Not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me what I think of dog parks. The best answer I can come up with is..."It depends on the dog". Some dogs thrive on running with a large pack, are tolerant of different play styles, and look forward eagerly to every visit. Other dogs would rather just play one on one with their person or another four legged buddy or two. Personally, I don't take my dogs to any of Ann Arbor's dog parks. Does that mean I never will? No. But I've spent enough time around dogs, and seen how quickly the tide can turn from play to fight, to feel comfortable amongst a large pack of unknown dogs and owners who may or may not be experienced dog people. Here are some basic guidelines to playing it safe if you choose to take your dog to a dog park.
- Leave the latte and chatting for a trip to the coffee shop, and keep an eagle eye on your dog and the dogs in her immediate vicinity. Mayhem seems to be the order of the day at most dog parks. Be prepared to step in if a situation seems to be escalating from friendly play to a brawl.
- Not everyone will keep their sick dog at home. Your dog runs a greater risk of coming into contact with a wide variety of diseases, as well as internal and external parasites. Watch for fleas, and have your vet check a stool sample for internal parasites on a regular basis. If any of the dogs look under the weather, go home and come back another day.
- If your dog runs up to you, a group of rowdy dogs at his heels, he may be hoping for some intervention. This is the time to redirect the group, with owner's stepping in and calling their dogs to them, and cool things down.
- Watch for "predatory drift". This is the escalation from play to attack, and can occur in the blink of an eye. This is why I would never take a small dog to play with a group of much larger dogs. High pitched barks, small size, quick movements. All of these can flick the switch from pal to predator. And anyone who's seen it happen will tell you that once one dog starts, frequently others join in. This often spells death to little dogs. Some of the signs that a dog is entering predator mode are: staring, being up on his toes, raising the hair on his neck and back, tail raised and curving forward, taking measured steps while focusing on one particular dog.
- Predatory drift is also the reason I feel dog parks aren't really the place for kids, but if you take yours along, keep them close by. Running, yelling, rolling around on the ground...all of these say "prey" in dog speak, and not all the dogs at the park will be accustomed to having children around.
- Be it human or canine, there's always at least one bully in every crowd. Don't let your dog be the victim - or the bully. If your dog is spending most of its time on the ground, being humped, being chased with the other dog nipping at its heels, step in. Likewise, if your dog is the offender, step in and call your dog to you. Take it off to the side to settle down a little before rejoining the group. These dogs are frequently the type who guard food and toys, so it's a good general rule to keep these items at home.
- Adult dogs don't always appreciate the antics of puppies. At the dog park you're likely to have dogs of all ages. Don't let your puppy harrass an adult dog in the unmerciful way puppies have. Let her test the limits of good canine etiquette with other puppies. The adult may discipline your puppy to an extent that horrifies you and puts a permanent fear of other dogs into your puppy.
- Many dogs "age out" of dog parks. Depending on the breed, as your dog matures a trip to the park may not give her the same thrill it once did. Be sensitive to her feelings. This might be the time to find her a pal or two with similar play style and a fenced yard for her to burn off some of that excess energy and socialize a little. If your dog has entered the geriatric phase, joint or other pain makes play less fun. Again, follow your dog's lead, and let her guide you to the activities she really enjoys.
Dog parks can be a great experience, letting your dog burn off excess energy and go home with a big happy grin on his face. They can also be a nightmare, if things go awry. Use common sense, keep an eagle eye on your dog, and be ready to step in before things get out of hand. That way, everybody will have fun!