Are you planning to bring your dog to a dog park? The information provided in today's column may help you make an informed decision.
As more communities enact leash laws an ever-increasing number of dog parks have sprung up across the United States. The basic concept of a dog park is to provide dogs with opportunities to be off leash in an enclosed area to receive exercise and socialization. Because most dogs do not receive adequate exercise at home, visits to dog parks offer mental and physical stimulation that may reduce destructive and annoying canine behaviors observed at home. A tired dog is less likely to get into trouble.
Dogs may develop friendships with four-legged dog park buddies. Dog parks may provide owners with opportunities to interact and learn about appropriate canine behavior from more experienced owners who have well-mannered obedience trained dogs.
Dog parks may be sponsored by cities, counties, municipalities or private organizations. Most parks require that owners register their dogs, pay annual membership fees, and provide proof of vaccinations, licenses, and microchips. Most dog parks have rules and regulations posted at their entrance gates. There may or may not be park personnel or volunteers present to monitor and maintain the park. Despite these measures owners need to be aware that a dog park may be an asset or detriment to dogs, humans or to communities.
Unfortunately there are negative aspects to dog parks that need to be considered. Safety is a major concern for both dogs and their owners. Most dog parks do not permit aggressive dogs on the premises, yet some owners are not knowledgeable about interpreting canine body language or how their dogs respond to the presence of other dogs (especially if the dog did not receive positive socialization experiences with other dogs and humans as a puppy).
Like kids on playgrounds, some dogs are bullies and will intimidate other dogs. Some parks have separate areas for small and large dogs to prevent potential prey-driven attacks on smaller dogs. Distracted owners may not be focused on their own dogs' behavior to prevent dog-on-dog confrontations. The presence of un-neutered male dogs can easily trigger dog fights and owners risk serious injuries when trying to separate the combatants. Elderly and disabled dogs may not be dog park candidates because they could be injured by energetic dogs. According to veterinary behaviorists Drs. Ilana Freisner and Stefanie Schwartz, contributing authors of "Decoding Your Dog," off-leash dog parks are stressful for fearful, anxious dogs, because dogs and people can approach them at will. In addition, while being off leash allows a dog to flee from other dogs and people "the potential for fights between dogs or aggression toward people can be a significant risk."
Young children should never be allowed in dog parks because they could be knocked down, injured or viewed as "prey" by some dogs.
The spread of infectious diseases is another major concern that may occur at dog parks. According to Dr. Kristi Flynn of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, because so many dogs congregate at dog parks, illnesses like kennel cough and canine influenza spread easily even though the vaccines offer some protection. Some dog parks provide communal water bowls that could be a source for disease so owners are advised to bring water and bowls from home and not allow other dog park dogs to drink from them. Dog feces on the dog park's grounds may contain internal parasites (worms) and germs from viral and bacterial diseases that may be spread to humans and other dogs.
Dog parks may also present the potential for liability issues particularly if conflicts occur between owners when injuries from or between dogs take place.
Before enrolling a dog with a dog park, owners are advised to investigate the park first. A website might be available to obtain registration, regulations and contact information as well as hours of operation.
A visit to the park (without a dog) may provide the following:
- The opportunity to inspect the grounds for cleanliness and the provision for feces clean-up supplies.
- An opportunity to see if the park provides well-fenced separate areas for small and large dogs.
- Observation of dog and owner interaction and to note if owners are paying close attention to their dogs and not being distracted by electronic devices or busy conversing with other dog owners.
- Observing how well the dogs interact (playing appropriately, no signs of bullying or aggression).
- An opportunity to study the posted rules and regulations.
If you plan to enroll your dog at a dog park, please follow these general etiquette and safety rules:
- Obey all posted dog park regulations
- Keep inoculations current, bring stool samples to your vet periodically, and NEVER bring a sick dog or a female “in season” to or near a dog park.
- Don’t bring puppies under 4 months old because they are not fully inoculated and may be easy “prey targets” for some dogs.
- Please leave young children at home.
- Focus your full attention on your dog at ALL times!
- Always clean up your dog’s feces and bring supplies (poop bags) if the park has none.
- Please don’t bring your dog’s favorite toys or treats which could trigger squabbles with other dogs.
- Always keep leash handy (preferably cotton or nylon web) to remove your dog calmly from potentially volatile situations. PLEASE don’t use retractable leashes because they provide limited control and can cause serious injuries to dogs and humans.
- NEVER leave a choke chain collar on a dog during a dog park visit because another dog’s tooth caught in the collar ring during play can cause strangulation.
- Make sure your dog is wearing a safe collar with the following tags: rabies, county license, ID and microchip.
- Train your dog to follow the basic obedience commands: Heel, Sit, Down, Stay, Stand & especially Come! He will be so much easier to control and you may serve as a role model to the other dog owners at your dog park! Take a class with a trainer who utilizes positive training techniques. You can “jump start” your training by reading “The Power of Positive Dog Training” (second edition) written by Pat Miller, which also has a chapter on interpreting canine body language.
Visits to dog parks can be enjoyable experiences for you and your dog, but always heed the warning: Enjoy at your own risk!
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Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.