NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles about how to maximize your dog’s experience at the dog park. In this article we will discuss how to choose the best park experience for your dog.
They’re called dog parks or dog runs. Sometimes they’re official, sometimes they’re formed by a group of people who want their dogs to play together. Some dog parks are large—acres or miles of paths—but most are less than an acre in size, and some are tiny. Some are flat gravel or dirt, while others have picnic tables, trees, and other objects.
What all dog parks have in common is the reason for their existence. Dogs need a place where they can run free, sans leashes, and do “doggie” things. Here’s how to choose the park with the right conditions for your dog!
How Do You Find a Park?
If your dog is an appropriate match for a dog park and you’ve put in the work to get them ready (see our previous article if you are unsure), then the next question is: how do you go about finding the right one for you and your pooch? Some cities may only have one park, while others may have many. If you are traveling you can use sites like dogpark.com or dogfriendly.com to locate a park and read reviews and the park rules. If you reside within our service area, we’ve compiled a list of dog parks and other pet related businesses in Arlington, Annandale, Falls Church & Alexandria for your reference (just click the city for each list). You can also speak to other dog owners in your area, local animal organizations and your veterinarian or trainer — they can all help you find a safe park with conscientious owners.
What Do You Want from a Park?
Before you take your dog to a park, check it out yourself in person. Here is a list of helpful things you should assess:
- Dogs need room to roam. You want enough space so people and dogs are not congregating by the entrance so newcomers can enter without pressure. There also needs to be enough space to allow dogs to play in different groups and be separated from one another if that’s what they need.
- There should be a separate fenced in area away from the general crowd, usually called the “small dog area”, for shy or older dogs that are uncomfortable in the bigger park. Keeping small and large dogs separated also avoids predatory drift where a larger breed with normally peaceful behavior will suddenly attack a smaller dog as if it were prey.
- There should be access to fresh water. Some parks have fountains or hoses and others only have bowls with the expectation that owners will bring water with them.
- Bags and garbage cans should be plentiful for the disposal of waste. You should always bring your own bags to clean up after your dog in case the park is out of them or does not provide them.
- There should be ample shaded areas for the dogs to remain cool.
- There needs to be spaces for dogs to take a break and hide from the crowd when they feel overwhelmed.
- For your comfort, there should be benches in the shade. Tools and garbage cans should be plentiful to encourage clean habits on the part of pet owners.
- Dogs love to play in water. It is a form of exercise and keeps them cool in warmer weather. Some parks have access to a stream, a lake or a pool but make sure it is clean and gated from the rest of the park.
- It is a bonus if you can find a park that offers different surfaces like gentle hills, level fields, rock piles and even obstacle courses to provide variety and mental stimulation.
- Fencing needs to be free from sharp points and high enough not to scale, without any gaps big enough for dogs to squeeze through.
- Entrances and exits should use a double gate system so you have space to leash and unleash your dog away from other dogs. It also provides a safety net in case another dog follows you out of the park without their owner.
- Try to see if the park is clean. All dog parks require owners to clean up, but not all people do it, and lots of fecal piles lying around is not good for your dog’s health.
- You don’t want to go to a dog park that’s not maintained. Some signs to look for are: overgrown with weeds, full of mud pits, dog poop, or broken toys everywhere.
- Grass and gravel are the preferred surfaces for pet parks. The grass does not have to be real and gravel should be pea type so that your pup’s pads don’t get torn.
When Should You Visit the Park?
Now that you know what to look for in a good dog park, you need to make sure to scout parks at the time of day and day of the week you actually plan to visit with your dog. The same people and pets tend to frequent the park at the same time(s) each week. You need to observe what you and your dog will be getting into before bringing your pup along.
Level of play:
- The level of play needs to be compatible with your dog. Different groups of dogs will behave differently. If you are ever in doubt about a situation, remove your dog immediately.
Owner control and awareness:
- You want a group of people who are constantly moving around and interacting with their dogs, not clumping around the picnic tables. Remember that dogs in a pack situation can act unpredictably, and that any attack by one dog onto another can quickly escalate into calamity. Owners who pay attention and keep the dogs moving can help stop poor behaviors before they become a problem.
For your dog’s first visit to an off leash dog park, it’s best to go at a time when the park is not overly crowded with lots of dogs and people everywhere. Evenings and weekends tend to be the busiest times at dog parks. Before heading to the park for the first time, check out our next article for dog park dos and don’ts.
Have a favorite local dog park you frequent? How did you choose it? Let us know why you think it is the best park for your pup in the comments.