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Off-leash dog parks look like paradises for pups. They get to race around, make dog buddies, and burn off energy. Not to mention, pet parents get a chance to chat with other dog lovers, too. But without the proper precautions, dogs can get injuries or catch illnesses at dog parks—a downside that many pet parents aren't aware of, Natalie Marks, DVM, co-founder of Top Vets Talk Pets and veterinarian at VCA Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago, says.
Read on to learn everything you need to know before you hit up a dog park, so the adventure is fun (and safe!) for your four-legged friend.
Dog Park Prep
It's important to make sure your pooch is physically and mentally ready to hang with a bunch of other pups before you visit an off-leash dog park. Dogs that are dog-reactive will not enjoy trips to the local dog park and really young pups or inexperienced dogs may find all the stimulation (and lots of strangers) too overwhelming.
Required vaccines and screenings
Anywhere dogs get together is a place where diseases have the chance to spread. Typically community dog parks run by cities require dogs to have a fecal screening to make sure they're not transmitting parasites in their poop. They also need to be up to date on vaccinations of contagious illnesses, including:
At a minimum your dog should have completed the entire series of puppy vaccinations before going to a dog park, Marks says. That way, your pup will be protected just in case someone doesn't follow the rules and introduces an unvaccinated dog into the group.
Consider if your dog should also be spayed or neutered to ensure socializing doesn't get, ahem, too friendly at the park when your back is turned. Your veterinarian can help you determine when and if it is appropriate for your dog to undergo this procedure.
Although sprinting around a fenced dog park may be natural for your pup, coming when called, sitting, and letting you put the leash back on is a whole other matter. It's not unusual to see pet parents chasing their dogs around the park, desperately trying to grab their pooches when it's time to go home.
That's why Marks recommends that your dog has at least passed one (ideally more) training classes with flying colors. "When your dog is off-leash, you don't have much control," she explains. "So it's even more important that your dog understands commands (cues) for obedience like come, sit, stay, and drop."
How to Find a Good Dog Park
Not all dog parks are created equal. Some have features that make them safer and more fun for you and your pet. Here's what to look for and how to find the best dog park near you.
Ask a breed club
Talk to people with the same type of dog as you to find out where they go. "Dogs of the same breed have similar tendencies," explains Marks. "So you'll get recommendations of places that are particularly fun for that type of dog. You'll also meet people that have the same pet parenting style as you too."
Search for a city-run dog park
Dog parks that are cared for by the government are usually top-notch, Marks says. They're monitored for rule breakers and have regular cleaning and disinfection schedules.
Scope it out
Before you even load your pup into the car, go check out dog parks on your own. Look for signage that spells out what's required to enter the park so people know it's not a place where you can just enter on a whim. Also, a double gate—one inner and one outer—is a must to reduce the risk of dogs sneaking out as people come and go.
Bonus features include shady areas and terrain that includes obstacles, little mounds or stairs, and ramps. But avoid dog parks with wading pools, Marks advises. "Dirty water is a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Those pools are a nightmare just waiting to happen with your dog ingesting urine-contaminated water or laying in it."
Dog Park Safety Tips
Once you've found a great dog park, follow these strategies to protect your pet from illness and injury.
Provide doggy identification
Although less likely, it's still possible for your pup to get through a double gate at a fenced dog park. Nothing replaces a watchful eye, but having your dog wear ID tags on his collar and microchipping your dog can give you added peace of mind. During the quick procedure, a veterinarian injects the microchip under the skin between your dog's shoulders. If your pup gets lost, a veterinarian or shelter staff can scan the microchip to find your contact information.
Visit during off-times
Avoid crowded dog parks. "It can be really scary to have other dogs zooming up to you as you enter the park," Marks says. "Going at less popular times means you'll have a less stressful experience."
And a lot of dogs in one space can create a myriad of opportunities for conflict, especially amongst dogs of different ages and experience.
Keep the leash on at first
On your first visit to the dog park, let your pooch get acquainted with it while still on the leash. That way you can prevent your dog from swallowing anything unsavory (think: left-behind food, toxic items, or foreign objects). Go early in the morning or later in the evening when you have the park to yourself and explore the perimeter.
Bring a collapsible bowl and fresh water
Dog parks often have communal bowls of water for pets. But Marks recommends you stay away from those since sharing water also means sharing germs. Be sure to bring a bottle of fresh water for your pup and a collapsible bowl for drinking it out of—your furry friend is bound to work up a thirst!
Keep small dogs separate
Small dogs can easily get overwhelmed at a dog park. If you know your pooch enjoys socializing, make sure you only visit dog parks that have a dedicated area for small breeds. A separate space protects petite pups from bigger dogs who can play too rough and cause serious injuries.
Watch for worrisome behavior
It’s essential to keep an eye on your dog during off-leash time. If you spot signs that your pup isn’t comfortable with another dog, remove them from the situation. Behaviors that indicate your dog is scared, anxious, or nervous include:
Hiding or fleeing
Cowering, getting low, and hunching over
Have irresistible treats on hand
Don't leave home without bringing along some of your pet's favorite treats—you know, the ones he never refuses. In a pinch, you can use these to entice your pooch away from a sketchy situation or to woo him into going home.
"What's most important in keeping your dog safe and happy is knowing what your dog truly likes," Marks says. "Not all dogs need or even enjoy dog parks. Don't feel guilty if you decide not to go. There are plenty of other ways to spend time and bond with your pup one-on-one."