What sounds better than a safe place you can let your dog run free, meet new friends, and have a jolly good time? Dog parks want to be just that. As the concept has spread in popularity and usage over the United States, many dog lovers now have access to these leash-off spaces and are wondering if they should try it out. Each dog park has its own rules; if you have any questions about park etiquette, tips or suggestions, there are many websites definitely worth checking out (see below). Here we outline suggested steps on how to integrate your pooch into a park.
1. Evaluate and Socialize Your Pooch:
Dog parks can be great, but the bittersweet truth is not all dogs will benefit from being there or have any fun. Your pooch’s age, health, size, temperament (excitable, aggressive, timid, etc.) level of training, and experience with other dogs all need to be considered before you commit to a dog park. The ASPCA suggests the best candidates for dog parks are those that are healthy and already enjoy being with other pooches. Even if you have two or three dogs in your home, they are not necessarily more welcoming of unfamiliar canines.
Socialize your pooch before visiting a park. Set up short play dates with friends’ or relatives’ dogs in a controlled environment, and if all goes well, gradually increase the number of visits, their length, or number of dogs. Always refer to your veterinarian or trainer for their expert and personal advice concerning your pooch.
Almost every dog park requires these next few checklist items: 1) Vaccinate and treat your pooch—the proximity of other dogs and wildlife (flea-bitten raccoons, anyone?) pose a risk to unvaccinated or untreated dogs, and 2) Spaying or neutering your dog helps to mitigates the risk of fights—many dog parks only allow spayed or neutered canines.
2. Stakeout Your Park:
Picking a dog park is a lot like picking a gym: its features, visitors, rules and upkeep all matter. Every park is a little different, and some may be better for you and your pooch than others. First scope out the park you’d like to visit by yourself. Find all its rules to see if you can comply with them. Go on different days and at different times over the week—this will give you a good idea of when its crowded and when it’s quieter (hint: you’ll likely have a better first visit during off-peak hours). Observe both the dogs and their humans, and decide for yourself if they are behaving in friendly, controlled ways that your dog would be safe and comfortable with. Also, take a good look at the space itself and note its features. Some parks don’t have fences, and if you aren’t sure your dog won’t run off at some point for a high-flying adventure, you may want to stick with parks that are fully enclosed. Available waterspouts, doggie bags, and designated spaces for puppies or small dogs may also sway you towards one dog park over another.
3. Baby Steps
Satisfied with the park? Now it’s time to introduce your pooch! Like with many other training strategies, small, repeated and consistent steps will bring you the best results. On the first visit, it’s a good idea to take your pooch on a walk around the park and let him/her observe the scene. This also gives the other dogs time to become accustomed with a new presence. Newcomers are always most exciting events, and the regulars might crowd around your pooch when s/he first arrives.
Preliminary visits ought to be short and sweet, not going beyond what your dog can handle. As you and your pooch become more familiar with the park and its occupants, you can increase your visits and their length.
4. Stay on the Alert
Dog parks are changeable environments—always paying attention to your pooch and others will help keep fights, sickness, and other problems from ruining the park experience. Fights are not out of the question, even with well-behaved dogs. It’s a good idea to educate yourself on dog behavior, warning signs, and how to safely break up pooch entanglements.
Above all, remember that dog parks are meant to be fun and friendly places, giving your pooch a safe place to play and get much needed exercise and social interaction. The many benefits of parks, and the successes many turned out to be, are what made dog parks so popular in the first place.