Sometimes, dogs just have to be dogs. Many love the opportunity to run, roam, and romp off-leash while playing with their furry friends. Dog parks can provide your pet with plenty of exercise and mental stimulation – but the combination of unleashed dogs, different temperaments, and varying expectations from other owners can create hazardous conditions. How can you keep your pooch safe at the dog park?
Before you head off to the park, take a look at these tips:
1. Decide if a dog park is right for your pet. Some dogs shouldn’t go to dog parks – and others just don’t want to! It’s better to find alternatives when:
- Your puppy is not fully vaccinated.
- Your female dog is in heat.
- Your male pet is not neutered.
- Your dog is fearful, anxious, aggressive, or under-socialized. This can put her safety, as well as others’, at risk. Instead, socialize her by playing at home or arranging “play dates” with a compatible dog.
- Your dog does not respond to verbal commands. She needs to come when you call and obey other basic rules to maintain safety.
2. Scope out the park – solo. While it may seem odd to visit the dog park without your dog, it gives you the chance to get the lay of the land. What should you be looking for?
- Space. Is the park large enough for dogs to run without crowding each other? Are there separate enclosures for small and large dogs?
- Secure gates and fencing. Double gates are great because they allow you to enter the park without accidentally letting other people’s dogs out.
- Trash cans for cleanup!
- Water and shade/shelter.
- Rules. Do you have to pay a fee? Can you bring treats or toys? Some parks discourage this because it can lead to fighting.
- Regulars. Do you see the same dogs at the same times? How do they behave – and how do their owners behave? Do dogs bully each other? Do they seem healthy? Do people ignore their dogs and chat, or do they keep an eye on them at all times?
3. Exercise your dog – before you go to the park. Why? If your dog’s been cooped up inside for an extended period, taking her to the park is like taking a hungry kid to a candy store. There’s just too much to see – and taste – and they go into overload!
When she gets to the stimulant-rich dog park, she may be overly exuberant with other dogs. This could result in a fight, even if your pet meant well. Get some of that energy out before you hit the park.
4. Stay outside the fence. If you’re new to the dog park, other pets will come over to check you out. Let them – but stay outside of the fence. Wait until they disperse (usually just a few minutes), and then enter.
Make sure your dog is not leashed when you enter the park. This can signal to off-leash dogs that they have more power.
5. Watch your dog! Keep your attention on your pet and the other dogs. Look for signs that she’s being bullied or is bullying other dogs so you can take action. If you spot trouble, call her to you. Sometimes, you simply have to redirect her attention; other times, you may have to leave the park.
If you’re not quite sure what to watch for, the ASPCA has some great tips for interpreting dog behaviour. It’ll help you determine what’s play – and what’s a fight waiting to happen.
6. Be prepared for a fight. No one wants their dog to be involved in a fight – but it does happen. Don’t panic. (Usually, there’s much more snarling and barking than physical contact and damage.) Start by making some noise: clap your hands or yell. A sudden, loud noise is often enough to interrupt a fight.
If not, team up with the other owner. Approach the dogs together. Grasp your dog’s back legs (just under the hip) and lift them off the ground. Back away from the other dog.
Do not try to grab your pet’s collar; she may be startled and inadvertently bite you. After you’ve separated the dogs, put her leash on and calm her down. If the park is large enough, you can try letting her off-leash in another area. If she’s still agitated, take her home for the day. There’s always tomorrow!
Scuffles happen – but so does fun, socialization, and exercise. Make sure that the park is a good fit for your dog – and that your dog is a good fit for the park. When it is, visiting will be the highlight of her day.
(Oh, and just one more tip: always pick up after your pet. No one wants to step in a smelly pile to be the “highlight” of their day!)