I am very careful about using a dog park. I avoid most of them and tend to use ones with LOTS of space. And I carefully check out any park before I use it.
I often tell people that dog parks are like large cocktail parties where you may not know anyone, may not speak the language of the people there and it’s a lead pipe cinch that 10% of the attendees will be obnoxious drunks. It takes sophisticated social skills to successfully navigate that kind of cocktail party…..the same goes for the dog park…dogs need VERY good social skills to manage the dog park. Below are my rules and guidelines for dog park use:
WHAT I LOOK FOR: * Check out the park numerous times at different times and on different days BEFORE you take your dog. This will give you some idea of when it’s crowded and when it’s not. It may also tell you when the bad actors are there (more about this later).
* Does the park have a decent entrance. I want to see a double gate so that dogs can’t swarm you and your dog when you enter and so there is a reduced risk of an escape.
* Is the park interesting from a dog’s perspective? Are there trees, creeks, interesting objects around that don’t pose a risk to your dog? As an example, I love a park that mixes woody areas with grassy areas and a big bonus if there is a water feature like a creek
* Is there agility equipment or other dog sports equipment there? If so, I don’t go. A bunch of dogs running around agility equipment is a recipe for (1) over arousal and (2) an injury. Both of my dogs DO agility and have had the requisite training to use the equipment, but I sure wouldn’t let them run equipment in a dog park with a bunch of other dogs around.
* How big is the park? Is it big enough that even if there seem to be a lot of dogs, you can get away and go off and have a nice walk without the risk of too many dogs getting too excited?
* What is the footing in the park? Is it sand? Gravel? Wood chips? Artificial grass? All of these pose some risks and make keeping the park clean harder and increase some risk of parasites. Also many dogs with sight deficits will find any kind of footing that isn’t completely stable off putting and scary. I, personally, prefer plain old dirt and grass.
* Beware of the potential risks to running a dog on very wet or very icy ground. It’s a fast way to a cruciate injury. I don’t ever use a chuck-it with any dog that likes fetch. Most canine physiotherapists flinch and go pale when they hear people saying they use a chuck-it as it increases the risk of an injury due to the speed and the sudden stop and start.
* Access to a water source, but not necessarily random dog bowls full of slimy water.
* Garbage containers for dog bag disposal. It’s nice if the park HAS dog poop bags, but I always bring them as it’s not always reasonable to expect a park to provide them
WHAT I DON’T WANT TO SEE: * Small children running around, supervised or not.
* A small space with no real way to move away and not enough room to actually have a walk.
* Picnic tables with owners sitting around chatting or on their phones not supervising their dogs.
* Dogs that are clearly uncomfortable being there and either cringing away from other dogs or aggressively reacting to other dogs.
* Puppies. Most will NOT learn anything at a park except how to play too roughly or that other dogs are scary and overwhelming. You can accidentally create a reactive dog by taking your pup to a dog park. DOG PARKS ARE DREADFUL PLACES TO TRY AND SOCIALIZE YOUR DOG.
* Dogs that have not been with their owners for very long (Under 6 months to a year).
* Dogs that have recently been imported from another country (they often have no skills in this situation and I’m not confident sufficient vetting has been done)
* Owners who are “Dog Park Cesar Millans”. These folks are often intrusive, won’t take no for an answer and usually don’t have any real knowledge or skills but think they do
* Dogs in spiky metal collars or any collars that can catch on another dog’s paws or teeth. These pose a real risk to other dogs while playing.
* Random toys lying around. I hate to sound like everyone’s grandmother, but “you don’t know where that toy has been” and I see WAY too many dog fights over resource guarding toys.
* Large groups of dogs running at speed and with little control. This kind of interaction is a recipe for injury, dog fights and small dogs getting grievously injured.
THINGS TO CONSIDER:
* Is your dog enjoying this whole dog park experience? What are you hoping for in this…do you just want your dog to exercise and give you a break? Or are you looking for an interesting way to engage with your dog that isn’t the same old backyard experience?
* Has your dog been sick recently or recently vaccinated? Probably not a great time to go to the park. Some dogs are achy and lethargic after a vaccine and so not feeling the love for the dog park experience
* Does your dog have the social skills to navigate the dog park? Do you? If you need to get your dog in a hurry, can you?
THINGS TO KNOW THAT YOU MAY NOT BE ABLE TO PREVENT:
* Your dog catching kennel cough or an intestinal parasite. Kennel cough (Bordetella) is highly contagious and dogs can be vectors before they show signs. Shared toys and water bowls are risks for both kennel cough and parasites. Admittedly, your dog can get kennel cough lots of ways besides the dog park…ditto with parasites, but your risks do increase in a dog park.
* Dog fights. They will happen. Whether your dog gets into one is largely (1) how vigilant you are, (2) how responsible other owners are, (3) how solid your dog’s temperament and skills are, (4) how willing you are to step in before a fight breaks out.