Dog parks are an excellent option, but an inherent responsibility comes with using them
Lorrie Shaw | Contributor
The nice weather here in Michigan never seems to last long enough, and for that reason, we all want to get outdoors as much as we can. With that premise in mind, those of us with dogs find any opportunity that we can to get them outside, especially if there are opportunities to burn off the extra energy our four-legged family members always have in abundance.
Walks are great, yes, but as myself and anyone else who works or lives with dogs will tell you, there isn’t anything that quite compares to going off-leash and running free. Whether a pooch is playing fetch with their favorite toy, romping with another friendly dog or just sniffing around the way that dogs do, it’s necessary for them.
Not every family has the option to have the option of a large yard. With so many arrangements from apartment living or a condominiums that lack sufficient green space, and even homes that lack the yard to really allow a dog to get out and run like crazy, a lot of pet owners are in the same boat.
Recently, there has been a lot of attention on the issue of off-leash play in Ann Arbor in areas where it hasn't been structured.
One excellent solution that has gained popularity with so many area residents — dog parks — addresses that need.
The premise is simple: A dog park is a large fenced-in area where well-behaved dogs can run free to interact with their owners, other dogs, or just to be dogs. A secondary benefit of these safe, fun areas is that you can get to know others with whom you share a common interest.
Fortunately, there are dog parks all over Washtenaw County, for example Canine Corral at Copper Leaf Crossing, Swift Run and Olson Park, Mill Pond in Saline and others that are just on the outskirts, like the Arise Dog Park in Pinckney.
Although visiting a dog park should be full of fun and lightheartedness, it by no means is something that should be undertaken with a casual attitude, for several reasons that encompass the safety, health and overall well-being of the animals and humans involved.
Michelle McCarthy of Chelsea understands those reasons well. As a nationally-recognized canine behavior professional accredited by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), she’s had plenty of experience with dogs — and people.
“Everyone has their own idea of what a dog park is,” says McCarthy.
And that’s where problems can begin.
Behavior problems at the dog park
“Of course, we know that they are a great place to go to allow their dogs the opportunity to get exercise and to socialize with other dogs,” which are two obvious benefits to heading out to one.
But, then there are others who think that going to a dog park will help solve behavior problems that their pets are having.
The latter, McCarthy explains, is a misconception that can produce disastrous results.
Fearful, aggressive or reactive dogs don’t learn better tools to cope with challenging situations with other dogs by being thrust into a group setting and just letting them figure things out.
They must, through proper socialization and environment, attain the skills they need to navigate through a difficult encounter with another dog first. That’s why socialization with other canines early in life is crucial.
McCarthy brings up another important concept when it comes to dogs: Not every dog will like each other dog. And that’s okay, contrary to what many believe.
“Dog parks, by their very nature, easily produce encounters of all types, and some can be tense. In the case of a dog that lacks the skills that he needs, things can easily escalate to a level that’s not manageable, and no one wants that.”
The burden of responsibility to have good behavior in a social setting does not lie with the dog, but with the human.
How can we ease our dogs into social situations like this with finesse? Start early, says McCarthy, who is owner of K-9 Homeschooling.
“Puppies need to be involved in playtime with other healthy, well-behaved dogs their own age.”
Young dogs learn things like bite inhibition and other things from each other best — not humans. When puppies play together, they quickly discover what is acceptable, and what isn’t.
When and how do we start is an idea that is as contested as most any when talking about the health and behavior of dogs, and the process always starts with humans. Being enrolled in a puppy class is very helpful, and ideally, puppies start attending class at 10 weeks of age.
By that age, puppies who have been deemed healthy by their veterinarian and have a current Health Certificate can safely be around other healthy pups in their age group.
“At 10-16 weeks, you should begin hand-picking playmates for your puppy,” says McCarthy.
She recommends inviting those families with puppies that you’re familiar with over for playdates, and vice-versa. In doing so, you give them the opportunity to have contact with other canines safely and lessen the worry of being exposed to diseases that they haven’t been vaccinated for as well.
Health concerns when puppies and dogs meet each other
At 16 weeks, puppies can start visiting the dog park. By that time, their core vaccines have been given and they have had some experience under their belt socially.
The issues associated with health should be at the forefront of our minds, because when you have groups of dogs together, the level of oversight becomes even more of an issue.
Margaret Lane, DVM can’t emphasize that enough.
In her practice at Lane Animal Hospital in Chelsea, Lane notes that beginning an open dialogue with clients from the very first visit with a new puppy or dog of any age is crucial.
“When clients come in, we make a point to talk extensively about all sorts of issues related to the health of their pet. From the importance of proper vaccination, internal and external parasites, and zoonotic disease, it’s a regular part of the dialogue.”
One point to consider when considering any aspect of health, is the lifestyle that the pet leads.
“If a pet visits a dog park, that is something that their owner needs to talk about,” notes Lane.
Their level of exposure is obviously different, so making sure that an animal has protection against preventable diseases is vital.
Lane says that compliance among pet owners is good when it comes to vaccinations, and that comes from pet owners being well-educated about the risks, and getting the right vaccines.
“We don’t want to over-vaccinate,” offers Lane, “so in taking into consideration the dog’s age, level of exposure and overall health, we personalize the vaccines that are given.”
One core vaccine is rabies, and that can be given at 16 weeks. In fact, it’s a must for pets. Others include:
- Bordatella (kennel cough)
- Canine Distemper
Leptospirosis is a concern, and although it’s not considered a core vaccine, it’s something that you need to understand and talk about with your vet. It is a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be passed from pet to human. Read more about that by clicking here.
A trend to not vaccinate pets out of concern that vaccinations cause harm to the animal is a hot topic, and Lane says that it needs to be discussed, especially if a pet frequents a dog park.
“If someone is opposed to immunizing their pet, they should respect the fact that they are putting the health of other pets at risk,” says Lane.
She acknowledges that some pets have been found to have a sensitivity to vaccines, and while she’s not opposed to the idea of testing a dog’s titers to see if they have an acceptable level of immunity against a preventable illness, she makes clear that an open line of communication and understanding is crucial.
External parasites are concerns, so ensuring that your dog uses flea and tick preventative and that they get a regular physical exam is necessary. That includes a fecal exam to test for internal parasites.
Common sense is king, Lane reminds.
“Treat the situation of going to a dog park as you would with a child in daycare. If they have a cough or other kind of respiratory distress, or have some gastrointestinal trouble, it’s probably best to skip the dog park until that is addressed and cleared up.”
And always be prepared to pick up after your pooch.
McCarthy emphasizes that dog owners need to be empowered. And that means really understanding dog behavior and body language (yes, she teaches a class on it), and recognizing when to step in and help extinguish a dicey situation and when to let allow dogs to work it out on their own. (Click here for a great article on that topic.)
More tips for a good dog park experience
She also makes a few other great points to consider:
- Visit the park — alone — ahead of time to observe what goes on with both dogs and humans
- Pay attention to your dog’s preferences
- Make sure play is safe and productive
- The humans need to pay attention to their dogs while at the park
- If your pooch is a bit unsure of themselves in this setting, consider attending during low-traffic hours (usually during the middle of the day)
Basic training is a must for any dog, and because of the high-level of distraction that comes with being at a dog park, a pet should have mastered basic obedience concepts like name retention and the “sit” command, and they should come when they are called.
Also, if you have a dog that’s a rescue, it’s wise to have them temperament-tested before embarking on your first dog park adventure.
A recurring theme I hear frequently from dog park enthusiasts: The owner of a poorly-behaved dog doesn’t do anything to step in when there is problem behavior.
The bottom line on this, as McCarthy says: “Dog owners need to be willing to be an advocate for their pets.”
In essence, they need to have the backbone to speak up if they are seeing that another dog is not handling himself well.
All in all, most dog park interactions are positive, but recognizing when they aren’t is key.
McCarthy concluded by saying, “Off-leash playtime is a must for any canine. But, the dog park setting isn’t for every dog, so you need to be prepared for the idea that your dog might be one of them.”
But all is not lost if your dog can't handle an off-leash dog park: buddying up with other dog owners to have backyard playdates with pets that your dog does get along with well is certainly an option.
Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for AnnArbor.com. Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly and subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.