The local dog park is probably one of your pup’s favorite places. Where else can he run off his leash, roll in the dirt, and play with other pooches?

For the most part, veterinarians are big fans of them, too. “They are good for playing, exercising, and socializing -- all things that are important for happy, healthy dogs,” says Gareth Buckley, DVM, medical director for the Small Animal Hospital at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. 

But just like kids can get hurt on a playground, dogs can also get into trouble when they’re out and about. To make your visit to the park as safe and enjoyable as possible, keep a few things in mind.

Make sure your dog is vaccinated.

Puppies shouldn’t be around adult dogs until they’ve gotten all of their shots to protect against common contagious diseases, like distemper and parvovirus, says Susan Nelson, DVM, clinical associate professor at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

They’ll start to get these shots at about 6 weeks, but they aren’t fully protected until a few weeks after their final dose for parvovirus at 14 to 16 weeks. "We usually see cases of parvovirus in puppies who had one vaccine but didn't complete the series, or had no vaccines at all," Nelson says.

It’s still important to introduce your puppy to other dogs before this age, Nelson says, but it’s safer to do it in a smaller group of other puppies who have had their first round of shots. Ask your vet or local pet store about puppy meet-up groups or behavior classes in your area.

If your park has a lake or a pond for swimming, make sure your dog also gets a separate vaccine to protect against leptospirosis, a dangerous virus that can affect the liver and kidneys. “It’s not uncommon to find it in bodies of standing water,” Buckley says. “It’s an optional vaccine, but we recommend it for dogs who like to swim or splash around.”

Check the park rules.

Before you visit a dog park for the first time, look for rules posted at the entrance or online. If possible, Buckley says, choose a park that requires animals to be vaccinated and well trained. “That way you can feel good about the other dogs your pet is interacting with,” he says.
 

Some parks also require you to pay a fee or carry a permit in order to use the space. And be sure you’re careful and follow rules about entering and exiting fenced, off-leash areas so that no dogs escape.

Make sure your dog comes when you call him.

Before you let him off the leash for the first time in a strange setting, practice commands like “come” and “stay” at home.

“Dogs can get very distracted by other dogs and things going on at the dog park, so it’s important you’re able to call them back to you quickly if you need to,” Buckley says.

Deal with other dogs responsibly.

Watch your pet closely as he meets and begins to play with new friends. “Even if your dog is well socialized, someone else’s dog might not be,” Buckley says.

It’s normal for animals to chase each other, wrestle, and play tug-of-war with toys. But if a dog growls or snaps when your pup tries to get close, those are probably signs he doesn't want to play.

If another dog ever bites your pooch and he needs medical attention, ask the owner for her contact information so you can keep in touch. Your vet will want to verify that the other animal has been vaccinated for rabies to be sure that yours isn’t at risk.

Protect against ticks, before and after.

If you live in an area where ticks are common, treat your dog with a preventive medicine to protect against the dangers of tick bites, which can make both pets and humans sick, Nelson says.

These medicines usually come as a pill or a liquid you apply to your pet’s fur every month, but some can last longer. Nelson says she doesn’t recommend flea-and-tick shampoos, which don’t work for very long.

After every visit to the dog park, give pooches a good rubdown and check everywhere on their skin -- including around their ears and between their toes -- to be sure they didn’t bring home any pests. This is also a good time to make sure your pup didn’t get any other injuries, like a bite or a cut paw, while playing.

Watch out for the heat.

When the temperature goes up, try to exercise your pup early in the morning or late in the evening to help him stay cool. “Depending on how much dogs are used to running around in hot weather, it can be very easy for them to overexert themselves and get heat stroke,” Buckley says.

Make sure there’s clean, fresh water available at the park, or take some with you. Encouraging your dog to drink often will help keep his body temperature down -- and it will make him less likely to try to drink from puddles that have bacteria.

When in doubt, keep him away.

Parks are a great place for your dog to explore and learn new things. But don’t let him be too curious: Keep him away from other dogs’ poop, which can have harmful parasites that can get inside their bodies if he sniffs them. And don’t let him dig around in trash cans or piles, which may be full of human food scraps, like corn cobs and chicken bones, that can be dangerous. 

Keep your dog away from other animals who look sick. And show the same courtesy to other pet owners: If your pup is under the weather or getting treatment for an illness, keep him home until you get your vet’s OK.

The most important thing, Nelson says, is to keep a close eye on your dog and avoid situations you’re unsure about.

“Just because dogs are allowed off-leash doesn’t mean they should be unsupervised,” she says. “Using common sense can go a long way in making sure that you, your dog, and everyone else there has a safe, enjoyable time.”

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