Most French Bulldogs average about 20 pounds, so clearly their bark is worse than their bite. My friend’s Frenchie is a whopping 30 pounds, putting him just above the cusp of being grouped as a small dog. So what’s Buddy to do? Go to the big dog park or the little dog park? At the little dog park he’s known to scare all the Malteses and Chihuahuas. Yet at the big dog park, his bite won’t get him far.
As much as we love the idea of our dogs socializing, a dog park isn’t your average trip to the park. There are things to consider before making the trip — most importantly, safety concerns. Follow our guide to make sure your pup is ready for the big kid club.
Each dog park is different. Before even bringing your dog, go on your own. “Look at the behavior of the dogs and their owners,” says Eleasha Gall, the Director of Animal Behavior and Training at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (SPCALA), who teaches a dog park etiquette class.“Do they stand up for their dog? What’s the vibe?” She recommends using Dog Park Assistant, an app created by Sue Sternberg, that offers training tips and matches your dog (through a personalized profile) with compatible playmates at the park.
And be aware of the park’s cleanliness. “Inspect the area to insure that the waste removal policies are being followed and be sure you have access to your own poop bags,” says veterinarian Kathryn Primm, the author of Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People. “Remember that, although some canine infectious pathogens are killed by direct sunlight, many viruses can linger in shaded areas for prolonged periods. [And] never take a puppy that is not finished with his/her vaccine series.” Although most parks will have an age limit, dogs should be at least six months old.
The most important thing is to be able to control your dog. “They need enough basic training to listen around distractions,” says trainer and behavior consultant Jonathan Klein. “They need to know to come and stay. When a dog fight starts, it’s really important to be able to say, ‘come and stay here for a second,’ and watch that moment settle down.” It’s impossible to know and trust every dog in the park, so it’s imperative that you trust yours.
Just as many parents love the park because it gives them a chance to relax while their kids enjoy play time, many owners see this as the opportunity to let their dogs get mental and physical stimulation without them. But the truth is, you need to be as alert as ever. “You can’t expect other dogs to play with your dog and keep him or her active,” says Gall. “You need to stay engaged with your dog at all times. You don’t know the other dog’s behavior history, or even their medical history.”
Gall also cautions that you need to be aware of where you’re standing. “Owners shouldn’t stay still in the dog park. They should continue to move with the dog. If you sit on a bench, your dog may sit beneath you and act as a guard, growling at any other dog or person that comes near.”
“Treat the dog park as you would any other public space, and remember, it’s a park for dogs,” says veterinarian Dr. Kerri Marshall, DVM. “Pick up after your pet, don’t let them dig, and make sure your dog is respectful of the space and of others.” And be prepared to share. “If you bring your own toys, they may be snatched up by another dog. While it’s not always polite, it is something to be aware of.”
And when it comes to food, bring the canine kind only. “It’s a good rule not to bring food for yourself. If you have treats for your dog, you should expect to run into some beggars. Before giving treats to pets other than your own, ask their owner if it’s okay. Many dogs have varied dietary needs and it’s always good to ask the owner.”
“People think that dogs need that interaction with other dogs,” says Klein. “They think their dog needs social hour like in the way that people need social hour.” Gall sees the same thing with her clients. “Many dogs are happy not going to the park. Many don’t even like the dog park. Most people don’t get dogs with the thought process that they’re gonna get ten more dogs so they can socialize. People get dogs to be with them—to create that human dog engagement.”
To make sure your dog is enjoying himself, look for this one sign. “Dogs are having fun when they’re mirroring each other,” says Gall. “They have appropriate play mates when they’re rolling around, sniffing each other. If your dog is avoiding the other dogs and keeping to himself or only aroused by other animals in the park — a bird or a squirrel — he’s best in another setting.
Remember, dog parks are a great place for a dog to get out of the house and get some exercise. But it isn’t the only option. A dog can get just as much stimulation from a long walk or play time with his or her owner. A dog isn’t just a man’s best friend. Man is dog’s best friend too.
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