Who doesn’t enjoy taking their dogs to local dog parks? It’s a great place for exercise and socializing, but there are also some potential risks you need to be aware of and protect against.
Off-leash dog parks have become phenomenally popular, and most towns and cities have at least one. It’s not surprising, since they offer an array of appealing benefits. Daily exercise helps keep your dog fit and healthy, and the local dog park provides him with a space to play with other pooches and practice tricks and training basics, while you get a chance to meet like-minded dog parents.
But like anything else, there are some drawbacks to dog parks, although with proper care, they don’t need to become problems. One issue is that even fully-fenced parks — which many people consider the most secure option — vary considerably in square footage and self-regulatory guidelines. Some are practically the size of small forest preserves; others may contain profuse foliage that can make it nearly impossible to track down a curious canine who has identified an interesting scent. Furthermore, while many parks are overseen by reputable local government or civic organizations, dog owners are generally expected to self-police their own pooches.
These variables can lead to numerous complications when canines actually begin to interact. Perhaps this is why animal health and behavior experts are often ambivalent in their assessments of dog park safety and practicality. But this doesn’t mean dog parks are a bad idea. If you’re among the growing number of dog parents who enjoy dog park dates with their four-legged friends, you just need to understand the hidden threats so you can avoid them. Here’s a seven-point checklist to keep in mind.
1. Watch your dog, even while socializing. People, like dogs, are social creatures, so dog lovers standing mere yards from each other tend to interact. Others access mobile devices while their pups romp around. It’s all too easy to experience a false sense of security within the fenced confines of a dog park. Owners busily chatting away should never forget that dogs prioritize sights, sounds and scents differently than people do — and that they often signal emotions differently, too – so it’s important to keep a keen eye on dogs in a park setting.
2. Learn canine body language. This leads directly to the next important point – knowing how to read your dog’s body language. “There can be a lot of owner misunderstanding regarding standard behavioral cues at a dog park,” says veterinarian Dr. Lisa McIntyre. “For instance, a wagging tail doesn’t always indicate a dog is happy and eager to play.” While visiting a dog park, Dr. McIntyre recommends maintaining constant, close proximity to your dog so you can watch for problematic postures.
A dog feeling overstimulated, for example, could either display sudden aggression or anxiety. Aggressive body language may include hard stares, tense muscles, a set jawline, outright growling/barking, agitated snapping, lunging — and yes, even tail-wagging. Fearful postures can include “shaking off” movements, repeated yawning, excessive panting, eye-rolling, cowering, repeated lip-smacking, or a low-curling tail.
3. Make sure your own dog is well-trained. Ensuring your dog responds to your commands is always important. At a dog park, however, your own dog isn’t the only potential problem. Dog trainer Abraham Mashal notes that two canines engaged in aggressive posturing may ignore verbal cues altogether. If such behavior should escalate into an actual dogfight, the animals in question may fail to register your presence at all. “I’ve been injured at dog parks myself,” says Abraham. “And I’ve seen both clients and their dogs sustain serious injuries as well. Remember that canines you encounter at the dog park represent a wide spectrum of social skills. You can’t always know what you’re walking into.”
There’s no way you can control how well others dogs at the park are trained or socialized, but you can help minimize potential problems by making sure your own dog is well-trained and socialized. If necessary, work with a trainer to help your dog master basic recall and obedience commands before venturing into any off-leash situation.
4. Understand leash limitations. Abraham observes that a leash can feel highly restrictive to many dogs in some situations. An uncertain dog who wants to retreat is tethered helplessly in place. This is especially true when a leashed dog is swarmed by several off-leash animals. At a dog park, this is most likely to happen at the entrance, which Abraham identifies this area as a particularly problematic zone.
Dr. McIntyre agrees. “Even normally easygoing dogs who sense submissive anxiety in other canines may react with unexpected aggression,” she says. “This can make your leashed dog – and you — ready targets as you walk in.” Abraham recommends taking advantage of the between-gate staging area many park entrances offer. “Remove the leash in that middle space, and spend some time letting your dog adjust to the sights, sounds and scents before you actually enter.” At the very least, this puts your dog on a more equal footing with other dogs as you proceed through the main gate.
5. Be aware of illness risk. Dr. McIntyre notes that there are often few rules regarding who can access dog parks. This means that canines with untreated infections or parasites may be openly interacting with your dog. You can help ensure your dog doesn’t catch anything by ensuring he has a healthy lifestyle that supports a strong and balanced immune system – such a lifestyle includes a high quality diet, minimal vaccines, plenty of exercise, limited or no exposure to toxins, and protection from excess stress.
6. Don’t underestimate injuries. Stay vigilant to the ever-present threat of violent behavior – and if your dog is involved in a skirmish, don’t shrug off superficial-looking scrapes. “Puncture wounds are a dog park-related injury we see fairly often,” says Dr. McIntyre. “They may appear small, but they can lead to abscess and infection. Also, in certain cases, punctures can extend into an organ or body cavity.” The significance of an injury may not reveal itself immediately. So if you see a cut or bite, it’s always smart to visit your vet immediately.
There are pros and cons to just about anything in life, and dog parks are no exception. They’re great places for you and your dog to enjoy exercise, fresh air and socialization, and as long as you take the appropriate safety precautions, your chances of running into a problem should be minimal.