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:
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:
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:
Animal Behavior Associates, "Dog Park Etiquette and Safety Tips," www.animalbehaviorassociates.com, accessed on August 9, 2013.
ASPCA, "Dog Parks," www.aspca.org, accessed on August 9, 2013.