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Dog parks are often promoted as the best way to socialise your dog and some outgoing, ‘social butterflies’ love nothing better, but dog parks can be torture for those shy personalities, young impressable puppies or inexperienced adolescent dogs.
The following tips are designed to help you decide if dog parks are the right fit or would you be better to investigate other socialisation options.
Know your dog. Not all dogs enjoy meeting new dogs. There are three types of dogs that definitely shouldn’t be at a dog park. They are the older adult dogs that could have arthritic issues or are set in their ways; young puppies or adolescent, inexperienced dogs; and those with shy/fearful personalities.
You can perform a test by introducing your dog to a friends’ dog that you know interacts well with other dogs. Testing your dog in a controlled environment is ideal before you consider if he might be a candidate for the dog parks.
Keep your dog healthy. Be sure your dog isn't vulnerable to picking up infections from other dogs by keeping him up to date on his vaccinations and worming medications.
Keeping in mind our guidelines above, if you feel you have weighed everything up and still want to take your dog to a dog park, consider visiting the park without your dog for the first time to familiarise yourself with the park itself and to see how the dogs that are there, act when a new dog arrives. On your next visit you may want to bring your dog and sit quietly with him outside the park. Having your dog with you to observe from outside the park enables you to watch how he reacts to seeing the other dogs.
Start out slow. The first few visits to the dog park should be short, no longer than 15 minutes. Slowly increase the length of your stays as your dog becomes more comfortable with the dog park atmosphere.
Choose a time that is less busy for your first few visits to the park. Weekday evenings are peak, high-traffic times at dog parks, and weekends and holidays tend to be busy all day long. Acquaint your dog with the dog park when the park isn't as crowded.
Size appropriate dog parks. If possible, try to locate a dog park that caters for large and small dogs, where they have created a separate area for both large and small dogs.
Closely supervise your dog. Don't get distracted while talking to other owners. Keep an eye on your dog at all times to make sure his interactions with other dogs are safe. Watch his body language to help you avoid any trouble before it begins. Watching his actions also enables you to quickly clean up after your pet.
Let your dog off lead as soon as you enter unleashed areas. Mixing leashed and unleashed dogs can create a hostile situation. Leashed dogs, and their owners, often display body language and behaviour that is threatening to the unleashed dogs and may encourage them to be aggressive and defensive in return. A leashed dog cannot make the choice his natural instinct tells him of “fight or flight” — if he cannot take flight, he may have to fight.
Potential hazards. Be aware of potential hazards that may be in the park, such as toxic chemicals, garbage or noxious plants. Be sure to wash any chemicals, such as fertiliser or pesticides, off of your dog's feet and legs to ensure they aren't licked and ingested.
Leave children at home. Don’t bring children with you to the dog park. You will not safely be able to watch your kids and your dog at the same time. Many dogs there might not have been socialised to children. Both children and dogs frighten or excite easily — and react differently — creating a dangerous atmosphere. It’s simply too easy for a child to get hurt at a dog park.
Leave small puppies at home. Dog parks are not the place for puppies (for reasons as detailed above) and are at higher risk for contracting diseases. They are also very vulnerable to being traumatised by another dog’s aggressive behaviour, which can stay with them forever.
Do not bring toys or food. Most parks are already littered with balls and toys that other people have brought. Rewarding your dog with treats or giving him toys in front of other dogs can create jealousy and aggression.
Body language. Educate yourself about dog body language and communication signals so you can tell the difference between fear, play and aggression.
Be mindful of dogs that play too rough. Not all dogs like to be rolled, pinned or knocked over, especially if they have sore joints. If your dog plays rough match him with dogs that can tolerate rough play. Be mindful that ‘play’ in the dog world is akin to ‘army manoeuvres’, it is dogs testing their opponent’s strength without resorting to fighting. That is why some play turns quickly to scuffles at dog parks.
Know when to leave. You should remove your dog from the park if he is being threatened or bullied and seems fearful; begins to display aggressive behaviour, snapping at other dogs by becoming overexcited or threatening toward other dogs; is panting heavily; or seems overly tired. Keep your dog’s welfare a top priority. Don’t be pressured by other dog owners, they don’t know your dog the way you do.
DO NOT physically intervene in a dog fight. Never reach in to break up fighting dogs. Use water or try to distract them by dropping something near them, but never physically intervene. Do not enter a dog fight to try to physically break the fight up, you could be seriously injured or killed. Dogs in a fight have no allegiance to anyone, they are fighting for THEIR life.
Prevent injuries. Be aware of the signs of a possible dog fight before it might happen. Don’t allow a dog’s over-excitement to turn into a fight. If your dog injures a person or dog, give your name and phone number to the injured party. Report to council rangers any handlers who refuse to take liability for damages or injuries and who are endangering the safety of others.
Don’t be concerned or feel ostracised if your dog is not the right fit for the dog park, it’s not the end of the world. It does not mean you are a bad owner, it just means that your dog needs a less highly charged situation where they can be calm and feel safe.