Should I Bring My Dog To The Dog Park?
All the dos and don'ts of the dog park.
Dog parks seem like the perfect place to take your pup so he can run around and play with other dogs.
But they can also be a little intimidating — especially if you’ve never brought your pet to the dog park before — because you might not be sure how your dog will react to all the other people, pups and smells around him.
Are dog parks safe for your pet? Or are they actually a bad idea?
We spoke with Kim Kurland, a certified trainer with PAWSitive Hound Dog Training in Tarzana, California, who explained how you can tell if you should bring your dog to the dog park.
What are the benefits of taking your dog to the dog park?
Dog parks can be a safe place for your pup to run around leash-free to get in some good play time.
“For people who don't have lots of enclosed outdoor space of their own, the dog park can provide an opportunity for your dog to get off-leash exercise and social interaction with other dogs,” Kurland told The Dodo.
If your pup is a social butterfly, bringing him to the dog park could be a great way to give him some much-needed socializing.
“Some dogs love the dog park because they love interacting with other dogs,” Kurland said.
“Although, some dogs actually love meeting new people at the dog park more than other dogs.”
It’s also a great place for your dog to exercise.
“Dogs that are very dog-social will love the opportunity to play with other dogs and get exercise they don't get during on-leash walks,” Kurland explained. “Dogs that live to chase balls can love the prospect of lots of ball-chasing from different people at the park.”
What to know before you go to the dog park
But before you get in the car and head to the park, make sure you have a good grasp of your pup’s personality.
That way, you’ll be able to tell just how likely he is to mesh with the dog park vibe.
“Before you bring your dog to a dog park, it's important to be familiar with the specific dog park you are going to, whether your dog likes the dog park environment, and to know your dog's play and interaction skills with other dogs,” Kurland said.
And make sure you do your research about the park’s logistics, too. It’ll give you an idea of what to expect.
“Some dog parks have separate areas for bigger dogs and smaller dogs, and this can help keep smaller dogs safe from excessive rambunctious activity from bigger dogs,” Kurland explained.
“Some parks have varying amounts of shade and seating, some provide water, others you will need to bring your own.”
Are dog parks safe for puppies?
According to Kurland, you shouldn’t bring a puppy to the dog park until he’s at least 4 months old.
And even then, you want to make sure he’s gotten the shots that he needs to keep him safe while he’s there.
“Even if your dog is over 4 months old, make sure he is up to date on his vaccinations, since dog parks can be the source of parasites and disease, and you want to make sure your dog is fully protected against serious illness,” Kurland explained.
Don’t spend too much time at the dog park with a young pup, because you want to make sure he creates positive associations with the experience — not negative ones.
For example, your puppy might have an encounter with a dog much bigger than him, or even get into a fight, which could really impact the way he feels about the dog park (and other dogs in general).
“If you do bring a young, vaccinated dog to the dog park, be especially vigilant and watch your young dog closely to make sure all your pup's interactions are positive, keeping the dog park trip short so that he doesn't have a negative experience that will affect his interactions with dogs in the future,” Kurland said.
How to prepare your dog for the dog park
To keep your pup safe at the dog park, make sure he’s pretty well-trained before you go.
In an environment that’s full of distractions — which can also be very overstimulating — getting him to come when you call is key.
“Before you bring your dog to a dog park, it's important to work with your dog on building a really solid recall cue for your dog,” Kurland said.
When teaching your dog a recall command, you’ll want to gradually introduce distractions until you’re confident he’ll come when you call (even with so many exciting things going on around him).
“The foundation work on building a solid recall should be done initially in a very low-level environment, working your way up to higher-distraction environments. The dog park can be the ultimate distracting environment for lots of dogs!” Kurland explained.
Kurland recommends using a call-and-release approach once you’re actually at the park.
“You want to be able to call your dog back to you at the dog park should enthusiastic dog play need a bit of a break, and then, if appropriate, release your dog to go play again,” Kurland said.
“This call-and-release reinforces to your dog that when you call your dog to you when he's playing, it's not to end his fun, but to allow him to go play again after a short break.”
Plus, a super strong recall is very important if you think an interaction with another dog might be escalating.
If your pup comes when you call him in that situation, it’s an effective way to separate him from the other dog without physically getting between them (which could get you bitten).
What to bring to the dog park
There are certain things you’re going to want to make sure you have on hand when you and your pup take a trip to the dog park.
These things are all essential for a day at the dog park.
Bringing your dog to the dog park for the first time
Don’t plan to spend a super long time at the dog park the very first time you bring your pup.
According to Kurland, keeping the trip short will help make sure he has a positive first experience.
“Don't go to the dog park during the park's peak hours initially,” Kurland said. “It's beneficial to go when the dog population is on the smaller side to help your dog have a hopefully calmer experience.”
What to do when you’re at the dog park
You and your pup can spend your time at the dog park doing all sorts of things, from smelling all the smells to playing with other dogs to socializing with other pet parents.
But no matter what you and your BFF have planned, the one thing you (as a pet parent) absolutely have to do at the dog park is not take your eyes off your pup.
“Although you may be able to catch up with other friends and pet parents at the dog park, it's very important to make sure you pay close attention to your dog at the dog park at all times,” Kurland said.
“You should be watching your dog closely at the dog park to make sure the experience is a fun one for your dog.”
This shouldn’t be a problem, since it’s so much fun watching your dog running around and having a great time with other dogs!
What not to do at the dog park
You might’ve wondered why treats weren’t on that list of things to bring to the dog park.
Well, there’s a pretty good reason for that.
“It's also important to save treats for outside the dog park,” Kurland said. “Doling out treats around multiple dogs (especially dogs you don't know) can create problems, with some dogs getting pushy or possessive around the presence of tasty treats.”
You can always spoil your pup when you’re getting in and out of the car, or once you’re back home.
You also don’t want to bring a non-fixed dog to the dog park either, because you never know when that could result in an accidental puppy litter.
The other thing you don’t want to do is use your hands — or your body — to separate your dog from another pup if they start getting aggressive, or even start fighting.
“Never attempt to put your hands between dogs to separate them, even if you are reaching for your own dog's collar,” Kurland explained. “Many people get bitten when they reach for a dog's collar to pull a dog away from another dog during a fight.”
Instead, try covering your dog’s head and face with something to get in between him and the other dog.
“A human coat, sweater, towel, etc., can be used to throw over a dog's head to create a visual barrier and potentially provide a moment of separation between the dogs,” Kurland said.
You could also try making a loud sound — by banging noisy things together, for example — to distract the dogs from fighting each other so you can actually separate them.
Are dog parks ever a bad idea?
Dog parks might actually be a bad choice for your dog if all the action will make him feel overwhelmed.
“Some dogs do not enjoy the high number of other dogs in a confined space at the dog park, preferring to spend time with one or two dogs only for social interaction,” Kurland said. “For some dogs, having stranger dogs enthusiastically saying hello or coming on too strong trying to play can cause stress and anxiety.”
It’s also probably not a good idea to bring your dog to the dog park if he’s a bit possessive (of you or his stuff).
“If your dog has a tendency to guard any items (balls, toys, water bowls, etc.), it's especially important to rethink the dog park environment in general,” Kurland explained.
But if you have a stressed, fearful, anxious or possessive dog, all hope isn’t lost!
Working with a pro could help him feel more comfortable in a high-stress environment like the park.
“You can work with a certified professional dog trainer to work through the guarding issues to prevent your dog from practicing behavior you'd like to change and to keep other dogs and people safe,” Kurland said.
There’s also a chance that your pup loves the dog park when he’s young, but isn’t as big of a fan once he’s older — kind of like how you used to love going out to a packed, sweaty club in your early twenties, but those wild nights aren’t as appealing in your forties.
Signs your dog isn’t having a good time
“It's important to know the body language signs that may indicate your dog is not enjoying the dog park,” Kurland said.
Signs that the dog park is causing your dog stress, fear or anxiety include:
- Furrowing brows
- Panting (when he’s not actually hot)
- Turning away from other dogs
- Moving in slow motion
- Avoiding other dogs
“If your dog is not getting along with other dogs at the dog park, don't wait to see if the dogs will eventually work things out on their own. Intervene promptly so that the situation does not lead to a fight between dogs,” Kurland said.
The first thing you should do is create space between your pup and the others.
“Move to another area of the dog park, if necessary, and spend one-on-one time with your dog so they can focus on having fun with you,” Kurland explained.
If your dog’s still not vibing with the dog park, you might want to go home and try another day when things have cooled off — or the dog park just might not be for him.
Alternatives to the dog park
If the dog park doesn’t seem like a good place for your pup, that’s OK!
There are other ways he can get in some socialization and exercise.
“If you can find a friend with a dog that you think may have a similar play style as your dog, take them on some parallel walks together,” Kurland said. “If both dogs are dog-social, each person walks their dog in the same direction about 10 to 15 feet apart initially, progressing to walking closer together with the dogs on the outside, owners on the inside.”
If that goes well, you can find a fenced-in yard (or even an enclosed tennis court), drop the leashes and let them play together.
Just get rid of any distractions lying around — like toys, bones or food — and keep an eye on the pups to make sure they’re having a good time.
“If your dog already has a friend or two, you can take turns hosting another dog at your home and trading [off] to let your dog spend some supervised time at their doggie friend's place,” Kurland said.
These are good ways to make sure that your dog is getting in some quality social time in a space that might not be as overwhelming as a pup-filled park.
“Those environments can provide great exercise and new sniffing environments that can be mentally stimulating to dogs,” Kurland said. “Providing it’s safe to do so, and you can get your dog back to you when needed, you can use a longer leash (10, 20 or 30 feet) to give your dog more freedom than a standard 6-foot leash allows to help simulate more of an off-leash experience.”
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