BEWARE!! THE DANGERS OF DOG PARKS!
Every weekend in the ER we see multiple dog fight cases that were initiated at dog parks - Many which have resulted in severe injury and even death. - IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU!
Dog parks are becoming more and more popular in Illinois. They range in size and design, but all share the same purpose: To provide a place where dogs can run freely off-leash and socialize with other dogs. This would be great if every pet was in perfect health and had perfect doggie manners and pristine behavior. But let's face it, as is every pet owner-EVERY ANIMAL IS DIFFERENT AND REACTS TO SITUATIONS IN THEIR OWN WAY based on their individual upbringing and environment.
Beyond physical wounds and injuries that your pet may sustain due to fear aggression, lack of socialization, predatory behavior, toy/food aggression, rough play, etc; There are health risks any time your dog interacts with other dogs, or is exposed to locations that may be heavily forested/a stomping ground for wildlife.
Ticks, Fleas, and Mosquitos provide their own form of threat to your pets such as Heartworm disease, Lyme disease and skin allergic sensitivity, to name a few. Although many of these issues can be prevented with the proper monthly preventative medication, these insects tend to be more heavily populated in areas where there are an abundance of animals, tall grasses, a water source such as a lake or pond, and wildlife.
There are also health threats that can be transmitted from animal to animal such as Kennel Cough, Rabies, intestinal parasites, Parvo, etc. Not every animal that attends this type of "playground" is 100% up to date on all of their vaccines or has a perfect bill of health.
Last but not least, everyone has a different perspective, and some people have strong opinions about dog behavior - Especially if it is defending their own pet's behavior. Pet parents don’t always agree about what’s normal dog behavior, what’s acceptable during play, what kind of behavior is truly aggressive (until it's too late), which dog behaviors are obnoxious, whether or not one dog is bullying another or who’s at fault in an altercation. People might argue about how to respond when problems between dogs arise. Since there’s rarely an authority figure to appeal to at a dog park, disagreements can get heated and result in human behavior problems! Now, by no means am I telling you that you are to never take your pet to a dog park again - However, as someone who believes that it is important to educate as much as possible and to advocate for pets and their health and happiness: I strongly encourage you to be extra careful with your pets, educate yourself on animal behavior and be over cautious with your pet when exposing them to dog parks in the future. Below, I have attached information in which the ASPCA has recommended considering before taking your pet to a dog park if you DO INDEED wish to take your pets there for play time:
Choosing a Park
There are all kinds of dog parks. Some are situated in open areas, some include walking trails through the woods, and some are located at beaches or near lakes. Some are enclosed by fences and others aren’t. Some parks are formal—recognized by a city or county, with rules created and enforced by a board or committee. Others are just areas where people gather informally to let their dogs play.
Ideal Dog Park Features
Though they vary in design and terrain, the best dog parks should have a few ideal features:
Enough space for normal interaction The area should be big enough for dogs to run around and space themselves out. If there’s not enough square footage available, a park can easily get crowded. Crowding can lead to tension among dogs and, as a result, fights can erupt.
Secure fencing and gates Even if your dog reliably comes when called, it’s safest to take her to a securely enclosed area to play off leash. Before you let your dog run free at a dog park, make sure that fencing is sturdy and free of holes. It’s also best if the park enclosure incorporates double gates or an interior “holding pen” at the entrance, so people and their dogs can enter and exit without accidentally letting other dogs slip out of the park.
Clean-up stations A dog park should have trash cans and bags available for people to clean up after their dogs.
Water and shelter Especially in warmer climates, exercising dogs should have access to both drinking water and shade.
A separate area for small dogs Small dogs need exercise and play time too, but they can sometimes get injured or frightened by larger dogs. Many dog parks designate separate areas for smaller or younger dogs so that they can play safely.
Preview the Park and Prepare
Go Alone and Observe
It’s important to visit the dog park a few times without your dog, just to check it out in advance.
Note the park features. Are you comfortable with them? Do they meet your needs? Also read any posted rules and make sure you agree with them. Can you bring treats and toys with you? Does your dog need a special license? Do you need to pay a fee to use the dog park?
Go to the park at different times, on different days. Note the best days and times of day to visit. If the park’s always packed on weekend mornings or weekdays after work, for example, you can take your dog at off-peak hours instead.
Observe the park-goers. Are people actively supervising their dogs or are they letting them run amok while they chat and sip lattés? Does anyone in particular seem to have trouble effectively controlling his or her dog? Are there specific dogs who consistently play too roughly or fight with other dogs? If you identify people or dogs who seem to cause problems, you can avoid visiting the park when they’re around.
Prepare in Advance
Think about what you’ll need to bring. Find some comfortable clothes and shoes to wear. Put together a dog-park kit that includes essentials, like a leash, water for you and your dog, bags for clean-up, toys and treats.
Teaching your dog a few key skills helps keep her safe and contributes to a more enjoyable dog-park experience for all park users. One essential skill is a reliable recall. Please see our article, Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called. Sit, down, stay, drop it, leave it and settle are also very useful.
It will help to train yourself, too. Learning about canine body language and communication will help you interpret what’s going on during play and prevent conflict before it escalates to a fight.
When You Get There
Keep the following recommendations in mind to minimize your risks and maximize your fun:
Before you enter the park, check out the crowd for a few minutes. Do the dogs seem to be romping happily? If so, let the fun begin! If, on the other hand, you notice canine troublemakers bullying or fighting with other dogs—or if you simply feel uneasy about letting your dog play with a particular group of dogs—plan to come back at a later time.
When a new dog arrives at a dog park, the other dogs often rush over to investigate. This sudden flood of attention can overwhelm newcomers. To avoid a canine mob scene, linger outside the park for a few minutes and let other dogs notice your dog’s presence outside the park’s enclosure. When their excitement about her arrival dissipates, you can enter the park together. After your dog has played a while and become part of the group inside the park, don’t let her become a mob member. Instead, call her to you when you notice newcomers arriving.
Keep your attention on your dog and her playmates so that you’re aware of what she’s doing at all times. If you see signs that play’s not going well, you can step in to stop interaction before things get out of hand. (Please see Interpreting Dog Play and Interaction, below, to learn about these signs.)
Avoid canine clumping. When a pair or group of dogs plays nonstop for more than a few minutes, playmates can get overexcited and tension can arise. Instead of standing in one spot during your entire visit, move to a new area of the park every few minutes. Encourage your dog to follow you when you walk to a new spot. Praise and reward her for keeping track of where you are and for coming when you call.
If at any point you think your dog might not be having fun, take her home. If she’s interacting with another dog, don’t hesitate to ask that dog’s pet parent to help you end the play session. It’s better to call it quits early so your dog still has a good experience overall. You don’t want her to decide that she doesn’t enjoy playing with other dogs anymore.
Interpreting Dog Play and Interaction
While you’re at the dog park with your dog, it’s important to closely monitor interaction between playmates. But interpretation can be difficult sometimes. What do dogs look like when they’re friendly with each other? How about when they don’t feel so friendly? What constitutes polite play between dogs? How can you tell when playmates aren’t getting along, and how do you know when it’s time to intervene? The information below should help you interpret and evaluate dog play:
What Good Play Looks Like
When dogs play, they often play-bow, paw at each other and bounce around like puppies. Their bodies look relaxed, rather than stiff, and they might make “play faces”—they hold their mouths open and look like they’re smiling. During play, the dogs might growl playfully and open their mouths wide, exposing their teeth and pretending to be ferocious. They might switch roles so that one dog’s sometimes on top when wrestling and sometimes on her back, sometimes chasing and sometimes being chased, sometimes pouncing and sometimes getting pounced on. The dogs might also frequently switch games, alternating between stalking and chasing each other, wrestling and rolling around on the ground, mouthing on each other, playing with toys, and taking breaks to drink water or sniff around. As the dogs run and wrestle, you might notice them pausing or freezing frequently for just a second or two before launching back into the game. These little pauses and breaks in play help ensure that play doesn’t get out of hand.
Signs of Trouble
If possible, watch for warning signs and step in before a fight happens. Your first clue that things aren’t going well during play might be the absence of all the signs of polite play described above. Instead of those signs, you might notice the dogs’ bodies becoming stiffer and more tense. Their movements might seem faster and less bouncy. Play might become louder and build in intensity, without any breaks or pauses. If you see any of these signs, it’s time to separate the playmates. You should also interrupt play if you see a dog who’s pursuing and playing too roughly with a playmate who’s trying to get away, or who’s repeatedly knocking down or standing over another dog. Intervene immediately if a number of dogs start to chase a single dog—especially if that dog is small.
Damage Control: If There’s a Fight
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to monitor playtime, dogs get into fights. These scuffles often look and sound ferocious. The dogs might growl fiercely, snarl at each other, bark, snap and show their teeth. However, most dog fights don’t result in injury to either dog. They’re usually the equivalent of getting into a brief, heated argument with a friend or family member. Even so, if a fight lasts more than a few seconds, the dogs’ pet parents should separate them. Doing this can be dangerous. If you grab a dog who’s in the middle of fighting with another dog, she might startle and reflexively whip around to bite you. To reduce the likelihood of injury to all parties, follow these guidelines:
Prevent fights from happening in the first place by actively watching dogs during play. If you think things are starting to look a little tense, end play for a while by calling your dog to come to you.
Have a plan and don’t panic. Remember that most dog fights are noisy but harmless. If you stay calm, you’ll be able to separate two fighting dogs more safely and efficiently.
Before you try physically separating two fighting dogs, make lots of noise. Clap and yell. Consider carrying a mini-air horn or two metal pie pans to bang together. A sudden loud sound will often interrupt a fight.
If there’s a hose handy, you can try spraying the dogs with water.
If you’ve tried briefly (3 seconds or so) making noise but the dogs are still fighting, you and the other dog’s pet parent should approach the dogs together. Separate them at the same time. Both of you should take hold of your dogs’ back legs at the very top just under the hips, right where the legs connect to the body. (Avoid grabbing the dogs lower on their legs, like by their knees, ankles or paws. Doing so could cause them serious injury.) Like you’d lift a wheelbarrow, lift your dog’s back end under his hips so that his back legs come off of the ground, and move backwards away from the other dog. As soon as you can, turn your dog away from the other dog.
DO NOT grab your dog by the collar. It seems like the natural thing to do, but it might startle your dog and cause her to turn and bite you. This kind of bite is like a reflex that’s done without thinking. Many pet parents get bitten this way—even when their dogs haven’t shown any signs of aggression in the past.
After a fight stops, put both dogs on leashes and end the play session. Avoid giving the dogs another chance to fight. If the dog park is large enough, you can walk your dog to another area, far away from the dog she squabbled with. After she’s calmed down and relaxed again, try letting her off leash again to play with other dogs. If the park’s not that big, just call it quits for the day.