It seems you either love ’em or hate ’em.
This is a hotly debated topic among the pet sitter groups I belong to. Much like a playground for young children, dog parks are a playground of sorts for dogs. Most parks are fenced in, so there’s no worry about your dog running off into the woods or traffic.
Some people believe they’re a great way to allow dogs to play and socialize with other canines. Others believe there are just too many risks involved — dog fights, disease, learning bad behaviors from other dogs (sort of like your child coming home with new, exciting language from the playground).
There are valid arguments on either side. Myself, I am pro-park. I love the park, and the dogs I have brought love the park.
However, not all dogs should visit the park. And not all caregivers are equipped to handle a park.
So how do you know whether you should bring Rex into this sort of environment?
Is Your Dog Medically Ready for the Park?
First, is he up to date on all of his vaccinations, including Bordatella (aka Kennel Cough)? If not, then NO. This is not a safe environment for your dog or for the other dogs.
Next, is your dog spayed or neutered? NEVER bring a female dog in heat to the park. You are asking for trouble if you do.
It’s not fair to her when the other dogs get excited and want to mount her, and it’s not safe because she’ll want to fend them off. And it’s likely that several male dogs will try to get to your girl, resulting in a scuffle (at best) or an all-out brawl. This is a recipe for disaster. Just don’t do it.
There are owners who seem to feel their unneutured male is fine to bring to the park. Personally, I feel most unneutered (and unspayed) dogs should generally not enter a park. However, vets have been recommending leaving dogs unaltered for longer than what used to be the norm — particularly larger breeds. So as long as the owner is conscientious and pays close attention to their dog (as all owners ought to be doing anyway), my view has softened a bit.
This topic — when and whether to alter your dog — is a blog for another day, but let me leave it by reiterating, to NEVER bring a female in heat to the park. NEVER.
Now that we got the medical stuff out of the way, let’s discuss what else needs to be considered.
Are You Physically and Mentally Prepared?
How about you, the human? Are you physically able to keep up with your dog in the park?
If you need to get her attention quickly, leash her and leave, can you? Do you know what to do if a fight breaks out? Can you physically do what needs to be done? If not, then avoid the park. This is not your fenced-in backyard where you can be less mindful.
Also, dogs run around a LOT at the park, they play chase in packs, and I have seen many people get barreled into, and even knocked over — myself included. If you aren’t physically able to handle what might happen, this isn’t the place for you to bring Rex.
If you are particularly timid and nervous, you probably want to think twice about the dog park. Your dog will feed off of that energy. If you’re nervous, she’ll be nervous and more likely to growl at approaching dogs who only want to check her out and maybe play. This can lead to aggression and a fight.
HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean you can never go to a park. I had a client who knew she was nervous but wanted to learn how to feel more confident and safe so her dog would feel confident and safe with other canines. She was open to learning. She took suggestions and small steps, and now both she and her dog are able to enjoy playtime with other dogs. It’s been wonderful to watch!
What kind of control do you have with your dog? If your answer is a hearty laugh, and a “Ha! She’s the one who runs things around here,” then you both aren’t ready for the park — yet.
Let’s work on some basic commands first: Sit, Stay, Down, Come, Off, Heel, and No. Once you both have those under your belt, then you might be ready for the park.
Full disclosure — while my dog and my fur niece do know these seven commands, they aren’t perfect with them 100 percent of the time. But the park, with all of its distractions, is a good place to continue practicing those commands. A distraction-free home is easy; how about the playground?
Is your dog possessive? Food Aggressive? Toy aggressive? If so, she should not go to the park. But again, this might not be a forever decision.
A good trainer can help most dogs with these behaviors. YOU have to also be trained, though. It’s incredibly frustrating how many pet parents think that only the dog needs training. You need it as well. Listen to the trainer, follow through, and be consistent. Especially when it comes to dealing with aggressive behaviors. Your dog needs to understand exactly what is expected at all times.
Once you have been through training – and this will take longer than a week or two because you’re in it for the long haul – you MIGHT be ready for the park. Start small, and ask your trainer’s advice for how to do this properly, if at all.
Once you know that your dog is medically ready and knows her basic commands, etc., what do you need to know about park etiquette?
There are usually rules posted on the fence — read them. If the park has a website, check it out before your first visit.
Maybe even visit once without your dog, just to get the lay of the land and observe. Even ask other dog owners questions. Most are more than happy to chat about their experience, help educate others about park etiquette, and of course just have the opportunity to talk about their dog.
A good park not only has signs posted at the gate, but also has a double fence, or containment, system. This means that there’s a gate to enter a small area where you take your dog’s leash off, and then another gate to enter the actual park.
This serves two major purposes. First, it keeps all the dogs contained so they can’t run out of the park. They would have to slip by two open gates rather than just the one. Second, it gives the new arrivals a moment to prepare and even sniff around a bit before heading into the large area of what can feel chaotic at first.
For a lot of dogs, a good walk before entering the park can be helpful. It rids them of extra tension and energy so they are more mentally relaxed when coming out to play with their friends.
Bring water and a dish. It’s a good idea to have your own for your dog, but let’s face it, they end up sharing dishes … which is another reason up-to-date vaccinations are so important. Some parks actually have hoses or fountains to fill your dish, but not all.
Do NOT bring treats or other food into the park. Not all owners are good about not bringing their food aggressive dogs, and even well-behaved dogs can get overstimulated and reactive when there’s competition for something to eat. Plus you’ll end up with dogs like my niece, Lillie, who will not stop following you if you have tasty snacks hidden on your person.
Leave the treats in the car and offer them after your visit.
Pick up after your dog. First, it’s just good manners. It’s gross to step in poop, and we’ve all done it. Help keep the place clean. Also, dog poop is a breeding ground for disease. Help to keep all the dogs healthy by picking up his waste.
Some parks have poop bags available, but it’s always a good idea to bring your own. So far, I haven’t been to a park that doesn’t at least have trash bins to dispose of your poop bags, but if they don’t, then you’ll have to carry that bag back with you and dispose of it in your own trash or dumpster.
As a dog walker, I hated carrying bags of poop on my walks, and found this great product, called a Doo-Doo Tube. It’s one of the best tools of the trade and saved my nose many times!
Keep a Close Eye on Your Dog at All Times!
And finally, a park is not a “just let your dog run free while you take a nap” kind of place.
As a responsible pet owner, you need to keep a close eye on your dog. Be aware of canine body language. Understand the difference between play wrestling and what is too rough, play growling and warning growls. Understand that although mounting other dogs is normal, it is also rude behavior, so don’t allow it.
My own dog is older and usually pretty chill, but occasionally he finds a dog he really “likes” and wants to mount. I know the look he gets and I put a stop to it before it happens. Does he sometimes try before I get to him? Yup. But I never just allow it. I take him off, and move him away.
If he becomes a pest and just won’t stop trying to go for it, we leave. That’s my responsibility as a pet owner. My usually well-behaved dog sometimes just doesn’t listen, so we leave and try again another day. We are not going to ruin the fun for the other dogs and humans who are following the rules and minding their manners.
Some owners don’t keep a close eye on their dogs. If I feel at all like my dog might be in danger because of a dog parent who isn’t watching their dog, the presence of an aggressive dog, or one who just won’t leave my boy alone (because he’s usually the one other dogs mount, not the other way around), then I leave.
I’ve been lucky, I suppose. My overall experience has been very good with dog parks. Have I seen fights break out? Of course. Are there some parks I avoid if I know a particularly aggressive dog or irresponsible pet parents are there? You bet.
But I also have the confidence to stop a fight before it begins if I notice one brewing, even if it’s not my own dogs. I have no problem telling other dogs “No” or pulling them off of my dog. I’m not rude. I don’t chastise the owner, and so far, no owner has gotten mad at me. (At least they haven’t said anything to me if they were.)
I believe that in a park, we all need to keep an eye out first on our own dogs, and then on each other’s as well, and I appreciate it when other owners do the same with the dogs in my care.
Dog parks can be a great place for socialization between dogs and between dogs and humans. It’s usually fun, and can be quite safe IF you are vigilant.
What has been your experience with dog parks? Do you have additional questions or concerns I can answer about them for you?