention to how your dog is behaving and to make sure he's been trained to come when called no matter what else is going on. If your dog does get into a fight, remain calm. Jumping into the fray likely will end up with you being unintentionally injured, possibly by your own pet. Instead, take the following steps:
  • Clap your hands loudly to distract the dogs and call your dog away from the other animal.
  • Carry a small air horn with you to create an even bigger distraction.
  • If there's a water hose nearby, spray the animals to redirect their attention.
  • Do not grab your pet by the collar! That is the most likely way to end up getting bitten yourself. The ASPCA recommends that both pet owners work together simultaneously to break up the fight by taking their dogs by the back legs (at the top, just under the hips) and moving them backward away from each other, like pulling a wheelbarrow. Immediately leash your dog and remove him from the park.
  • Inspect your pet for injuries and provide proper medical care if needed.
Basic Dog Park Etiquette
The number one rule of dog parks is always pick up after your pet. No one wants to accidentally step in dog poop, and, if even a few pet parents are careless, the ground quickly can become a landmine of messes. Most dog parks provide clean-up bags, but bring your own just in case. Even if your dog already relieved himself prior to arriving, bring a bag just in case. Exercise and excitement can bring on an unexpected bowel movement!
Other unwritten dog park rules include:
  • Don't bring a toy that your dog is unwilling to share. You can't expect to throw a ball for your pet and not have another animal want to join in the fun. Also, don't bring an expensive toy that you can't stand to lose. You never know who might get a hold of the toy and damage it or run off with it. Tip: If your dog doesn't share toys well or acts protective or aggressive around his toys, don't bring any toys to the park.
  • Don't give treats to dogs you don't know. You never know if an animal has an allergy or is food-aggressive. If you use treats to reward your dog for good behavior, offer them when other animals aren't nearby.
  • Don't bring small children with you to the dog park. While your dog and your child might have a wonderful relationship, you have no idea about the backgrounds and temperaments of the other animals in the park. Some dogs are afraid of children and will act aggressively toward them.
  • Keep your leash handy at all times. You don't want to get into a situation where you need to remove your pet from the area quickly but your leash is hanging from the fence on the other side of the park.
  • Don't freak out when a dog plays rough with your pet. If you don't like how a dog is playing, just walk away and call your dog to follow. If the other animal is persistent, you can politely ask the owner to redirect the dog's attention or you can leave the park. Yelling at the dog (or the owner) will make the situation worse.
  • If your dog doesn't do well with large groups of animals, plan to visit the park during off-peak hours, usually early in the morning or during work hours on weekdays.
  • If your dog is particularly small, keep him in the small dog area (if one is available). Large dogs don't always comprehend size differences and can accidentally play too rough with little dogs.
  • If your dog doesn't come when called, picks on smaller animals or gangs up on new arrivals, he might need more training before returning to the dog park. No one likes a bully, and it's not fair to the other dogs to allow that kind of behavior to go unchecked.
  • If your dog is not spayed or neutered, the dog park is not a good choice for you. Unneutered males can have behavior issues, beyond the risk of mating with a female. 
The dog park can be a lot of fun for pets and humans alike. If you remain flexible and vigilant, there's no reason you can't enjoy your visit. Be prepared to leave if your dog or another animal is being more aggressive than you'd like them to be. Give yourself the chance to find the right park and the right visiting time that suits the needs of you and your pet. You might both end up making new friends!
Animal Behavior Associates, "Dog Park Etiquette and Safety Tips,", accessed on August 9, 2013.

ASPCA, "Dog Parks,", accessed on August 9, 2013.