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."
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.
To keep your dog from getting sick at the park, pick up his waste and bring a bowl for fresh water, instead of letting him lap from the communal bowl. (Parasites can be spread through feces and shared water bowls.) "Your dog is less likely to get sick if he’s not sharing a water bowl," Nelson says.
The risk of illness is one of the biggest reasons to keep puppies out of the dog park. Pups younger than 12 weeks old are not fully immunized, and their young immune systems will struggle to fight common infections.
Remember to watch your pal -- and the other dogs in the park -- at all times. At the first sign of a problem, like growling, mounting, or other aggressive behavior that could turn into a scuffle, call your dog over for a break. If the behavior continues, leave the park.
"You have to be vigilant and try to stop problems before they begin," Nelson says. "If there is a problem, be ready to intervene."
In the event of a dogfight, be careful. "Do not get between dogs that are fighting," she says. Instead, she suggests you throw water on fighting dogs or using a stick (not your hands) to separate them. In case of an emergency, know the location of the nearest veterinary hospital.
"In general, dog parks are safe, but you need to watch your dogs at the park just like you would watch your children on the playground," Nelson says.
Other Ways to Be Safe
Stay up to date on vaccines. Your dog can encounter viruses and parasites at the park. Confirm he’s current on vaccines like rabies and distemper/parvo. Your vet might also recommend vaccinating against kennel cough, canine influenza, and leptospirosis.
"Vaccinations will keep your pet from getting sick at the park," Nelson says. Also, make sure your dog is up to date on regular intestinal parasite prevention.
Protect your pooch against fleas and ticks. Ticks can lurk in grasses, and dogs and wildlife that visit the park can spread fleas. The best protection is to keep your pet up to date on flea and tick control. "Talk to your vet about which products work best in your area," Nelson says.
Talk to your veterinarian, too. If your dog is uncomfortable with other canines, ask your vet to recommend a trainer.
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