Many cities now have a dog park of some kind. These are public areas that are fenced in, or else have some other natural boundary, that allows dogs to run and play off-leash. They are a great place to play a rousing game of fetch with plenty of room to use a ball launcher and socialize with other dogs (and let's be honest, there's a lot of socialization among dog owners going on at dog parks too!) But dog parks can vary a lot in terms of cleanliness and the personalities of dogs that you may find there. Follow this list of 11 dog park etiquette and safety tips to ensure that your dog and all the other visitors enjoy their time there.
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1. Ensure your dog has vaccinations first.
Basic safety and health precautions for dogs of all ages should be followed before a visit to a dog park. Since your dog will be in close contact with dogs you don't know, only dogs that are up-to-date on their vaccinations should visit a dog park. Puppies younger than 4 months old who have not had all of their vaccinations should not visit. The chief veterinary officer of the American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends that dogs be vaccinated for bordetella, leptospirosis, and canine influenza and be treated with flea, tick, and heartworm meds before visiting a dog park.
2. Teach your dog basic training cues.
Before your dog is ever off-leash, they should be responsive to basic training cues. A dog park is a distracting environment, with lots of people, toys, and dogs that your dog may be friendly toward or may even be scared of, for whatever reason. If there's ever a moment when your dog is having a tough interaction with another dog (or dog owner), you want to be able to have your dog sit, stay, come, or drop it.
3. Get familiar with dog body language.
It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with dog body language before heading to the dog park. If you recognize aggressive body language in any of the other dogs, stay on your guard. It can sometimes be hard to figure out the difference between playful and non-playful dog growling. Look for a low, vibrating angry growl, crouching, snarling and baring teeth, pricked ears, and a raised tail. Even a playful game can turn into a fight. If that happens, it doesn't necessarily mean you need to leave, but your dog may need to calm down before resuming.
4. Know how to break up a fight.
Hopefully there won't be a fight, but if there is, don't put yourself in the middle of it. You could put yourself at risk of injury from a stray dog tooth or claw. Learn how to safely break up a dog fight by using distractions or the "wheelbarrow technique" (taking hold of your dog's back legs). Above all, avoid getting near the head or neck of either dog.
5. Bring your own dog park supplies.
Don't count on there always being enough poop bags or fresh water. Bring your dog's water bowls and perhaps enough fresh water to share in case another dog needs some. Keep your harness and leash handy in case you need to corral your dog. Equipping your dog with an ID collar and a microchip is a good idea in case someone inadvertently leaves the gate to the dog park open and your dog runs out. As recommended above, an air horn could be a good thing to have on hand in case you need to get your dog's attention without getting in the middle of an altercation.
This harkens back to the lessons that many of us learned in elementary school about only giving out something if there's enough for everyone. Some dogs are territorial about things like toys, so whether your dog is resource guarding or not, it may be less stressful if there are enough toys to share rather than just one that your dog or another dog may really want.
7. Separate by size.
Not all large dogs and small dogs get along. Some dog parks may be specifically geared toward large dogs while others may be specifically welcoming to small dogs. Other neighborhood dog parks may have unofficial areas for dogs of different sizes, such as small dogs at one end and large dogs at the other. If there are posted rules or regulations about dog size, follow them. If not, follow the lead of others using the dog park and let small dogs be around others of their own size, and vice versa.
8. Follow general good dog park etiquette.
Always pick up your dog's poop, and any poop bags that other people may have forgotten about. It may seem harsh, but dog poop is a major source of pollutants that end up in waterways. And the Associated Medical Veterinary Center lists several diseases that are spread by dog poop, including intestinal parasites, E. coli, and parvovirus, which is highly contagious and potentially fatal. That's also why the number one dog park safety tip is to ensure your dog has their vaccinations first.
9. Stay focused and keep it short.
While you're at the dog park, it may be tempting to scroll on your phone or read a book on a sunny warm bench. But the dogs need your attention. Stay focused on your dog and observe what the other dogs and dog owners are doing so you can take care of something if necessary. A dog park is a place where dogs often get very excited and use up a lot of energy. Most dogs will enjoy the experience if they get shorter visits so they don't get over tired.
10. Go at less busy times.
If you're not sure how your dog will handle being around other dogs, or you're still working on their manners, try to visit the dog park at a time that may be less busy. Early mornings or weekday days may find the dog park less crowded, so you can slowly introduce the concept.
11. It's OK to not go to the dog park.
And finally, the dog park is not for every dog. Reactive dogs, territorial dogs, or dogs that have a hard time being responsive off-leash or being around other dogs may not be able to handle the distracting and potentially overwhelming environment of a dog park. Don't force an overwhelmed dog to go into this kind of environment. Instead, work with a qualified dog trainer to find out what steps you can take to socialize them.
There are also many alternatives to the dog park for reactive dogs. For example, an app called Sniffspot helps dog owners reserve private yards for their dogs to play in, and is a great resource for information on reactive dogs.
Whenever dogs are in close contact with dogs they don't know, there is potential for sharing diseases and for conflicting personalities. Be sure your dog is healthy and has vaccinations before visiting a dog park. Stay vigilant and learn aggressive body language and learn how to safely break up a fight if necessary. Bring your own supplies such as fresh water and poop bags. Depending on your dog's size, try to interact with other small dogs or large dogs. Finally, a dog park can be a fun experience for dogs, but it's ok to not go if it just doesn't work out for your dog.