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Healthy Paws: Dog Park 101

Editor’s Note: Healthy Paws is a column sponsored and written by the owners of Clarendon Animal Care, a full-service, general practice veterinary clinic and winner of a 2017 Arlington Chamber of Commerce Best Business Award. The clinic is located 3000 10th Street N., Suite B. and can be reached at 703-997-9776.

The dog park is a super fun place to bring your puppy for exercise and socialization with other dogs, but there are some things to keep in mind before heading out to the park with your pup.

First of all, not all dogs should go to a dog park:

  • Dogs that are under 4 months of age are too young. Dog parks put them at risk for contracting infectious diseases and parasites. Young puppies can also be at higher risk for injury when playing with older and stronger dogs. If a puppy has a bad experience at the dog park, they can also learn to be afraid of other dogs. That said, socialization for puppies is very important for their development, but best to introduce them to dogs you know well (friends, family or neighbors) and in one-on-one or smaller settings or at a puppy kindergarten class.
  • Dogs that are reactive around other dogs should keep away from the park. Reactive behavior (growling, biting or lunging) is a sign of fear in dogs. If a dog is acting this way towards other dogs in a park, this means they are scared and want to be away from the dogs. If these signs are ignored, this can progress to causing a fight and injuries between dogs and ultimately worsen their fear long term. Some dogs may do better with dogs their own size, if this is the case, look for parks with a “small dog” and “big dog” area.
  • Dogs that cannot be let off a leash should stick to walks. When dogs interact off-leash they are able to exhibit normal canine behavior. Being on leash can cause a dog to feel restricted and can limit normal canine interaction, potentially leading to stress and fear.
  • Female dogs in heat should take a break from the dog park. This is to avoid unwanted attention from male dogs, particularly intact males, as this could lead to an accidental pregnancy.
  • Dogs that are sick should stay home and recover. This may seem pretty obvious, but dogs that are showing gastrointestinal symptoms or coughing, runny nose, or excessive sneezing, could have infectious diseases they could spread to other dogs.
  • Dogs that are not up to date on vaccines should wait until they get all of their shots. If you aren’t sure if your dog has all of the vaccines it needs for the park, reach out to your veterinarian for advice.

Before you head to the Dog Park:

  • Make sure your dog is trained in some basic commands — most importantly a “come when called” command so you can always redirect your dogs attention and get them to come to you when needed.
  • Check the weather. Prolonged exercise in hot temperatures can cause heat stroke in dogs, even if they have water available. If it’s a particularly warm day, plan to go to the dog park in the early morning or after it cools off in the evening to avoid excessive heat.
  • Consider bringing a few helpful items — including water, ball or toys for fetch, and poop bags, in case these aren’t available at the park. Just know that toys will likely be shared and may go missing — so don’t bring anything you or your dog is attached to.

Basic Dog Park Etiquette:

  • Intervene when play between dogs gets too rough or a pack is ganging up on a dog. This is best done by simply calling your dog away to redirect their attention.
  • Pick up all of the poops and dispose of properly.
  • Don’t let your dog hump another dog… it’s just not nice and a little awkward for everyone.
  • Take off the leash — that’s the point, right? Most parks have convenient double gates that allow for easy leash removal.
  • Pay attention! It’s best to avoid talking or texting on your phone and just enjoy the view of your pup having a great time with his or her friends. If you are distracted you could not be aware of tense situations brewing and miss an opportunity to intervene and avoid problems between dogs.
  • Don’t carry your dog around the park. This is a very unnatural way for dogs to interact and can lead to fear and reactivity. Picking up your dog can also tempt other dogs to jump up on you, a very bad situation overall. If your dog doesn’t do well on all fours, then it’s best to leave the park and try again another day.

Avoid having treats or food. Dogs will smell it and you might have more friends than you want following you around. Also, some dogs have food allergy, while others are reactive to other dogs when food makes an appearance, so best to leave the food out of your dog park experience.

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