Dog parks generally allow for off-leash play with other dogs, and many of them also have pet-friendly playground-style equipment that provides mental stimulation and physical exercise for our canine friends. But with every outdoor adventure, dog parks come with special considerations—and yes, even some dangers—that we should keep in mind in order to protect our dogs.
From aggressive dogs to aggressive dog owners, we need to be aware of what we could be exposing our dogs to at the dog park. "In many ways, we perceive of our animals as our children, so most pet parents are thinking that dog parks are like a bunch of furry kids just having a blast. In the best case scenario, that's what it is, but these are animals that are typically adult animals (most people don't and shouldn't bring young puppies to dog parks)," says Andrea Arden, animal behaviorist and owner of Andrea Arden Dog Training. "And animal behavior, like human behavior, is complicated. Probably one of the riskiest things about going to dog parks is that not all dogs are going to play well with others. And not all pet parents will recognize or even care if their dog plays well with others." With this in mind, Arden provided a few tips for making sure that our dogs are safe when we do take them to the dog park.
Know the Warning Signs
"If you go to the dog park and sense that the vibe is getting a little too intense, you really have to be willing to just get up and leave," says Arden. "It's surprising how often people don't do that." Maybe you notice that another dog has aggressive body language with your dog and you confront the dog owner about it, only to be ignored for your concerns. Don't escalate the situation by getting into a fight with the other dog owner or by standing by when your dog is being bullied. Arden suggests leaving the park. "People will ask, 'Well, why should I leave?' To protect your dog!" she says. "There's no need to feel like who's in the wrong, who's right; it's a matter of focus being on what's best at any given moment for your dog."
Manage Your Dog's Exposure
Sometimes, particular dogs are targeted for bullying by other dogs. If you know that your dog is going to be targeted by a certain dog breed, or that your dog has it in for dogs of a certain breed, Arden says that it's a good idea to skip the dog park for the day if the particular breed of dog is present at the park. "It's not really a training thing," she says. "It's about managing your dog's exposure to set them up for success as best you can." She tells us of a labrador that couldn't stand bulldogs, so the owner had to do their best to avoid running into bulldogs or steer their dog clear of any bulldogs that they came across on a walk. It's important to know your own dog as well: Always obey the park rules of separated pens (smaller pens are for smaller-size dogs), and any rules about intact males (you should never take a female dog in heat to the park).
Train Your Dog to Obey Commands
Remove your dog's leash as soon as you enter the park. Leash aggression is common when one dog is on a leash and the others are running freely. That said, you need to know that your dog will respond to commands. "The average pet parent seems happy enough if their animal responds to them occasionally when called. At the absolute bare minimum, every pet parent should set as a goal that they have a dog that has a solid recall, even in distracting environments," says Arden. "It's wise for everybody but especially if you take your dog off-leash." If your dog listens to your voice and comes to you when called, you can get him out of harm's way.
Be Up-to-Date on All Vaccinations
State and community laws require particular vaccinations, but it is always important to stay on top of your dog's vaccination schedule. "Dog parks are a public environment where not all of the dogs are going to be healthy or vaccinated," says Arden. "You won't know the vaccination status of the other dogs there." Vaccines work when majority of the population is vaccinated against highly contagious diseases. You protect your dog by keeping him updated on his vaccines. Dog parks are communal, Arden says, so disease can spread quickly among the dogs. Regular vet visits are important to your dog's health, at the dog park and at home.