The Do’s and Don’ts of Dog Parks
By Shireen Haynes
As the weather warms up, many people are looking for activities they can enjoy outdoors with their dog. Dog parks are just one option. Official dog parks are sections of public parks where dogs are allowed to run off-leash. Most towns and counties require pre-registration and a fee before your dog can legally use these spaces. (Monroe County requires annual registration, which includes a copy of the rabies vaccination and charges an approximate $25.00 per dog fee.) Before you decide to head out to the nearest park, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First and foremost, ask yourself, “Is the dog park a good fit for your dog?” A shy, timid dog may not do well with other dogs he doesn’t know. Does your dog have an overabundance of energy that some dogs might find annoying? Does he have a rough play-style? Would he be intimidating to other dogs and possibly even their owners? Just like humans, dogs have a variety of personalities and not all dogs are suited for the dog park. There are some dogs who, frankly, would not enjoy this type of environment.
Most parks are not staffed with people trained in animal behavior. As you probably won’t know every dog and their owner at the park, there is an element of risk associated with this. To make your trip to the dog park as enjoyable and as safe as it can be, here are some tips to follow:
1. Register your dog for legal use of the park. Failure to do so could result in tickets and fines.
2. Make sure your dog is up-to-date on his vaccinations and flea/tick medication. Like school playgrounds and children, dog parks can be breeding grounds for germs that are easily transmissible among animals. This is why puppies under four months of age are not allowed in. They are susceptible to diseases such as parvo virus that can prove to be life-threatening.
3. Spend a few minutes outside the park to scope out what’s going on inside. Do the dogs look like they are playing appropriately? Is one dog being ganged up on? Are the owners in control? Be aware of the situation and if you don’t like what you see, don’t go in.
4. Small dogs need to stay on the small dog side and large dogs on the large dog side. There should be no inter-mingling.
5. There is a small catchment area where you can safely unleash your dog. Use this as an opportunity to reinforce good behavior. Do not allow your dog to enter the main play area until he settles down. If he is excitable and bouncing up and down, that could increase the excitement of the other dogs already in the park. Dog play is already rough-and-tumble but things can escalate in a matter of seconds. When dogs get overexcited at times like this, it can easily spill over and become a squabble.
6. Do not enter the main area if there are multiple dogs congregated at the entrance. Let them lose interest in your dog and walk away before you enter. Your dog could feel overwhelmed at such a welcoming committee and feel defensive.
7. Leave the distractions at home – kids at home and cell phone in the car. You can’t concentrate on your dog and what’s going on if you are buried in your phone. It’s nice to socialize with other owners but keep eye contact on your dog.
8. Leave food (dog and human) and toys at home. Nothing can cause a fight quicker than food or a toy that everyone wants.
9. Playing chase with one or two dogs involved can be a fun way for them to get exercise. Any more than that and the dog being chased can feel overwhelmed and become defensive.
10. This is most important – PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DOG’S BODY LANGUAGE – Is his tail tucked between his legs? Does he keep coming back to you and using you as barrier between him and other dogs? Your dog will look to you for help if they are uncomfortable in this situation. Don’t push a dog beyond his comfort level. Don’t think a frightened dog “will get over it.” He is telling you wants to leave. Respect that.
A great website for learning canine body language is www.ispeakdog.org. This website aims to teach people why dogs do what they do. It can help you learn your dog’s emotional state by reading his body language.
Dog parks can prove to be fun and exciting for some dogs. Don’t be upset or dismayed if it’s something your dog does not like. There are many other ways for your dog to have fun outdoors, such as hiking and swimming. Above all, remember that your dog’s most important playmate is you.