NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles about how to maximize your dog’s experience at the dog park. In this article we will discuss what you should do to prepare before even leaving for the park.
Dog parks are a great way to socialize and exercise your dog in a fun environment. But how do you introduce your dog to this new experience without them becoming overwhelmed or making negative associations? This series of blog articles will walk you through how to do just that!
Before you can even think about heading to an off-leash park, you need to make sure your dog will be safe in that environment. Well-trained, socialized dogs with no resource-guarding issues are ideal candidates for an off-leash experience. Here are things you can do at home to prepare for your first trip to the park.
Train and Socialize Beforehand
It should be no surprise proper training is the single most important thing to have mastered before heading to the park. An untrained dog at an off-leash dog park can run into trouble. These might include challenging behaviors like aggressive sniffing, humping, and toy stealing that will inevitably end up in fights. The dog park is a place to refine skills, not to expose dogs to discipline and social encounters for the first time. Respect others and have your dog undergo basic socialization and training classes before exposing them to others at the dog park.
Certain skills and behaviors should be bulletproof before taking any dog to a dog park. These skills and behaviors should be reliable even when off-leash and at a distance, and ideally when there are other distractions as well. Basic training commands like “come,” “sit,” and “leave it” should be solid before entering a chaotic environment such as the dog park. For fenced-in parks, 50% recall reliability is probably sufficient enough, but for off-leash parks without a fence, you need 100% reliability to keep your dog safe. Get there with practice at home first, which is a calmer environment than outside.
With a flurry of dogs and owners at the park, it’s easy for any dog to become overwhelmed, especially if they are not used to much commotion. It’s better to socialize your dog first with a small group of well-behaved dogs and owners they are familiar with, in a controlled environment like a fenced-in back yard before trying the dog park.
Practice Being Off Leash
Dogs who are not used to being off leash tend to get excited to be let off the leash and can bolt. This can be scary because they are inadvertently learning that running away from you is okay. Besides the obvious danger of running into the street or parking lot, your dog could scare other dogs or people with his fast approach and high energy. Instead, you want your dog to sit nicely and be calm when you remove their leash. They should stay and not move until you say it’s okay. You can practice this in the home at first, moving to outside once you have this mastered. Then, you can take your dog to practice their skills in a fenced-in area that isn’t necessarily a dog park—like a playground or a tennis court—but make sure your dog has already gone to the bathroom first.
Keep Vaccinations Up To Date
Whenever dogs gather, there is an inherent risk that contagious diseases may spread from one animal to another. Consult your veterinarian to determine which vaccines are appropriate for your dog and region — and be sure to keep them up to date, especially before going to places like the dog park. Often veterinarians will recommend administering core vaccines, which protect against deadly diseases like canine parvovirus, distemper virus and rabies. Depending on where you live, the age of your dog, and the time of year, your vet may also recommend other vaccinations, such as leptospirosis, Bordetella, Lyme disease, parainfluenza, or even canine influenza (“dog flu”).
It is important to note that puppies should not be brought to a dog park until they are a minimum of 17 weeks old. Puppy vaccinations don’t begin until they are 6–8 weeks old, with booster shots needed every 3–4 weeks until a puppy is 16-20 weeks old. You should wait an additional week after their final puppy shot is administered before their first dog park visit to give their immune system enough time to fully respond to the last shots in their series of vaccinations.
Use Flea and Tick Preventives
Another important form of prevention for dogs planning to visit the dog park is the use of flea and tick preventives. There are many types to choose from — collars, spot-ons, oral medications, and more (click link to check out our blog article on preventative options). Dogs often come into close contact with each other and with grasses, shrubs, and bushes at dog parks. This gives fleas and ticks the perfect opportunity to latch onto new hosts — in this case: your dog. Discuss with your veterinarian what flea and tick preventive is best for your dog and situation. Additionally, check your dog for fleas and ticks after every visit to the dog park.
Has your dog mastered these skills? Are they up to date on their vaccinations and using preventatives? Great! You are ready for the next step. Keep an eye out for our the next article in this series on selecting the best park environment for your dog.
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