Dog parks can provide excellent exercise and social interaction for most dogs, and even their owners! But not all dog parks are created equal. Certain parks aren’t safe (or fun) for every dog, and situations within the park can change quickly... even drastically. Depending on the type of dog and the type of person, the experience can vary wildly. Some dogs take to the new environment with ease, while others take longer to adjust. And some just aren’t going to take to it at all — not now, or ever.
In this article, you’ll find answers to the most common questions about dog parks. You’ll also learn if you and your dog are really ready to hit the park, what to watch out for, and some simple steps to make the experience enjoyable for both of you. And, if you find that a dog park isn’t a good fit for your dog, we also have some alternatives that will help you get them the exercise and socialization they need.
How Old Does a Puppy Need to Be to Go to the Dog Park?
In order to be protected from vaccinatable diseases, a puppy should not be brought to a dog park until they are a minimum of 17 weeks old.
Puppy vaccinations, a.k.a. “puppy shots,” don’t begin until they are 6–8 weeks old, with booster shots needed every 3–4 weeks until a puppy is 16 weeks old (though some pups may need boosters until about 20 weeks). Because each puppy’s risk, level of maternal immunity, and response to vaccines can vary, the puppy shots need to be administered as a series of vaccinations over several months to ensure the most complete level of protection.
The core vaccinatable dog diseases include Parvo, distemper, adenovirus, and rabies. At a minimum, all dogs should be fully vaccinated against these diseases before going to a dog park. There are plenty of other diseases and problems dogs can encounter at the dog park (you can see a list further along below). So, depending on where you live, the age of your dog, and the time of year, there may be other necessary vaccinations, such as leptospirosis, bordetella, Lyme disease, parainfluenza, or even canine influenza (“dog flu”). Read all about canine vaccines, including the typical timing of these "shots," and discuss your dog's specific vaccination needs with your vet.
It’s good to be on the safe side and wait an additional week (hence, the 17–week minimum) after the puppy shot series is complete before visiting the dog park. This extra week will give your pup’s immune system enough time to fully respond to the last shots in their series of vaccinations.
How to Prepare Your Dog for the Dog Park
- Solidify your puppy’s basic training. Certain skills and behaviors should be bulletproof before taking any dog to a dog park. These skills and behaviors should be reliable even when off-leash and at a distance, and ideally when there are other distractions as well. It’s most important to make sure your dog is solid on “look here,” “come,” “sit,” and “leave it” before you head to the dog park.
- Make sure your puppy is well socialized. While a puppy’s most crucial socialization period ends at around 12–13 weeks of age, continued socialization of puppies — indeed, dogs of any age — is still extremely important. Puppy socialization isn’t only about interacting with other dogs; it also involves acclimating them to the sounds and sights of cars, bikes, skateboards, and the wide variety of other things they are likely to encounter on the way to, and when they arrive at the dog park. Socialization also means getting them comfortable around other people. Puppy classes are a great way to begin socializing your new puppy!
- Scout the park. Before taking your dog to a dog park, walk by it a few times over a few days to scout it out. Try to take those walks without your pup first, so you have the opportunity to note potential “trouble spots” and see how the dogs (and people) in the park interact. If it passes your inspection, take a few more walks over the next several days with your pup in tow. Get progressively closer as you see that your puppy is interested and comfortable, even stopping near the fence to let them watch and see what’s going on inside without actually entering.
- Introduce your puppy to a few dogs. On some of your “scouting trips” to the dog park, see if there is a well-behaved dog or two. Then approach the owner(s) and explain that you’ll soon be bringing your pup to the dog park and you want to ensure a good experience for everyone. See if they’d be interested and willing to arrange a playdate prior to your pup’s first dog park visit. Ideally, set the playdate somewhere the two dogs can meet and play without the distraction of other dogs. Once the dogs have had a couple of playdates and are comfortable with each other, your pup will be more likely to have fun at the dog park if they show up with their new dog friend (who is already comfortable and “accepted” at the park).
Diseases Your Dog Can Catch at the Dog Park
Unfortunately, there are many. The good news is that most are relatively mild — most, but not all. Your dog’s risk will be determined by their vaccination status, your (and other people's) use of parasite preventatives — fleas, heartworms, intestinal worms, and ticks — the time of year, cleanliness of the dog park (people’s adherence to picking up their dog’s poop), how crowded the park is, and a variety of other factors.
You should be aware of and take precautions to prevent the following transmittable diseases:
- Leptospirosis: A nasty bacterial infection that attacks, and can shut, down a dog’s kidneys and/or liver. It’s spread through contact with water contaminated by either rodent urine or the urine of an infected dog. There is a vaccine against “Lepto.” The condition is also zoonotic, meaning that people can catch it from infected dogs.
- Giardia infection: A protozoal infection that can cause diarrhea of varying severity. Some strains can also infect and sicken people. There is no effective vaccine against Giardia. It is most prevelant during wet times of the year. Dogs get Giardia when they drink water — from a puddle, pond, or even a communal dog bowl — that is contaminated with the organism.
- Hookworm infection: A microscopic intestinal parasitic worm that is caught primarily when a dog ingests the infective larval stage of the worm while eating dirt and mud. A dog can also become infected with hookworms if the infective larvae gains access to their body through broken skin. Hookworms are also zoonotic. Routine dewormers given in the series of puppy visits and many heartworm preventatives are effective at preventing and treating hookworms.
- Roundworm infection: A microscopic intestinal parasitic worm that is primarily contracted when a dog ingests the infective eggs of the worm while eating dirt and mud, or by licking them off their paws after walking through dirt/mud. Some types of roundworms are also zoonotic. Routine dewormers given in the series of puppy visits, and most heartworm preventatives, are effective at preventing and treating roundworms.
- “Kennel cough” (Infectious Tracheobronchitis): A complex syndrome that can result from a variety of causative organisms, both viral and bacterial. Contrary to its common name, this condition doesn’t only affect dogs in boarding kennels. Dogs catch kennel cough from being around and inhaling these viruses and bacteria into their nose and lungs. Most cases of kennel cough are usually mild and resolve on their own, but some can progress to the lower airways, causing pneumonia. There are kennel cough vaccines, which all protect against the most common bacteria isolated from these cases: Bordetella bronchiseptica. Some vaccines also protect against the common respiratory viruses that can contribute to the syndrome, these are the parainfluenza virus and the canine adenovirus (type 2).
- “Dog flu” (Canine Influenza Virus, CIV): An infection with CIV typically causes mild illness and human flu-like symptoms including a low-grade fever, coughing, nasal discharge, and lethargy. However, some infected dogs can go on to develop severe and debilitating pneumonia (lung infection) from CIV. Unfortunately, as with the human flu viruses, the CIV strains are highly contagious. Dog flu is more of a problem in certain parts of the country than others, with periodic outbreaks in areas where it has become entrenched. Not all dogs are at the same risk of contracting dog flu. Check with your veterinarian to see if (and when) dog flu is a problem in your area (or areas where you plan to travel with your dog). As of the time of writing, there are two known strains of the CIV that have infected dogs in the U.S., though being a flu virus, it is likely that more will mutate and become a problem. There are vaccines for the two known CIV strains.
- “Parvo” (Parvoviral enteritis): Parvo is everywhere, and it’s debilitating and deadly! The Parvo virus is highly contagious in dogs and can persist in the environment — yard, home, dog park, etc. — for months after an infected dog has been there. Fortunately there is a very effective vaccine against Parvo. The disease predominately infects and kills the cells that line a dog’s intestinal tract, leading to (often severe) vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and lack of appetite (inappetence). Without treatment, this leads to dehydration, severe metabolic imbalances, hypovolemia, and death. There are also strains of the Parvo virus that can infect and kill the cells that produce blood cells within a dog’s bone marrow (leading to a decreased white blood cell count and impaired immune function) and/or the heart muscle cells (causing heart failure). Parvo is horrific, and preventing outbreaks depends on everyone having their puppies and adult dogs properly and effectively vaccinated, and keeping sick dogs out of multi-dog environments (like dog parks).
- Distemper: A highly contagious viral condition that, thanks to vaccination, is seen far less throughout the U.S. than in years past — though there are still occasional small outbreaks. It’s spread primarily when an infected dog coughs or sneezes on or around an unprotected dog. The virus affects most systems within the body, including the respiratory system (lungs, etc.) and the central nervous system (brain, etc.). There’s no known cure for distemper, but fortunately there are highly effective vaccines against it.
- Fleas: These pesky blood-sucking parasites are everywhere, and often throughout the year. Not only do fleas suck a dog’s blood (sometimes to a potentially-life-threatening degree), but they also transmit disease to both dogs and people. Learn more about fleas and what they can do to your dog (and you). Dog parks are, unfortunately, great breeding grounds for fleas, even when there are no dogs in sight! Make sure your pup is safely and effectively protected against fleas before venturing into the dog park.
How to Prevent Your Dog From Getting Hurt at the Dog Park
How to Safely Break Up a Dog FightDespite your best preparations, your dog may get into a fight. Even if it seems unlikely, it’s best to learn how to safely break up a dog fight before it happens. The following resources provide several methods to consider.
- Pay Attention: Don’t let yourself zone out, and certainly don’t leave your dog in the dog park unobserved. It’s OK, and even encouraged, for you to socialize with some of the other dog owners at the dog park. However, you should always keep an eye on your dog to make sure they, and the other dogs, are all playing nice.
- Read Body Language: Even without formal language, dogs are actually very communicative. Their behaviors and body positions tell an in-depth story, if you know how to read it.
- Size Matters: Avoid bringing smaller dogs to parks frequented by larger dogs. The serious (and, sadly, sometimes fatal) injuries resulting from larger dogs attacking smaller dogs are common enough that we have an acronym: BDLD, short for “Big Dog Little Dog.” Fortunately, more and more dog parks now provide separate “big dog” and “little dog” areas.
- Keep Treats Away: Don’t bring toys or treats into the dog park. Even if your dog isn’t food-aggressive or possessive of their toys, other dogs at the park might be. Instead, leave the toys and treats at home for post-park celebrating.
- Break It Up: Learn how to safely break up a dog fight before the need arises (check the tips in "How to Safely Break Up a Dog Fight" above).
- Leave, If Necessary: If there’s a problem with one or more dogs, and their owners won’t leave, then you should leave yourself. It’s not worth a confrontation, and it’s not worth hoping the other dog(s) will stop harassing your dog — they probably won’t. Just leave and find another way to exercise and socialize your dog. It’s far safer for everyone.
What If the Dog Park Isn’t a Good Option for Your Dog?
Don’t worry if the dog park just isn’t a good fit for you or your dog. There are many other ways to get your pup the exercise and socialization they need.
- Organized one-on-one, or small group, playdates at your home or the home of a friend.
- Hikes, romps on the beach, and long walks around town.
- Dog daycare.
- Training walks.
- Dog sports like agility, nose work, herding, dock diving, and fly ball.
- A responsible dog walker: More and more dog trainers are offering this type of service. You might even be able to arrange to share responsibilities with local dog-owning friends, neighbors, and relatives.
- Take your dog to work. An added bonus is that research shows doing so helps productivity and morale! Check out these articles from American Express and Inc. Magazine, and feel free to share with your boss if you need help convincing the office to go “dog friendly.”
So, what do you think? Has this helped? Do you have any questions we didn’t answer? Feel free to share your dog park experiences, too. We’d love to hear from you.