Taking your dog to a dog park can ignite quite the conversation between dog lovers. Some dog lovers are in the camp of a dog park not being a good idea. Some dog lovers are in the camp of dog parks being a great place to take your dog. Both camps are correct. Dog parks can be great depending on the dog, the owner, and the park itself, but they can also be horrible ideas depending on those same criteria. Here are some questions to ask yourself on if you should be taking your dog to the dog park.
Is my dog fully vaccinated?
If the answer is "no", do NOT take your dog to the dog park. Dogs are supposed to be fully vaccinated in order to enter most dog parks, but there is no one there actually checking vaccination records of the dogs that enter. Parvovirus can live in the ground for years and kennel cough can be highly contagious. If you have a puppy, one of the riskiest things you can do is try to take your puppy to the dog park. Your puppy that has not finished with all of their boosters is susceptible to diseases that can be fatal should not be at a dog park.
Is my dog current on heartworm prevention and flea and tick prevention?
Parasites are easily transmissible when in close contact with other dogs. If you don't have your dog on flea and tick preventatives, you are risking your dog bringing some of these parasites home. Heartworm prevention is important for any dog, but many preventatives also prevent from other intestinal parasites. However, not all intestinal parasites can be prevented with heartworm prevention, so your dog may still be at risk if you go to these places. If you go to the park and see lots of poop laying around or see owners not picking up after their dogs, avoid this park because you are putting your dog at risk.
Is your dog a puppy under 6 months old?
Other than for vaccination and health reasons, the dog park is not a good place to take a young puppy. Puppies are learning appropriate social and play skills during this time, and you don't want them learning from the wrong dog. Some dogs are highly inappropriate in their play and you don't want your puppy to learn inappropriate social cues. You also put your puppy at risk for being the victim of an unfriendly dog brought to the dog park when they are in a very vulnerable learning and socialization period.
Is your dog friendly around other dogs on and off leash?
If your dog is not extremely friendly around other dogs, they have no business being in a dog park. As a dog trainer, I have worked with many dog owners with dogs that are not dog-friendly that have brought their dogs to a dog park to try to fix it first. The dog park is NOT a place for an owner to try to fix behavioral issues. You cannot "socialize" an older dog. If the dog has a chance of being friendly with other dogs, real behavior modification work needs to be done. This is not a task someone without the professional qualifications can tackle successfully on their own. The other dogs and owners there did not consent to be the guinea pigs for your dogs behavior issues, so it is highly irresponsible and unfair for you to treat unknowing owners and their dogs as such. If your dog is not completely friendly and comfortable around dogs, do NOT take them to a dog park and consult with a certified dog trainer or behaviorist to help you work through this issue.
Do you pay attention to your dog when you are at the dog park?
You are responsible for your dog when you take them out in public. Just because you take them off-leash to play with other dogs doesn't mean that you are off the hook. If you go to the dog park and immediately get on the phone and zone out from your dog, you shouldn't bring your dog to the dog park. If your dog is causing trouble, playing too roughly, or being too rambunctious, you should be the one monitoring your dog and breaking up play that is not appropriate. You should also pay attention so you can be your dog's advocate. If your dog is being bullied, behaving timidly, or having a bad day, you should be there to quickly get your dog out of a bad situation. If you can't give your dog the attention he/she deserves while you are at the dog park, you are't responsible enough to take your dog to the park.
If your dog is healthy, completely comfortable and happy around dogs, and you are a responsible owner that picks up after your dog and pays attention to your dog while at the park, then you are an owner who may be a good candidate for attending the dog park. Even if you meet these criteria, dog parks are not without risks. Even the best dog parks are with some risks, so use common sense and your judgement on if the dog park is a good idea. And if you want some options for less risky ways to have fun with your dog and get some of that energy out, consult with a certified dog trainer for some ideas in your local areas to fulfill some of those needs..