For some dogs, running off-leash and romping with their canine pals is a real treat.
"Dogs are social creatures and like to play with other dogs," says Susan Nelson, DVM, clinical associate professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "A dog park is a great place for dogs to get some exercise and learn social skills."
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While you can easily find a dog park, make sure you know how to keep Fido safe before unclipping the leash.
For starters, Nelson suggests you visit a park solo to observe the dogs and their owners, and decide whether you’re comfortable with what you see. A park filled with aggressive dogs and inattentive owners is not the right place to take your pet for off-leash play, she says.
Make sure the park's fencing is adequate, too. Dogs shouldn’t be able to jump over or scoot under it. Look for broken boards or jagged wires that could hurt your pal.
Nelson also suggests you stick to dog parks with separate play areas for large and small pets. "A dachshund playing with a Lab could get hurt just because of the sheer difference in size; it’s safest to keep them separated," she says. Consider the possibility that large dogs may see small breeds as prey, not playmates.
Understand too that dog parks are meant for pets that are well-socialized. If your buddy is aggressive or has issues that could make him hostile toward another dog playing with a ball or Frisbee, the dog park is not the place to teach him to make friends or share his toys. Nelson suggests you work with a trainer first to correct his behavior.
She also warns against taking shy or nervous dogs to the park. "A fearful dog might bite," she explains. "Or it could get to the park and cower behind its owner, which can be traumatic for the dog."
Another good idea is to steer clear of the dog park if your female pet is in heat. Along with the risk of an unplanned litter, nothing starts a dog fight faster than a group of male dogs vying for the attention of a ready-to-breed female.