Off-leash dog parks can seem like a sanctuary for pet parents and canine companions, especially as we emerge from pandemic restrictions. These fenced-in outdoor areas are places for dogs and humans to socialize, exercise, and play with other canines. For some dogs and people, a visit to the dog park can be an important reset to start or finish a busy day.
But taking your dog for a romp at a dog park does involve some risks, including contracting diseases or parasites and encountering aggressive dogs. It can be especially risky for puppies that aren’t fully vaccinated and don’t yet know the rules of interacting with strange dogs.
If an off-leash run is part of your pet’s routine, or if you are wondering whether to visit a dog park in your neighborhood, here are some important things to keep in mind.
Tips for Safer Dog Park Visits
If you do decide to visit the dog park, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) has some recommendations for keeping you and your pet safe. Some risks are unavoidable, but with awareness and good veterinary care, you and your dog can enjoy some outings in your local dog park.
Schedule regular veterinary care for dogs of all ages before you head to the dog park. Make sure your vet knows that you are going to dog parks so they can talk to you about vaccinations and preventing heartworm and other parasites that can harm your pet’s health and reduce the risk for people too.
Follow the rules that are posted for the dog park – some may even have these rules posted online so that you can plan ahead.
Avoid dog gatherings if your dog is sick or is on medications that suppress the immune system. Your veterinarian can let you know if they know or suspect that your dog has immune health problems.
Manners matter. If your dog is too timid or aggressive, or doesn’t respond to your commands, it’s best to wait before this kind of socializing. You can consider hiring a dog trainer who has received veterinary-approved education.
Keep an eye on your dog at all times.
Bring fresh water and avoid letting your dogs drink standing water.
Poop patrol. Be a good citizen and pick up your own dog’s feces as soon as possible and dispose of it in the trash. And do not let your pet come into contact with other dogs’ poop. Dog parks may provide free dog waste bags in case you forget yours. Poop contains bacteria and parasite eggs that can harm your dog or young children.
Injuries, including bite wounds, can result from conflicts at the dog park. And dogs that live sedentary lives can risk injury to muscles, joints, or bones if they play too hard before their bodies are used to the activity. If your dog is limping, a trip to your vet may identify any serious harm or a veterinary-approved pain reliever may be prescribed.
Avoid contact with dogs that appear unwell or seem aggressive. Report aggressive dogs to the park officials, if possible. You may want to leave the park if you can’t avoid them.
Keep your dog away from wildlife or stray animals since they can spread diseases (even if they look healthy) or harm your pet through bites and scratches.
Fertilizers or pesticides can be toxic to dogs. An informed dog park grounds manager will know to avoid using fertilizers or pesticides that are toxic to dogs or people.
Heatstroke is a risk for animals during hot weather. Never leave a dog in a car on a hot or sunny day (even 70ºF is too hot). If your dog is panting excessively, drooling, showing signs of anxiety or weakness, or has an abnormal gum color, they need to be taken to a shady area and cooled with wet towels or hosed down with cool water. A veterinarian should be consulted as soon as possible.
Dog Body Language
A good dog trainer can help you learn to read your dog’s signals. Learning to read and react to dogs’ gestures can prevent aggression and injuries. Watch for signals like hair raising and upright tails, facial expressions, and vocalizations to tune in to a dog’s stress level. Some dog parks have handy guides posted to let you know what to watch out for.
Common Disease Risks
The American Veterinary Medical Association has compiled a list of the most common diseases that can spread among dogs in any social, outdoor setting. There are several infectious diseases that can be transmitted by viruses, fungi, parasites, and bacteria in a dog park or other outdoor setting. Your veterinarian will know more about these diseases. All you need to know is that you can avoid or prevent these diseases by following your veterinarian’s recommendations.
“Yikes! My Dog Has a Tick!” — Dos and Don’ts
Ticks deserve a special mention because they are an unfortunate risk that can be managed when you find one on your dog. These parasitic pests can frequent dog parks and natural areas. Keeping your dog up to date on a flea and tick preventative is the best way to avoid these pests causing or transmitting disease to you or your pets. After a trip outside, check your pet for ticks by running your fingers through their entire body. Please don’t mistake their nipples for ticks (yes – male dogs have nipples). If one of the critters slips past your defenses, here’s what to do:
Get it off your pet as soon as possible. Use tweezers to grasp the tick and gently pull it out without twisting or crushing it.
Wrap the tick in a napkin or tissue after you take it out and throw them out. Wash your hands afterward.
Ask your veterinarian to remove the tick if you’re not able to remove it.
Let your veterinarian know that your dog had a tick.
Try to smother the tick with Vaseline or alcohol. You can seriously harm your pet if you do.
Try to burn the tick. You can burn your dog or yourself, and it makes the tick send saliva into the wound, which is harmful to your dog.
Crush, twist, or jerk the tick while its head/mouth is still buried. Leaving part of the tick there could cause an infection or allergic reaction.
Should I Bring My New Puppy to the Dog Park?
Puppies need socialization, and it’s tempting to want to bring the baby to the party happening at the dog park down the street. But puppies are vulnerable to certain diseases, including potentially fatal ones such as canine parvovirus and canine distemper virus. That’s why it’s important that your pup is de-wormed and vaccinated and socializes with other healthy dogs.
The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that puppies receive their last dose of parvovirus vaccine when they are between 14 and 16 weeks old, no matter how many doses they received previously.
You can’t know the health or vaccination status of all the dogs your pup encounters at the dog park, so it’s best to arrange playdates with fully vaccinated and de-wormed playmates or enroll in a puppy socialization class until your dog is fully vaccinated.