For a lot of dog owners who live in cities, there are limited places to take dogs for potty breaks and exercise. The main option? Dog parks.
Dog parks have their benefits. They are places where your dog can relieve itself, run around off leash, and socialize with other dogs. But dog parks also have their hazards. With so many pets sharing the same space, dogs who use dog parks can easily spread parasites, such as giardia, and get in fights with other dogs they don’t get along with.
A OneVet study (first published in April 2021), ranked 20 cities in the U.S. by how safe their dog parks are for its resident pups. St. Louis ranked No. 1 because of its extensive dog-friendly trails. There are, however, many factors that go into making a park safe for your dog, and, in the end, you both need to be comfortable in that space.
The Spruce Pets spoke with Jamie Freyer, DMV, a veterinary expert with more than 10 years of experience, about how to avoid common health and safety hazards at dog parks. Here are the main takeaways.
Look Out for Common Dog Park Illnesses
Dr. Freyer: "The common categories we see issues from dog parks are dog fights, accidental injuries, such as head-on collisions or picking up something that they’re not supposed to eat, and then the third category is that they can pick up [diseases] from the other dogs. Giardia is one of the diseases that they can pick up, and that’s really difficult to get out of the environment so it stays around for a long time. And if a dog is not fully vaccinated, diseases, such as Parvo, are going to be easy to pick up in a dog park as well."
There Are Ways to Keep Your Dog From Getting Sick
"Keep dogs away from any other dogs’ feces. Pick up after yourself as well. Make sure that your dog is fully vaccinated. And really, I’m going to keep coming back to this, but really stay with your dog, watch your dog. You see what they’re doing. You see what they’re eating. You can stop them from eating things that they’re not supposed to if you’re watching them.
"I don’t love [communal dog bowls] from a communicable disease standpoint. I would recommend bringing your own. "
Don't Take Your Eyes Off Your Dog
"Again, be with your dog, watch your dog. I’ve seen a lot of people at dog parks that just let their dogs go, and then they’re on their phones, or they’re not really paying attention. It’s really important to pay attention to your dog, not only what they’re doing, but the dogs they’re interacting with. The body language of the dogs can give you clues as to whether they’re having a happy interaction or a not-so-happy interaction. And if you’re watching and if you’re there with your dog, then you can get them out of a bad situation a lot faster than if you’re sitting on a park bench 20 feet away."
Watch Your Dog's Body Language
"You can see if the dog looks uncomfortable, so if their ears are back, if they’re showing signs of stress like yawning, licking their lips, turning away, trying to get away from the conflict. Even if dogs look like they’re playing, if one dog is constantly the aggressor, and the other dog is being aggressed upon, that’s a sign. Play should be equal. It depends on the breed and how they play, but say one dog is chasing the other one and they’re all having fun, and then the other dog starts chasing the first dog. That’s reciprocal play and they’re behaving the way they should be. But if it’s just one dog chasing one dog around, that’s more one-sided and you may need to get your dog out of a situation like that."
Pick Up After Your Pup
"That’s the biggie: pick up after yourself. You shouldn’t be leaving anything behind. No poop, and nothing that you’ve brought there. Also, really just make sure that your dog is being polite to other dogs, too. It’s not just making sure that your dog doesn’t get picked on, but if you see your dog aggressing on another dog or picking on another dog, then it’s considered good behavior to go over and pull your dog away from the situation."
Do Your Research
"In this day and age, I would probably do a little online search on it and see what people are saying about that particular dog park and the types of things that go on there. That might be a place you could find some clues that that particular dog park is not for you or not for your pet. I personally would probably want to have my dog on a leash the first time, so I could kind of see what the other dogs were like and make sure the other owners were paying attention to their dogs and that my dog felt comfortable at that particular park.
"If it’s dirty, if there’s poop everywhere, if there’s no good fencing, if there are too many dogs in too small of an area. You want to make sure that the dogs have lots of room to feel like they can get out of situations that are making them uncomfortable.
"Many parks also have separate play areas for large/active dogs and small dogs, which can help ensure your dog has compatible playmates."
If Your Puppy Isn't Vaccinated, Exercise Caution
"It’s complicated. What I recommend—and it can be difficult—but you can take your dog places, just don’t let them touch the ground. You can kind of pick them up and you can take them places and expose them to new things, without letting them get in and sniff some other dog’s waste, which could theoretically make them sick.
"If you have friends that have dogs that play well with others and are healthy, you can take them to your friends' houses, as long as their dogs are appropriately vaccinated. There are still things you can do during that stage to socialize safely, because that’s a really important developmental stage for them, especially before they reach 16 weeks old. And it's really good for them to continue getting socialized even though their immunity is not quite there yet."
If Your Dog Is Sick, Don't Go to the Park
"It’s not really fair to the other dogs there if you know you have something contagious to bring in there. You don’t want to perpetuate the cycle of infection at the dog park."
Worth Repeating: Watch Your Dog, Watch Your Dog, Watch Your Dog
"I just really want to emphasize: Watch your dog, watch the other dogs, make sure other people are watching their dogs. That’s really how to curb most of the bad things and stop most of the bad things from happening is to just be really vigilant with paying attention."