What Makes a Great Dog Park?

Find the perfect doggy park for you and your pooch.

dogs in park

There is nothing more enjoyable than watching dogs play, but if you only have one dog, or if your dogs are not compatible playmates, you may begin thinking about taking your dog to a local dog park. Or maybe you're a dog walker or pet sitter who needs a little break in your routine and a dog park sounds ideal. However, know that all dog parks are not created equal, and finding a good one for you and your pet may take a bit of research. Start with these questions to get yourself and your pup on the path to the perfect park.

Will Your Dog Like a Dog Park?
Before you begin looking for the right dog park, take an honest assessment of your dog. Many dogs don't enjoy the experience. If your dog is shy or overly excitable, a dog park may not be your best option. Additionally, unspayed or unneutered dogs can be disruptive and hazardous in dog parks.

Is This the Only Exercise Your Dog Gets?
Are you looking for a dog park to be the sole exercise outlet for your dog? If so, experts recommend against dog parks, as dogs who only exercise at parks can become overly stimulated. According to Maryna Ozuna, a dog trainer and owner of Arizona Doggy Dude Ranch, "In an era of ever-diminishing open space, dog parks are a great idea, but they can be fraught with peril for the unsuspecting dog owner. When they are used as the sole substitute for training and/or exercise, dogs can arrive jacked up from a day waiting for their owner to come home, and without any 'brakes' on them, or no reliable recall to interrupt unstable situations. Serious dog fights can abound. Dog parks should be an addition to, not a substitute for focused exercise and training."

How Do You Find a Park?
If your dog is an appropriate match for a dog park, then the next question is: how do you go about finding the right one for you and your pooch? Some areas may only have one park, while others may have many. And if you're traveling with your dog, you may be on the lookout for a new park in an unfamiliar area. Marcia Lucas, owner of Natural Dog Nutrition and Wellness in New Mexico, takes her own dogs to dog parks as she travels around the country. She suggests using sites like dogpark.com or dogfriendly.com to "locate a park, read reviews and (often) read the park rules." Speak to other dog owners in your area, local animal organizations and your veterinarian or trainer -- they can all help you find a safe park with conscientious owners.

What Do You Want from a Park?
Before you take your dog to a park, check it out yourself in person. Here is a list of helpful things you should assess:

  • Amenities: Pools or other water sources should be available and large enough not to cause conflicts. For your comfort, there should be benches in the shade and perhaps even a drinking fountain. Tools and garbage cans should be plentiful to encourage clean habits on the part of pet owners.
  • Enclosures: Fencing needs to be free from sharp points and high enough not to scale, without any gaps big enough for dogs to squeeze through.
  • Cleanliness: Try to see if the park is clean. "All dog parks require owners to clean up, and provide trash receptacles (and even plastic bags) to encourage the clean up," says Lucas. "But not all people do that, and lots of fecal piles lying around is not good for your dog's health."
  • Ground cover: Grass and gravel are the preferred surfaces for pet parks. The grass does not have to be real, and gravel should be pea type so that your pup's pads don't get torn. Grass should be free of burrs that can adhere to coats and create a nightmare for brushing later on.
  • Level of play: Ozuna stresses the importance of owner control and awareness in the dog park setting. Remember that dogs in a pack situation can act unpredictably, and that any attack by one dog onto another can quickly escalate into calamity. The level of play needs to be compatible with your dog. Different groups of dogs will behave differently. If you are ever in doubt about a situation, remove your dog immediately.
  • Separate play areas: Size matters when it comes to dogs. Large dogs and small dogs should not play together for safety reasons. Mixing a Chihuahua and Rottweiler is a bad call. Most parks accommodate this issue by providing two separate play areas. But keep in mind, just because there are two areas does not mean that people will necessarily heed them, so watch for situations where large dogs are allowed to play with small dogs. If the large dog is old and mellow, the situation is likely safe, but if it's a young playful lab, it has no business leaping on the heads of Yorkies.
  • Owner Interaction: Whenever you arrive at the dog park of your choice -- whether it's your first visit or your fiftieth -- take time to assess the situation prior to walking in the gate. "In the best of all possible worlds, you will find owners moving around and interacting with their and other dogs, not standing in a clump by the picnic tables," says Ozuna. "Clumping denotes a serious lack of awareness of how to move within a group of loose dogs. We want to stay in motion, with easy strolling going on. Talking is great, but stroll, don't clump. Clumping makes dogs guardy and will inevitably result in one of the dog's escalating in frustration, at not being able to get their owner away from all the charging dogs."

Dog parks are a great opportunity for your pup to interact and play with other dogs. They can also be a good social tool for dogs living alone, or a play outlet for young dogs living with older housemates. If everyone does their part, dog parks can be a wonderful addition to your dog's day.

Liane Ehrich is a freelance writer covering all things Arizona. Her work can be found here.

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