A day at the dog park is like a dozen walks on a leash in terms of physical and mental benefits for your pet.
"They get the chance to get off-leash and run around and play with other dogs," says Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, DVM, of Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins. "It keeps their weight down, their muscle tone up. It keeps them social. It's huge."
The downsides? Your pet mistakes another person's leg for a tree or gets hurt and needs to go to the vet. Fortunately, there are ways to save you both from embarrassment and injury.
1. Take charge. Your dog needs to know that you're the alpha animal all the time. That’s key when other dogs are around. Teach your dog to come to you when called. Use a word or phrase he’s not likely to hear at the park. Reward him with extra-special treats during training.
2. Pause before you enter. A well-designed park will have a double entrance with two gates. Don't whirl through both gates at once. Enter the first gate with your dog on a leash, then pause to look around. If there are 20 dogs swarming the gates or if there’s a scuffle going on, this isn't the time to barge in. A pause will also allow other dogs to get used to yours and not go hyper when he does come in.
3. Pay attention. Once inside, it's your job to pay attention -- to the dogs, not other humans. “Dog parks are really awesome, but they're not about human socialization," Ruch-Gallie says. Always know where your dog is and what he’s doing. If you see trouble brewing, call him back right away. Know when your dog has pooped so you can scoop. Many parks provide plastic bags, but it can’t hurt to take your own.
4. Read the signals. Not only should your dog play well with others if you plan to take him to the park, you need to be able to read canine behavior as well. Dogs at play have relaxed ears, wagging tails, and may "play bow" with their front end down to the ground. Upset dogs hold their tails at half-mast or between their legs, ears pinned back, and pupils dilated to show the whites of the eyes. Aggressive dogs will be tense, hold their heads high, and lean forward. While growls are common in play, snarling with lips curled back isn’t. If you see these danger signs, redirect the dog with treats or a toy, Ruch-Gallie says. You can also clap or make a loud noise. Use treats and toys sparingly in a dog park, in case they spark a fight.