By Lauren Lewis
P-A-R-K. One simple word and Bowser’s ears perk up. His tail goes into overdrive. He eagerly looks from you to his leash to the door and back to you. Now that the weather is warm, dog park fever has set in. It’s time for you and your four-legged pal to hit the ground running. Keeping a few things in mind can ensure that a visit to the park is fun for everyone.
Before letting your pooch run loose at a local off-leash locale it is important to familiarize yourself with the area as well as all of the park’s rules and regulations. “[Rules] exist for everyone’s safety and are generally posted on the park website as well as at the dog park,” says Anne Ferraro, president of K-9 Companion Zone, a nonprofit group in Indianapolis, Indiana, that works with the city’s parks and recreation department to develop off-leash areas.
It is also a good idea to make your first few visits at non-peak times, such as daytime hours during the week or late afternoons on the weekend, when the dog park isn’t so busy. Remember that it might take a little while for your canine pal to adapt to the new environment. “They may initially be overwhelmed by the sheer number of other dogs who all seem to want to run up and greet them at the same time,” Ferraro says. She advises people to let a new dog off his leash as soon as possible upon entering the off-leash area. “This is because a dog that is restrained may feel threatened when approached by so many other unrestrained dogs. This may cause them to act aggressively to defend themselves or their [guardian].”
Everyone should pay attention to his dog’s behavior at the park, but first-timers should make an extra effort to observe their canine’s interaction and play style with others. “One common myth: A wagging tail…it’s not a reliable indicator that a dog is happy,” says Carol Panter, president of Dogparks of Greater St. Louis (D.O.G.S.). She advises consulting a trainer or doing a little research on canine behavior before visiting the park.
Most off-leash areas require that canine visitors be up to date on their major vaccinations, such as rabies, distemper, parvo, and bordetella. Heartworm and flea preventatives are also good precautions. In addition, always pick up after your pet. According to Panter, one of the most common rule violations she sees is people failing to pick up and dispose of dog waste.
For safety reasons, children are often not allowed in off-leash environments. Panter points out that children can inadvertently do things—such as screaming, running, squealing, and waving arms—that incite dogs. They may be accustomed to their own dog’s behavior and assume that “all” dogs are nice. And of course, as smaller, more fragile humans, children are at greater risk of being knocked down or injured.
A little consideration goes a long way at the dog park. If something isn’t posted in the rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not relevant. For example, bringing in food or dog treats is not a good idea. “Some dogs in the dog park may be food-aggressive and the presence of food or dog treats can create a bad situation,” Panter says. “It’s safer for you and your dog to enjoy snacks before or after a trip to the dog park.”
At Ferraro’s park, small treats are allowed. But, she points out, “You should not offer treats to other people’s dogs without first asking the [person’s] permission. Sometimes people have their pets on special diets for health reasons and offering them treats might interfere with this, even though you are just trying to be nice and make friends.”
According to Angeline Siegel, a behaviorist with Humane Society Silicon Valley, some preseason prep work might be in order. “If your dog hasn’t spent much time with other dogs, joining a training class or smaller socialization course would be best,” she says. “This way you have the opportunity to teach them good doggie etiquette and basic commands that will be helpful at the dog park.”
Some other things to remember: Don’t smoke in the park, cigarette butts can be harmful if ingested by a dog; don’t bring a puppy under 4 months, immunizations aren’t complete until that age; and get your pooch spayed or neutered before going to the off-leash area.
Accidents happen. Sometimes it can be something as small as your dog injuring the pad of his foot by stepping on a sharp object—a common dog park occurrence according to Dr. Tom Day, author of The Pet Lover’s Guide to First Aid & Emergencies. Other times, it might be aggressive play or even a dogfight that causes an injury.
Before using a dog park, find out if there is an emergency contact phone number and program it into your cell phone. Also be aware of where the nearest veterinarian’s office is.
If another dog acts aggressively toward your dog, be polite. Make the other guardian aware of the situation, and if appropriate, ask him nicely to take his dog away from yours. “If the [guardian] is not compliant, you are well within your rights to say something more,” Panter says. According to Ferraro, “It is better to risk offending someone than to just stand around and allow a serious dogfight to erupt where a pet may be bitten or seriously injured.”
If the other dog does attack or bite your dog (or you), call 911. Be sure to get the name, address, telephone number, and insurance carrier of the other dog’s guardian, as well as contact information for any witnesses. “If you don’t have this information and the injuries are severe, you’ll have no way of filing a suit; most dog parks are ‘enter at your own risk,’ and frequently state law holds the other dog’s [guardian] legally responsible for [his dog’s] actions,” Panter says.
Medical attention may be necessary, depending on the severity of the injuries. Slight pressure applied to the wound with a cloth or towel can control bleeding, Day says. However, “If your dog attempts to bite or is in obvious pain, leave the wound alone and seek [the help of a vet],” he says. “On the way there make certain that your pet hears a calm, soothing voice from you for reassurance.”
Lastly, it’s important to inform the parks department or the entity that governs the dog park of the incident, Panter says. “If no one reports incidents, they won’t be aware there’s a need to step up patrols or more strictly enforce the dog park rules.”