It’s that time of year when families spend quality time together outdoors. Since most consider our four-legged friends are part of the family, dog parks see an influx of activity during the warm-weather months. Dog parks can be a fantastic way to socialize, exercise and play. Here are 5 tips every family should keep in mind to make sure Fido and friends stay happy, healthy and safe:
Before you go, brush up on training skills. It's always wise to ensure your dog has a strong “recall” (he comes whenever you call him) and that he can enter the gates in a calm manner. Be aware that over excitement at the gate can cause an unsafe situation. Leashes and harnesses should be removed before entering and dogs should never wear choke or prong collars during playtime. Being able to call your dog to you if a scuffle breaks out or if your dog is feeling overwhelmed is important to make sure everyone stays safe and enjoys the park.
Choose the right park for your pet. For some dogs, a smaller park that has designated small and large dog areas might help your pup feel more comfortable. Make sure the area you choose is fully fenced and investigate local ordinances (proof of current vaccinations and/or permits should be required) before going. Make sure your dog is healthy enough to withstand a lot of exercise and female dogs should never go to a park while in heat. Before entering, it’s a good idea to stand outside and watch the current play style of the dogs and the attentiveness of each owner to his/her pet. If anything doesn’t seem right, leave with your dog and consider it a successful outing anyway.
Come prepared! Poo bags (be sure to use them!!) and water bottle/bowl are absolute musts, especially on warm days. Treats and toys might be helpful if your dog needs reassurance or is still learning, but be prepared to be the most popular pet parent there if you are carrying food and keep in mind that some dogs don’t realize what isn’t “theirs” or share toys very well. If you plan to bring young family members, remember that this park is for the dogs, and it is essential that children respect the boundaries of your dog and other pets who may not be used to little ones.
Understand what safe play really looks and sounds like. Dog parks should never be used for dogs who need to learn social skills! Positive dog play is a lot of rolling around, dogs on top and bottom, wiggly tails, loose body language and lots of back and forth play. If a dog seems to consistently be on top (or bottom), or if one dog is always chasing and the other always running away, that is not fair play - one (on the bottom or looking for an escape) is likely uncomfortable and may be traumatized, while the other is learning to bully or stalk which can quickly become unsafe. Listen for changes in barking and vocalization. Barking and even some growling is a good thing, but if those sounds start to escalate along with body language, that is a signal that the energy level is likely to follow and you should call your dog before it becomes dangerous.
Remember, not all dogs should go to dog parks. Puppies under 6-7 months tend to learn more bad habits than good and are at higher risk of a multitude of viruses and parasites. Dogs who have a history of fear, reactivity or aggression are more likely to escalate those behaviors at off leash parks and are more prone to start fights and unsafe situations. Newly adopted dogs or dogs you have not known for more than 6 months, should always learn to be comfortable with YOU first by going through a positive reinforcement, force-free training class before being put into a potentially unsure situation like a dog park.