Dog parks are becoming more popular all across the United States. They range in size and design but all share the same purpose: to provide a place where dogs can run freely off-leash and socialize with other dogs. Although they’re not for everyone, dog parks can benefit both people and their pets. Read on to find out if a trip to the dog park is right for you and your dog as well as what to do before you visit and once you’re there.
To Go or Not to Go
Many behavior problems in dogs are caused by a lack of physical and mental activity. Dogs were born to lead active lives. They’ve worked alongside people for thousands of years, hunting game, herding and protecting livestock, and controlling vermin. Dogs’ wild relatives lead busy lives, too. Their days are full of hunting, scavenging, avoiding predators and complex social interaction. Most pet dogs, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time alone at home, napping on couches and eating food from bowls—no hunting or scavenging required. Many become bored, lonely and overweight. They have excess energy and no way to expend it, so it’s not surprising that they often come up with activities on their own, like unstuffing couches, raiding trash cans and gnawing on shoes.
To keep your dog happy, healthy and out of trouble, you’ll need to find ways to exercise her brain and body. If she enjoys the company of her own kind, visits to your local dog park can greatly enrich her life. Benefits of going to the dog park include:
- Physical and mental exercise for dogs Your dog can zoom around off-leash to her heart’s content, investigate new smells, wrestle with her dog buddies and fetch toys until she happily collapses. Many dogs are so mentally and physically exhausted by a trip to the dog park that they snooze for hours afterwards.
- Opportunities to maintain social skills Dogs are like us, highly social animals, and many enjoy spending time with their own species. At the dog park, your dog gets practice reading a variety of other dogs’ body language and using her own communication skills, and she gets used to meeting unfamiliar dogs on a frequent basis. These valuable experiences can help guard against the development of fear and aggression problems around other dogs.
- Fun for pet parents Dogs aren’t the only ones who enjoy dog parks. People do, too. They can exercise their dogs without much effort, socialize with other dog lovers, bond and play with their dogs, practice their off-leash training skills, and enjoy the entertaining antics of frolicking dogs.
Dog Park Downsides
Despite the many benefits dog parks provide, it’s important to be aware of the risks before you decide to become a dog-park devotee:
- Health risks Healthy, vaccinated dogs are at low risk of becoming ill as a result of visiting the dog park. There are health risks any time your dog interacts with other dogs, just as there are for us when we interact with other people. Talk to your veterinarian about the risks and whether she recommends vaccinating for Bordatella (“kennel cough”) if you become a regular park user. Fleas are everywhere—including on squirrels, rabbits and raccoons—so the key to flea control is providing adequate protection on your pet. Your dog could get injured in a fight or during overly rambunctious play. It’s highly unlikely, but small dogs could even be killed at a dog park because larger dogs sometimes perceive smaller dogs as prey. (Please see our article, Predatory Behavior in Dogs, for more information.)
- Dog problems For some dogs, especially those who are naturally shy or easily overwhelmed, a visit to the dog park can be stressful. If your dog has unpleasant experiences with other dogs—if they bully or fight with her, intimidate her or just play too roughly—she might decide she doesn’t like them at all! She could start growling, barking, snarling, snapping and lunging to drive other dogs away, and even biting if they approach.
- People problems Everyone has a different perspective, and some people have strong opinions about dog behavior. Pet parents don’t always agree about what’s normal dog behavior, what’s acceptable during play, what kind of behavior is truly aggressive, which dog behaviors are obnoxious, whether or not one dog is bullying another or who’s at fault in an altercation. People might argue about how to respond when problems between dogs arise. Since there’s rarely an authority figure to appeal to at a dog park, disagreements can get heated and result in human behavior problems!
Is the Dog Park Right for You and Your Dog?
Many people feel that the benefits of dog parks outweigh their risks. Others decide that they’re not comfortable going to dog parks. To make the best decision for you and your dog, consider the pros and cons above, read the guidelines below, and visit local dog parks without your dog just to watch and learn more.
Who Benefits Most?
- Well-socialized dogs Dog parks are best for dogs who love interacting with other dogs. They’re not for dogs who simply tolerate other dogs, dogs who only get along with certain types of dogs or dogs who routinely fight with other dogs.
- Young dogs Although adult dogs can have fun at dog parks, young dogs (under the age of two) benefit most. They can burn some of their youthful energy and gain valuable social experience with other dogs and people. Younger dogs are also more likely to enjoy multiple playmates than older dogs, who often get more picky about their friends as they mature.
- Healthy dogs To be well protected at the dog park, your dog should be fully vaccinated and have a good immune system. Since dogs do a lot of wrestling and running at the park, your dog should also be physically sound and free of chronic injuries or pain. Ask your veterinarian about your dog’s health-readiness for going to dog parks.
- Altered dogs To avoid unwanted sexual behavior at the dog park, it’s best to spay or neuter your dog before visiting the dog park.
Who’s Not an Ideal Candidate?
- Unvaccinated puppies It’s essential for young puppies to meet and interact with a variety of different dogs during their socialization period, from about 3 to 16 weeks of age. (For more information, please see our article, Socializing Your Puppy.) However, before they’ve been fully vaccinated, puppies are extremely vulnerable to potentially deadly contagious diseases, such as parvovirus. Because so many dogs frequent a dog park, the chances of exposure to dangerous pathogens are higher there. Until your puppy has had all her shots, don’t take her to the dog park. Instead, you can arrange play dates at the homes of friends and family who have healthy dogs and puppies. You can also enroll your puppy in a puppy class that includes off-leash playtime in a safe, hygienic area.
- Females in heat and unneutered males To avoid unwanted pregnancies, don’t take an unspayed female dog to the park when she’s in heat. Avoid taking an unneutered male to the dog park as well. In addition to siring accidental puppies, intact males can experience social problems. An unneutered dog’s high testosterone level can make him the target of harassment or aggression from other male dogs.
- Undersocialized, fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs Many people mistakenly believe that dogs who fear or dislike other dogs just need more socialization. However, if your dog is fearful or nervous around other dogs, exposing her to the hectic environment of a dog park will only worsen her problems. Similarly, if your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, visits to a dog park might exacerbate her behavior and put other people’s pets at risk or ruin their enjoyment of the park. If you’d like to change the way your dog behaves around other dogs, please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a qualified expert who can assist you.
- Bullies Some dogs, because of their personalities or learning experiences, just don’t play well with others. Dogs who bully can traumatize their weaker or more timid playmates or provoke fights. If bullies are allowed to practice their behavior at the dog park, their behavior often worsens over time—and bad experiences with bullies can cause aggression problems in other dogs.
- Dog dorks Some dogs don’t bully other dogs on purpose, but they lack more refined social skills and just aren’t capable of playing politely. Despite their good intentions, they seem socially clueless. They’re usually high-energy dogs who enjoy play with lively wrestling, hard mouthing and crashing into other dogs like canine bumper cars. When their playmates dislike the rough treatment and try to communicate their desire to quit playing, these dogs don’t seem to understand. They can also hurt or upset people at the dog park if they jump up and mouth on hands, arms or legs. Because rough players can easily spoil the fun for other dogs and their people, they’re not good candidates for dog parks either.
Before You Go
Choosing a Park
There are all kinds of dog parks. Some are situated in open areas, some include walking trails through the woods, and some are located at beaches or near lakes. Some are enclosed by fences and others aren’t. Some parks are formal—recognized by a city or county, with rules created and enforced by a board or committee. Others are just areas where people gather informally to let their dogs play.
Ideal Dog Park Features
Though they vary in design and terrain, the best dog parks should have a few ideal features:
- Enough space for normal interaction The area should be big enough for dogs to run around and space themselves out. If there’s not enough square footage available, a park can easily get crowded. Crowding can lead to tension among dogs and, as a result, fights can erupt.
- Secure fencing and gates Even if your dog reliably comes when called, it’s safest to take her to a securely enclosed area to play off leash. Before you let your dog run free at a dog park, make sure that fencing is sturdy and free of holes. It’s also best if the park enclosure incorporates double gates or an interior “holding pen” at the entrance, so people and their dogs can enter and exit without accidentally letting other dogs slip out of the park.
- Clean-up stations A dog park should have trash cans and bags available for people to clean up after their dogs.
- Water and shelter Especially in warmer climates, exercising dogs should have access to both drinking water and shade.
- A separate area for small dogs Small dogs need exercise and play time too, but they can sometimes get injured or frightened by larger dogs. Many dog parks designate separate areas for smaller or younger dogs so that they can play safely.
Preview the Park and Prepare
Go Alone and Observe
It’s important to visit the dog park a few times without your dog, just to check it out in advance.
- Note the park features. Are you comfortable with them? Do they meet your needs? Also read any posted rules and make sure you agree with them. Can you bring treats and toys with you? Does your dog need a special license? Do you need to pay a fee to use the dog park?
- Go to the park at different times, on different days. Note the best days and times of day to visit. If the park’s always packed on weekend mornings or weekdays after work, for example, you can take your dog at off-peak hours instead.
- Observe the park-goers. Are people actively supervising their dogs or are they letting them run amok while they chat and sip lattés? Does anyone in particular seem to have trouble effectively controlling his or her dog? Are there specific dogs who consistently play too roughly or fight with other dogs? If you identify people or dogs who seem to cause problems, you can avoid visiting the park when they’re around.
Prepare in Advance
- Think about what you’ll need to bring. Find some comfortable clothes and shoes to wear. Put together a dog-park kit that includes essentials, like a leash, water for you and your dog, bags for clean-up, toys and treats.
- Teaching your dog a few key skills helps keep her safe and contributes to a more enjoyable dog-park experience for all park users. One essential skill is a reliable recall. Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called. Sit, down, stay, drop it, leave it and settle are also very useful. For general information about dog training, please see Training Your Dog. You may also want to read Teaching Your Dog to Sit, Teaching Your Dog to Stay and Teaching Your Dog to “Leave It” for details about teaching these specific skills. Don’t hesitate to contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) for group or private classes in dog training. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a CPDT in your area.
- It will help to train yourself, too. Learning about canine body language and communication will help you interpret what’s going on during play and prevent conflict before it escalates to a fight. Please see our article, Canine Body Language, for illustrations and information about how dogs communicate.
When You Get There
Keep the following recommendations in mind to minimize your risks and maximize your fun:
- Before you enter the park, check out the crowd for a few minutes. Do the dogs seem to be romping happily? If so, let the fun begin! If, on the other hand, you notice canine troublemakers bullying or fighting with other dogs—or if you simply feel uneasy about letting your dog play with a particular group of dogs—plan to come back at a later time.
- When a new dog arrives at a dog park, the other dogs often rush over to investigate. This sudden flood of attention can overwhelm newcomers. To avoid a canine mob scene, linger outside the park for a few minutes and let other dogs notice your dog’s presence outside the park’s enclosure. When their excitement about her arrival dissipates, you can enter the park together. After your dog has played a while and become part of the group inside the park, don’t let her become a mob member. Instead, call her to you when you notice newcomers arriving.
- Keep your attention on your dog and her playmates so that you’re aware of what she’s doing at all times. If you see signs that play’s not going well, you can step in to stop interaction before things get out of hand. (Please see Interpreting Dog Play and Interaction, below, to learn about these signs.)
- Avoid canine clumping. When a pair or group of dogs plays nonstop for more than a few minutes, playmates can get overexcited and tension can arise. Instead of standing in one spot during your entire visit, move to a new area of the park every few minutes. Encourage your dog to follow you when you walk to a new spot. Praise and reward her for keeping track of where you are and for coming when you call.
- If at any point you think your dog might not be having fun, take her home. If she’s interacting with another dog, don’t hesitate to ask that dog’s pet parent to help you end the play session. It’s better to call it quits early so your dog still has a good experience overall. You don’t want her to decide that she doesn’t enjoy playing with other dogs anymore.
Interpreting Dog Play and Interaction
While you’re at the dog park with your dog, it’s important to closely monitor interaction between playmates. But interpretation can be difficult sometimes. What do dogs look like when they’re friendly with each other? How about when they don’t feel so friendly? What constitutes polite play between dogs? How can you tell when playmates aren’t getting along, and how do you know when it’s time to intervene? The information below should help you interpret and evaluate dog play. For illustrations and more information about how dogs communicate, please see our article, Canine Body Language. For more details about interpreting dog play and selecting appropriate playmates for your dog, please see our article, Choosing Playmates for Your Dog.
What Good Play Looks Like
When dogs play, they often play-bow, paw at each other and bounce around like puppies. Their bodies look relaxed, rather than stiff, and they might make “play faces”—they hold their mouths open and look like they’re smiling. During play, the dogs might growl playfully and open their mouths wide, exposing their teeth and pretending to be ferocious. They might switch roles so that one dog’s sometimes on top when wrestling and sometimes on her back, sometimes chasing and sometimes being chased, sometimes pouncing and sometimes getting pounced on. The dogs might also frequently switch games, alternating between stalking and chasing each other, wrestling and rolling around on the ground, mouthing on each other, playing with toys, and taking breaks to drink water or sniff around. As the dogs run and wrestle, you might notice them pausing or freezing frequently for just a second or two before launching back into the game. These little pauses and breaks in play help ensure that play doesn’t get out of hand.
Signs of Trouble
If possible, watch for warning signs and step in before a fight happens. Your first clue that things aren’t going well during play might be the absence of all the signs of polite play described above. Instead of those signs, you might notice the dogs’ bodies becoming stiffer and more tense. Their movements might seem faster and less bouncy. Play might become louder and build in intensity, without any breaks or pauses. If you see any of these signs, it’s time to separate the playmates. You should also interrupt play if you see a dog who’s pursuing and playing too roughly with a playmate who’s trying to get away, or who’s repeatedly knocking down or standing over another dog. Intervene immediately if a number of dogs start to chase a single dog—especially if that dog is small.
Damage Control: If There’s a Fight
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to monitor playtime, dogs get into fights. These scuffles often look and sound ferocious. The dogs might growl fiercely, snarl at each other, bark, snap and show their teeth. However, most dog fights don’t result in injury to either dog. They’re usually the equivalent of getting into a brief, heated argument with a friend or family member. Even so, if a fight lasts more than a few seconds, the dogs’ pet parents should separate them. Doing this can be dangerous. If you grab a dog who’s in the middle of fighting with another dog, she might startle and reflexively whip around to bite you. To reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties, follow these guidelines:
- Prevent fights from happening in the first place by actively watching dogs during play. If you think things are starting to look a little tense, end play for a while by calling your dog to come to you. (Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called.)
- Have a plan and don’t panic. Remember that most dog fights are noisy but harmless. If you stay calm, you’ll be able to separate two fighting dogs more safely and efficiently.
- Before you try physically separating two fighting dogs, make lots of noise. Clap and yell. Consider carrying a mini-air horn or two metal pie pans to bang together. A sudden loud sound will often interrupt a fight.
- If there’s a hose handy, you can try spraying the dogs with water.
- If you’ve tried briefly (3 seconds or so) making noise but the dogs are still fighting, you and the other dog’s pet parent should approach the dogs together. Separate them at the same time. Both of you should take hold of your dogs’ back legs at the very top just under the hips, right where the legs connect to the body. (Avoid grabbing the dogs lower on their legs, like by their knees, ankles or paws. Doing so could cause them serious injury.) Like you’d lift a wheelbarrow, lift your dog’s back end under his hips so that his back legs come off of the ground, and move backwards away from the other dog. As soon as you can, turn your dog away from the other dog.
- DO NOT grab your dog by the collar. It seems like the natural thing to do, but it might startle your dog and cause her to turn and bite you. This kind of bite is like a reflex that’s done without thinking. Many pet parents get bitten this way—even when their dogs haven’t shown any signs of aggression in the past.
- After a fight stops, put both dogs on leashes and end the play session. Avoid giving the dogs another chance to fight. If the dog park is large enough, you can walk your dog to another area, far away from the dog she squabbled with. After she’s calmed down and relaxed again, try letting her off leash again to play with other dogs. If the park’s not that big, just call it quits for the day.