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Key Points
  • Dog parks give city pooches a place to run, sniff, and play unleashed.
  • Young puppies and unsocialized dogs should not be taken to dog parks.
  • Dog parks vary in terms of safety, cleanliness, requirements, and users.

Dog parks are fenced-in, outdoor grounds designated for off-leash dog play. There are many variations – some safer and more pleasurable than others for your dog. Also, like any other social activity, it’s important for dog owners to know basic rules of etiquette. In this case, it’s not just a matter of a social faux pas — failing to comply can put your dog and other pets at risk.

The Trust for Public Land reports that dog parks are among the fastest-growing park amenities in the 100 largest U.S. cities. In 2019, there were 810 dedicated dog parks in those cities. Based on the number of dog parks for every 100,000 residents, the top five cities were: Boise, Idaho; Portland, Ore; Henderson, Nev.; Norfolk, Va.; and San Francisco, Calif.

Dog parks range from a canine oasis where dogs can socialize and expend positive energy — to frightening enclosures contributing to traumatic experiences for your dog. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to determine whether your dog and a dog park are a good match.

Is Your Dog Ready for a Dog Park Experience?

Some dogs may not be ready to visit a dog park. Following are characteristics of dogs who should not visit – at least not yet.

  • Puppies younger than 4 months old who have not had all of their vaccinations should never be around dogs you don’t know.
  • Dogs that aren’t up-to-date on their vaccinations should stay home. AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein recommends that dogs spending time in dog parks be vaccinated for bordetella, leptospirosis, and canine influenza. They should also be treated with flea, tick, and heartworm.
  • If your dog is in heat or coming into season, keep her at home — unless you want unplanned puppies or to stir up an aggressive interest in male dogs.
  • Any dog showing signs of illness should stay home. It may be something contagious and also cause the dog to feel unsociable.
  • A dog should learn to obey basic obedience commands – such as come, down, and stay — in distracting environments prior to going to a dog park. If your dog is tuning you out when he’s having fun, you won’t get his attention at the dog park.
  • Socialize your dog to other dogs before you go. If your dog is shy or nervous, the dog park may be a nightmare for him.
  • Reactive or aggressive dogs may not welcome an onrush of strange dogs anywhere, including a dog park.
  • Resource guarders, depending on what they guard, may not do well in a dog park. Dogs that guard their owners, their water dish, or even a ball or stick may not interact well with other dogs.

Dog park

Is a Particular Dog Park a Match for Your Dog?

All dog parks are not alike. Therefore, animal behaviorists suggest that you visit a dog park without your dog before you take your canine companion along. Here are some of the aspects to evaluate:

  • Fencing should be secure and prevent dogs from jumping over or crawling under, with no holes or rough edges. Double gates are safest, allowing you to close one gate behind you before opening the gate to the park area.
  • Separate play areas for large and small dogs are most conducive to safe and congenial mingling.
  • The park should be clear of trash, equipment, and dog poop. You should clean up after your dog and so should everyone else.
  • How many dogs are there? Large groups of too many dogs can be intimidating and difficult to control. Consider visiting dog parks at off-peak hours and leaving if the park is too crowded.
  • Communal water bowls allow dogs to share parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Dog parks that ask owners to bring their own water dishes help protect your dog’s health.
  • Dog parks that require owners to register their dogs and show proof of vaccinations also offer better health protection.
  • Notice what the dog owners are doing. They should be paying attention to their dogs, watching their dog’s body language, and intervening when play starts to get too rough.
  • Personal dog toys, balls, food, or treats can cause doggy disagreements and are best left at home.

If You Go — Or If You Don’t

When you go to a dog park, listen to your dog. If there’s a gang rushing the entrance and making it intimidating, wait until they disburse before you go in. Take your dog’s leash off as soon as you get inside the gate, so he won’t feel trapped.

Intervene if other dogs repeatedly roll your dog to the ground or chase your pup. “Especially when a dog is young, a bad experience with another dog can make the frightened dog wary of all dogs for the rest of his life,” says Dr. Klein.

Even if your dog is having the time of his life, don’t overstay your welcome. A 30-to-60-minute visit should allow your pooch time to run and play without getting overtired. When your dog only wants to hang with you or stands by the gate, respect his wishes – and take him home.

If you decide your dog and a dog park do not make a good match, don’t despair. You may be able to invite a dog you know your dog enjoys over to your house for a romp or enroll your pup in a well-supervised class.

Remember — for your dog, nothing really replaces time spent with you. Go on walks, take a hike, enroll in an obedience class, or try a dog sport. A dog can be happy with or without a dog park experience.

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