I’ve often pondered that unleashed dog parks are like pubs; a great place to go to catch up with mates, meet new friends and have some good old fashioned fun. You laugh, you flirt, and you joke around. But then there is the occasional unwanted attention, inadvertent insults or, on a busy Friday night, a little bit of a punch up.
Now imagine those people are dogs. All shapes and sizes, some easy going, others a little anxious. They run, play, interact and sniff every single tree in the park. The majority of the time it’s super fun! However all it takes is one dog, one unwanted advance and suddenly you have a sore traumatised pup, very grumpy owners and a possible trip to the vet. So let me help you decide whether the dog park is the right place for you and your furry friend and give you some tips for your dog park visits.
Keep the sick ones at home
Dog parks are only for fully vaccinated, healthy dogs. Do not take your puppy for at least 2 week after their last vaccination to ensure full immunity to potentially fatal vaccine-preventable diseases. Just like daycare centres, those with diarrhoea or respiratory symptoms (e.g. a cough) should also stay at home for at least 48 hours after cessation of symptoms. The most common outbreak of disease at dog parks is Infectious Tracheitis, sometimes known as Kennel Cough. This is spread via nose-to-nose contact and is known for the harsh, honking, retching cough that the dogs display. Vaccination will reduce the severity of symptoms but not stop them contracting it or spreading it so please steer clear of the park until symptoms have resolved.
They’re called unleashed dog parks for a reason
A leashed dog in an unleashed dog park is very vulnerable. They have no means to escape so instead of a “flight” response they often will respond with “fight”. For this reason it’s best to keep your dog off leash within the park. Dog parks with a double entrance are perfect for this as you can unclip their lead in the gated area before proceeding into the park. If you aren’t comfortable or confident with your dog off lead then it might be worth practicing more obedience outside of the dog park or visiting a fenced dog park at a quieter time when you can practice their off lead work.
Know your dog!
I have a 60kg Great Dane cross Mastiff. She thinks she’s a Chihuahua so has been known to sit in people’s laps and doesn’t believe in personal space. She has some doggy friends that she loves and plays happily with. However put her in a park full of strange dogs and she’s a bundle of nerves. She hates it. And her fear response is aggression which, when you’re 60kg can end very badly. So she doesn’t go to dog parks. She goes for walks instead and plays with her doggy friends occasionally one-on-one.
What I’m saying is know your dog. Do they appear relaxed when they enter the dog park? Is their tail wagging? Do they approach other dogs eagerly with lots of sniffing? This is all great body language that’s telling you they are feeling good. Not sure what your dog is telling you with their body language? Check out www.dogdecoder.com to learn more.
Sometimes dogs will be fussy and like only some other dogs. If a new dog enters the park or approaches your dog and your dog appears unsure and their body language changes, it might be time to leave. It’s also important to keep in mind your dog’s obedience level. If the park is not fenced and your dog isn’t great at the “come” command then it might be better to find a leashed area. Conversely if your dog doesn’t like strange dogs but will stick close to you, heel when necessary and obey your commands then they may be fine to have a wander around and chase a ball.
If your dog has shown unprovoked aggression or unpredictability the dog park is no place for them. Same goes for highly anxious dogs like mine that don’t like strange dogs or humans. Watch their body language. Are their hackles up? Is their tail tucked between their legs? Are they running back to you constantly for reassurance? These dogs need other outlets for fun e.g. socialising with friendly dogs (one-on-one), throwing them the ball in the backyard or taking them for long lead walks.
Remember dog parks aren’t for everyone. There is nothing to be ashamed of if your dog is not suited to a busy unleashed dog park. In fact it takes a fairly relaxed dog to feel comfortable in this environment.
Watch & Pick up after your dog
It’s easy to get caught up in a conversation or use the dog park time to catch up on your social media. But just because your dog entered the park happy and relaxed doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Just like toddlers, you have to keep a close eye on them to ensure they are playing nicely and not bullying the other kids. If your dog appears to be getting too rambunctious or is harassing other dogs call them away and ask them to refocus (e.g. sit and calm down) for a minute or so before they’re allowed to try again.
Don’t forget the ultimate dog park etiquette rule – pick up their poos! You won’t make friends if you ignore their daily business so make sure you have a bag handy and clean up their deposits quick smart.
Careful with toys
Balls and toys can be a brilliant outlet for exercising your furry friend but taking them to a busy dog park can be a recipe for disaster. Your dog may be ball obsessed but so are a lot of other dogs and that can lead to scuffles over who gets the ball. How many times have you seen the ball thrown but then collected by someone else’s dog? My advice – only get the ball out if it’s a quiet day at the park and no other dogs are interested or make sure there are plenty of balls to go around and plenty of space to spread out!
Children enter at your own risk!
I once watched a toddler wander into a dog park with their mother, eagerly demolishing a bag of potato chips. Thirty seconds later they were bowled over by an over enthusiastic Labrador whose primary focus was morning tea. The toddler cried. The mother was outraged. The dog was disappointed they weren’t BBQ flavour and the dog’s owner had to apologise to the mother who rapidly exited the park in a huff. But was the owner to blame? The mother had entered an area which is purposefully set aside for off-lead dogs, along with their toddler eating food. The dog’s response was natural and friendly albeit a little forward.
My point is don’t bring food. And only bring kids that are comfortable around dogs and will not be frightened by a large number of them. Toddlers are easily bowled over in a busy dog park so find them somewhere safe to stand or carry them. Teach your kids how to interact with strange dogs. But that’s an article for another day…
It’s not just about the dogs
Most dog parks have a local posy of dedicated, passionate, amazing dog owners that clump together for catch ups and have superbly behaved dogs. They also know the trouble makers so if someone walks in with their rather large imposing dog and you’re feeling unsure, follow their lead. If they all suddenly split, get out of there! If you’re planning on being a regular introduce yourself to the group. Dog parks are a great place to make friends. These people have common interests, look out for their friend’s dogs and generally have dogs that are well behaved and a great asset to the park.