Janine Adams writes about dogs with the assistance of her standard Poodles, who enjoy going to the dog park. Her latest book is How to Say It to Your Dog (Prentice Hall Press, 2003).
Text Copyright the American Kennel Club, Inc., 2004. No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, Fall 2004, Volume 2, No. 2. To subscribe:http://www.akc.org
For the vast majority of dog owners, allowing their dogs to run free is a thing of the past. It's simply not safe, or responsible, for a dog to run loose in most areas. Yet, as your dog probably makes abundantly clear, he needs to run. And most leashes-or most backyards-don't give them the opportunity to run their little hearts out. What's a responsible owner to do?The answer for many urban and suburban dog owners is the dog park. These parks can take a number of forms, from a fenced area within a park; to a fenced vacant city lot; to a large, unfenced meadow within a larger park. They all have one thing in common: Dogs are allowed to run unfettered by leashes, and interact with one another.
While dog parks can be heavenly when all goes well, they can also be a place of discord if dogs (and owners) behave inappropriately. Learning the basics of dog-park etiquette and making sure that your dog is a good candidate for dog-park fun will help make your experience a good one.
Puppy owners are often anxious to get their puppies interacting with other dogs. And they also want to be sure they get plenty of exercise. But the dog park isn't the place to do it. "The dog has to be old enough to be able to handle whatever play comes his way," says Sarah Wilson, a dog trainer and co-author (with Brian Kilcornrnons) of MetroDog: A Guide to Raisins Your Do in the City. Even if your puppy seems large enough, he's still clumsy and runs the risk of physical or mental injury if lie roughhouses with the adult dogs. "It is like having a 6-year-old out there while junior-high kids are playing touch football,'' Wilson says.
What age is old enough? It depends on the breed and how fast they reach maturity, says Wilson. The minimum age she recommends a dog visit a dog park is 6 months. Until then, she suggests taking a puppy, on leash, near the dog-park fence and rewarding him for good behavior in the presence of the other dogs.
What About Diseases?
Puppies are at greater risk than adult dogs of picking up an infectious disease. The gravest diseases to be concerned about are parvovirus and distemper, says Patrick Tate, DVM, of Webster Groves Animal Hospital in Webster Groves, Missouri. "The puppy really needs to have the full series of distemper and parvo inimunizations before entering a dog park," he says. Some people worry about bordatella, or kennel cough, but Tate believes it's a much less serious concern. "Bordatella is not going to kill a puppy, but parvo might," he says.
Also of concern are parasites. All dogs, and puppies in particular, should be checked for parasites before going to the dog park. "Parasites can compromise a puppy's immune system,'' says Tate. ''It is very important to get rid of worms." By taking a dog with worms into the dog park, you risk spreading them to other dogs.
Adult dogs should be boostered according to their veterinarians' recommendations. ''Either your dog should be immunized or have titers checked before putting them at risk at the dog park," Tate says. Titers are blood tests that measure the circulating antibodies in the blood stream, which can indicate that a dog is protected from the disease in question.
Is Your Dog Ready?
Before going to a dog park, your dog should be friendly toward both people and dogs, says Jean Donaldson, director of the Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA and author of The Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Domestic Dogs.In addition, it's very important that your dog will come to you when called. Even if the park is fenced, you'll need to have the control over your off leash dog that a good recall gives you.
And though your dog will be off leash in the park, he should have some good leash manners, because he has to get to and from the park on leash. Getting in and out of an off leash area can be tricky. "It can be an extremely explosive situation when one on leash dog meets multiple dogs who are off leash," says Donaldson. "It can heat up the whole situation if the dog on leash gets agitated.''
The ideal way to get your dog comfortable around other dogs on leash is a competently run obedience training class, says Donaldson. In a group class, your dog is on leash around other dogs, there's someone there to coach you, and the situation unlike at a typical dog park-is controlled.
Bullies and Victims
Short of an out-and-out fight, probably the worst time you can have at a dog park is when a dog picks on yours. It's tough sometimes you can't tell whether the dogs are playing or one is being bullied, since dogs play mimics fighting. "Play is biting, chasing, body slamming, pinning," says Donaldson. In true play, the dogs switch roles, and both are happily participating. And they're both in motion. "An overly assertive dog will freeze, he'll be stiff," says Wilson. If you have two frozen dogs, Wilson advises interrupting in a positive way. "Give them something productive to do."
If you feel your dog is being picked on, just leash him up and go do something fun elsewhere. It's a lot easier to remove him from the situation than it is to get the owner of the other dog to act. "We can't change other people's behavior," says Wilson.
What if the bully is your dog? Bullies will quite often play appropriately with most dogs, but target certain dogs for bullying, says Donaldson. If your dog appears to be bullying, it can be hard to accept, especially if lie usually plays well with others. If your dog is mounting the other dog, putting his paws on the other dog's back or blocking the path of the other dog in an attempt to control her movements, you might have a bully on your hands. Remove him from the situation. And have him assessed by a dog professional, suggests Donaldson.
Taking your dog to a park and expecting him to play nicely is a lot to ask of him, says Wilson. "If it's not going well, your dog isn't bad and you're not a bad owner. Just get out of the situation.
Big Dogs and Small Dogs: a Bad Combination
It is not safe to take your small dog into a dog park where big dogs are playing, Donaldson and Wilson agree. Dogs do a pretty good job of dealing with the size differences that have been created, says Donaldson. "But occasionally normal behavior kicks in. Dogs grab and shake small, furry animals. It is very much a reflex." Even large dogs who are known to be good with small dogs even those who live with them-can react if a small dog squeaks, wriggles, or otherwise resembles prey. The greater the difference in size between the two dogs, the greater the chance of a problem.
"I don't take a toy dog, ever, into a dog run," says Wilson. "It only takes a second for a toy breed to be seriously injured, perhaps in error." Unfortunately, it's not an uncommon occurrence. "It is not rare enough to become cavalier about it," adds Donaldson.
Then how can small dogs get the social interaction that dog parks provide? If your dog park doesn't offer a separate area for small dogs to play in, request one. Until one is established, you might want to organize a small-dog playgroup.
Dog Parks Aren't for Everyone
It is not abnormal for a dog to be uncomfortable with a group of his own kind, says Wilson. Your pet might enjoy sniffing on his own-let him enjoy himself and don't force him to play, even if your main goal is for him to get exercise. "If your dog doesn't like to play with other dogs, don't ask him to," Wilson says. "Not all dogs like to play with dogs."
Your canine might be comfortable only with animals of certain types, sizes, or ages. "You need to read your dog and know what combinations work well for him," adds Wilson. Scout out the park before entering. If there's a boisterous group of young dogs playing and your pup prefers peace and quiet, take a walk instead. The higher the level of stimulation, the more danger there is for an inappropriate response, according to Wilson. Dogs who have orthopedic problems or are otherwise in pain might get snappy around active dogs.
"Trust your dog," says Wilson. If lie's showing you that lie doesn't enjoy the dog park by cowering between your legs the whole time, he doesn't have to be there. "We think we are doing such a nice thing by taking them there, but it really is up to the dog."