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Dog Parks: Are They Safe for Your Dog?

Is It Okay to Bring My Dog to a Dog park?

Dog parks in Austin - and everywhere - have exploded over the last decade. They used to be a neighborhood novelty. But as of 2015, 1200 dog parks are estimated to be operating in the United States.

They create a great option for people who live in apartments, people who want to meet other dog owners, or those who just want to look at their phone while Fido gets the wiggles out.

And it can be really fun - sometimes.

But as much as dog parks can add to the local dog community, I - and a lot of other dog professionals - aren’t convinced. They’re tricky places, frankly. They present a bunch of risks for any dog who enters.

So, If you plan to bring your dog to one of these off-leash fun parks, we should go over some of their potential perils. We should talk about some precautions you can take if you decide to go. And we’ll even brainstorm about healthy alternatives.

An Open Door Policy

Even when dog parks are in a private community, they’re still basically public spaces. The gate swings wide for everyone.

Which sounds great to us humans. We’re used to Oktoberfest and Comic Cons. A gathering of excited strangers packed into a small place? In non-contagious times, what’s weird about that?

But that’s putting a lot of faith in the judgment and attention of every owner in your local dog park.

“[J]ust because an owner thinks their dog plays well with others," warns Dr. Heather B. Loenser of the American Animal Hospital Association, "doesn’t mean they always do.”

You’re taking it for granted that every owner has a true grasp of what their dog is capable of in a social setting and that they’re actually watching their dog - instead of their phone.

You’re trusting their judgment about what’s safe behavior and what’s not. You’re also trusting that every dog in the place has had their shots and is healthy.

That’s a lot of trust.

There’s no screening process at a dog park - like there would be at some daycares. There are no professionals monitoring and enforcing policies.

Dog behavior is nuanced, and shifts from context to context. Even owners with the best intentions don’t always have a grasp of what’s happening once they set their dog loose.

As warm and neighborly as an open door policy is, it doesn’t offer your dog much protection while they’re there.

They Can Be Too Exciting

I’ve heard owners refer to the dog park as a great place for their dog to “blow off steam.” But a group of dogs blowing off steam in a confined space equals a lot of aroused dogs in one place.

Even if your dog didn’t come in that way, arousal can work a bit like a virus. Sometimes it results in play. Often it can flip into something violent.

Arousal can be defined here as excitement, alertness - readiness. Pass any Austin dog park and you’ll see dog arousal all over the joint.

“[W]hen an individual is exposed to a high level of sensory stimulation, their brain is flooded with excitatory chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol,” cautions Dr. Emma Hughes of the Better Behaviour Veterinary Sevices, “…too much arousal, or arousal of an anxious brain, can be bad.”

What looks like rough housing at the dog park can move out of polite play into violent behavior without a ton of notice - especially to the untrained or inattentive owner.

This isn’t a “good dogs/bad dogs” situation. It’s about unchecked body chemistry in action.

Risk of Disease

It’s not just about playground bullies and overexcitement. Dog parks are terrific breeding grounds for bacteria and disease.

I know - I’m such a buzzkill today. Sorry.

But even at the best of Austin parks, there are unwashed communal water bowls that go without disinfecting for ages - maybe forever.

And you know that cute thing some dogs do? When they splash the water bowl with their paws? Trace amounts of fecal matter are likely being washed off the pup’s paws and into the water.

“Dog bowls hold more than water,” warns the American Kennel Club, “they can be an incubator for all kinds of diseases…These bowls could be filled with stagnant water that’s not safe to drink, as stagnant water can be contaminated with environmental items like leaves or hold bacteria and parasites.”

Some common illnesses that can be passed through communal water bowls:

  • Intestinal worms

  • Giardia

  • Leptospirosis

  • Canine Papilloma Virus

  • Kennel Cough

  • Salmonella

These illnesses can range from unpleasant to fatal. And are particularly rough on young dogs, senior dogs, and dogs with compromised immunity.

If You Must Go, Consider Doing This

Look, I’m not trying to turn you into a helicopter dog parent. And I do realize that some of you just can’t bear to keep your pups from your local dog park.

I get it.

But at least - if you gotta go - take a few precautions to minimize the risk to your pup and everyone.

Pay attention.

This is arguably the most important “gotta.”

I know, it’s tempting to send your dog into the group and then tune out. But this is one of the worst times to do that.

Be engaged with your dog and monitor them as they move around.

You can advocate for your pup when they look scared. You can watch for poop drops. And you can make sure your dog isn’t harassing someone else.

Move around too. This forces your dog to check in. Just this periodic connection to you can curb a lot of escalation.

Bring your own water.

Bring along a clean bowl and some fresh water. Especially in the Texas summer, you want to make sure your dog stays hydrated. And you want that hydration to come from pristine, untainted H20.

Be willing to intervene before a conflict.

If you see play going too far

If you see someone pestering your uninterested dog - or vice versa

If you see too many dogs in a cluster…just break in.

Do it.

Someone might tag you as a killjoy or a worry wart. So what. This is your job. It’s better to be the wet blanket than to have to bust up a dog fight.

Enter together, calmly.

Don’t just unleash your dog and send them off into the pen. Don't let a ton of dogs crowd your pup as you enter.

Walk in with your dog. Thin out the crowd around you. Go in the same direction, at the same pace - if you can swing it.

Think of it as walking into a party with a shy friend. Go in together. And let your dog slowly get into the groove of the place.

Leave toys and snacks at home.

Don’t bring your dog’s favorite toy, ball, biscuit, or anything that can trigger a fight. Some dogs who are usually chill can get downright territorial about resources.

A question of ownership can go south fast. Don’t give anyone the excuse to pick a fight.

Hold onto your leash.

Have your leash in your hand to remove your dog unexpectedly. You can’t always depend on recall or a “HEY!” when there’s that much going on.

Be ready to leave if you feel things get too nuts or too crowded.

Leave little ones at home.

“Little ones” here means puppies and little humans too.

I know - nothing’s cuter than kids mixed with puppies. But you’re the grown-up here, so leave the short ones out of this potential powder keg.

Puppies are not great with social cues and can quickly antagonize less patient dogs. Small kids can get caught in dog fights or get knocked down by running dogs going at full tilt.

Bones can be broken and worse. Don’t bring them.

Of course, shots.

This could be a no-brainer. But make sure your dog is up to date on all their shots before venturing into any Austin dog park


Good Substitutes

Look, I think it’s great that you want your dog to have friendship and fun. Off leash parks can be a great resource for that.

But if it’s really about fitness and friendship there are better ways - not just safer, actually more effective ways - than letting them loose into a doggy mosh pit.

Nothing’s better for your dog’s fitness, joy, and contentment than a structured walk with you - his bestie. Training is another great option to bond and pump up your dog’s sense of purpose and pride. It also exhausts them - mentally and physically.

And what about some doggie friends?

Set up play dates with dogs that have good manners, all their shots, and attentive owners. Go for a side-by-side walk first. The dogs will feel even more comfortable with each other when they eventually get to mix it up.

The Bottom Line

In the end, it’s your call. I know you’re a good owner. If you’ve read this far, you care about what happens to your pup. You’re paying attention to his or her well-being.

Just tune in, whatever you do. That’s really what your dog needs and wants the most.

I promise - your dog doesn’t need dog parks to be happy. They just need a couple of good walks and your love and focus.


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