Pet Science

A Dog Park Might Not Be the Best Option For Your Pup, According To Vets

If you do go to the dog park, leave little Pierogi’s favorite toy home.

Originally Published: 
Black Labrador puppy playing with her mom on grass in back yard
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Pet Science

Dog parks can offer myriad positives for pups and people. These communal spaces can be sorely needed outdoor havens for dogs (and their owners) that seem to offer physical and mental stimulation.

“A dog park is a great way for your dog to get out there and burn some energy and socialize with other dogs,” Carly Fox, senior veterinarian at the Schwarzman Animal Medical Center in New York City, writes to Inverse. Highly social creatures, many dogs need at least 2 to 3 hours of interaction with other people and dogs every day, according to Fox, making these enclosures an appealing option. Dog parks are also excellent places to “help you observe and learn more about how your dog acts in social situations,” Fox writes.

But dog parks might not be the best option for every dog. Depending on their background and personality, every dog has unique needs. Whether your pooch spooks easily around other animals, instigates fights, or hasn’t received all its vaccinations, there are good reasons to avoid dog parks. Luckily, many alternatives to the dog park exist that still cater to a dog’s social and psychological needs.

What are some risks of dog parks?

Among the dog park’s chief risks, Fox says, is the possibility of dog fights as well as the spread of infectious diseases like parasites. These threats can result in costly vet bills, an unpleasant medication regimen, injury, and even a traumatized dog.

Preventing communicable diseases can be fairly easy to control. On the owner’s part, Fox recommends that you refrain from dog park trips until your pup is up to date on shots and regular medication against heartworms, ticks, and fleas. However, you can’t guarantee that all dog owners will follow this rule.

Fox does recognize that most dogs fare well at the dog park. Still, she recommends a rule to all dog owners to reduce any risk of antagonism. “NEVER bring toys to the park, as this can promote possessive and aggressive behavior.” Dogs can be possessive and territorial creatures, and you don’t want your dog to become aggressive because someone drooled on its favorite tennis ball.

How do I know if my dog isn’t ready for dog parks?

On Fox’s list of dogs who should refrain from dog park visits are: “Dogs who are intact (not neutered), unvaccinated, have known behavioral problems, have known parasitic/infectious disease, or any history of aggressive behavior.”

She also advises that puppies aren’t quite ready for the high-octane thrill of the dog park. “Ideally, you want to avoid dog parks with puppies as they can often be overwhelming for them and encourage negative behaviors,” she writes.

VCA Animal Hospitals says aggressive dog behavior can manifest as snarling, lunging, snapping, and biting other people and dogs.

As for mature yet timid dogs, Fox stresses that you do not use the dog park for exposure therapy. “Do not bring an under-socialized or timid dog to the dog park to 'teach' them how to behave,” she writes. Well-intentioned dog parents, she goes on, want to help their shy dog, but going to a dog park could backfire. “They can become overwhelmed in a park setting, which can lead to aggression or negative associations with other dogs.”

What are other options for dog socializing?

Leashed walks are a great alternative for dogs to socialize every day, Fox suggests. Going to the park on a leash can offer all the world’s stimulation and smells while retaining a sense of control. As such, socializing can be approached by degrees. “This allows you to have control over your dog and speak to owners directly before engaging,” Fox writes.

One-on-one leashed playdates are another good option. Walks are a promising way to meet candidates for scheduled playtime. Coordinating with another owner means you both can make an informed decision for your pets. “You can discuss your pet's personality traits prior [to the meetup] to see if a playdate is a good match,” Fox writes.

One downside, however, of relying on walks for all your dog’s socializing is that you might not have the time for two or more hours of walks. It also requires more energy than keeping a close eye on your pup.

For puppies and dogs under one year of age, Fox recommends classes. These group sessions “offer a controlled setting for fully vaccinated dogs who have attentive/engaged owners,” she writes to Inverse. These classes can help educate your pup on the norms of doggy socializing.

If a dog park is the only feasible option, Fox offers some guidelines. Above all, take responsibility for your dog and make yourself available in case things go awry. “Be within a short distance of your dog and always be watching them,” she writes to Inverse. “Fights can break out very quickly at a dog park, and it is necessary for humans to intervene most of the time to prevent serious injury.

We all want what’s best for our dogs, so that means looking out for other dogs, too.

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