Dog parks seem to be a polarizing destination for dog owners. There are some that believe that dog parks are unsafe, and should be avoided at all costs. Others utilize dog parks because they love the socialization and exercise that their dog gets. There are many dogs who are great at socializing and benefit from the dog park! Even if you have confidence in your own dog's behavior and their socialization skills, you must be wary of inexperienced dog owners with dogs that may not be as well socialized as yours.
While I wholeheartedly agree that dog parks can be unsafe, I think it is a shame that we write them off completely. Here are some tools that will help dog owners have a safe experience at the dog park.
Learn Dog Body Language The best way to prepare yourself to enter a dog park is to be an expert in dog body language. This is one of the most important skills you will need as a responsible dog owner. Not only should you know how to recognize cues in dog body language at a dog park, but it is important for walks, having guests over your house, introducing your dog to new situations and more. It is a practiced skill that you can develop by working with a dog trainer, researching online or sitting outside the dog park and being an observer. Once you are fluent in understanding how dogs communicate, you are already better equipped to visit a dog park.
Having a Well-Socialized Dog If you get your hands full with a new puppy, you’ll know that socializing is imperative to the success of a well-rounded and confident adult dog. The best way to socialize a new puppy is to enroll in puppy classes or bringing your dog to daycare! Working with a trained professional in a controlled group setting is the best way to set your puppy up for success.
You do not want to take your new puppy straight to the dog park. This is dangerous for several reasons. They may not have all their vaccines yet, and are susceptible to diseases like parvovirus and kennel cough. You also want to avoid having a negative experience with aggressive adult dogs. This can have a serious impact on their socialization, especially during critical periods in their development.
Now, if you have an adult dog that is a rescue, or maybe you skipped out on the puppy classes, it’s never too late to enroll your dog in training. Of course you may need one-on-one sessions before entering a group class. Again, working with a professional will help you understand your new dog, and if the dog park is an appropriate place for them to play with other dogs!
It is OK if your dog is not interested in socializing. You should never force them to interact with other dogs. It’s important to note that dogs don’t need to be “friendly” to be “well-socialized”. In fact, a well-socialized dog is one that can ignore other dogs or distractions around them. We have a tendency to push dog friends on our dogs, which can be harmful if they aren’t ready or interested in that particular relationship. You want to make sure your dog is well-socialized, but they should never be forced to, and they should have the opportunity to safely remove themselves from a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Safety and Sanitation
Poop- Another concern is how clean the dog park is. Always bring your own bags to pick up poop! From personal experience, unless you are a member of a private dog park, you cannot rely on the poop bag dispenser being full! Those bags should be there in case you run out! A simple way to be a better dog owner is to always pick up after your dog. Nothing irritates me more than the people who use the dog park as a toilet.
Water- Bring plenty of water for your dog! Some dog parks may have fountains, but you cannot trust that they are working or that they have not been clogged. It’s a best practice to bring your own water, and your own water bowl! That way your pup doesn’t have to share from a communal bowl and risk the chance of picking up harmful bacteria or a virus from another dog transmitted by shared water bowls. Be sure to bring extra water during the summer or on extra hot days, too.
First Aid- It’s important to keep both human, and dog basic first aid handy! I always have travel neosporin, band aids, baby wipes, and antiseptic pads in my bag for myself. I have also found these items useful at the dog park. One time, a dog skinned his nose on the cement outside of the entrance to the dog park. My baby wipes came in handy to clean him and his human up! I also carry a spare slip-lead in my bag just in case!
What NOT to Bring
Toys should never be brought to the dog park. The point of the dog park is for dogs to socialize with each other. Throwing a toy (literally) into the mix can cause aggression and resource guarding. Some people feel like balls are “neutral” and are safe to use in the dog park. Some dog parks even have their own supply of dog balls.
I have still observed ball-obsessive dogs that guard their own ball. If you want to play fetch with your pup, I would recommend finding a larger, non-enclosed space free from other dogs, and if your pup does not have a great recall, you can use a long line.
Treats and Food are also a no-no. While you may rely on treats for your dog to be on their best behavior- treats can be distracting at the dog park, and will also have all the dogs sniffing your pockets! They will be less interested in each other, and more focused on trying to get at your treats. You should also not be eating your own food at the dog park!
Dog Clothing and Bandanas are unsafe for obvious reasons. Other dogs will grab and pull at clothing on a dog. It can also restrict them (raincoats or sweaters) from moving naturally which is not safe in the dog park environment. It can also prevent or cover up communication like a wagging tail, or raised hackles.
Children- A more controversial leave-at-home is children. Many dog parks have a rule established that children are not allowed to enter the park, or they may not enter without the supervision of a parent or guardian. While it can be a time for family bonding, or an opportunity to teach your child dog park etiquette- I do not believe that they should be inside of the park. It is best for the safety of the child, and the dogs. Even if your child is a dog lover, and knows how to appropriately interact with your dog, not all dogs are socialized or like children. A child inside of the park can become a dangerous distraction.
Regulations- Is your dog park well-regulated? Be well versed in the rules, so you can also enforce them! If it’s not, and you want your dog park to be a safer and better place for the community, start a community group! Living in a city, a dog park may be the only option for off-leash exercise for your pup. You can advocate for your local dog park by organizing with fellow dog-owners in your community. I have hosted successful dog park clean-ups in my local dog park! This was also an opportunity to help educate other dog owners in my community. Stay tuned for Part 2 in dog park etiquette for a more in depth look at human behavior and socialization at the dog park!