As America's love of dogs has grown, so has the popularity of leash-free dog parks. These parks provide open spaces for our four-legged friends to roam and socialize while their owners get to meet and greet with other dog parents.
But as dog parents, it's our responsibility to keep these parks safe and fun. Below are a few guidelines that experts suggest you review and follow before taking your canine kids to a dog park.
Obey The Posted Rules
This sounds like a no-brainer, but some people who visit dog parks live by the "Rules Are Made to Be Broken" motto. Don't be one of them. Rules are there to protect dogs and their owners. They also insure that the park follows the legal mandates of the city or municipality in which it is located. Worse case scenario, if people don't follow the rules, the park can be shut down.
Rules Begin At The Gate
Let others out before you go in. Once inside, don't let your dog hang out in front of the gate. "A dog entering the park should not have to face other dogs head on, which could lead to a confrontation and fight," says Dawn Hanna, owner of Oh Behave Dog Training.
Immunized, Licensed Dogs Only
Make sure your dog's vaccinations are up to date. Note that puppies younger than four months have not yet had all their shots and are not allowed into most dog parks. Unvaccinated dogs could bring diseases, some fatal, to puppies and other dogs, says Krista Mifflin of About.com. Get your dog licensed and make sure he's wearing his tags to prove it. If your dog is caught without proper licensing, you will be fined.
Bring Only Healthy Dogs To The Park
Diseases can spread at the dog park faster than a greyhound can run a quarter mile. Tend to your sick dogs at home and bring them out to socialize only when you get clearance from your veterinarian.
Socialized Dogs Only, Please
Do not take a dog that has a history of aggression to a dog park. Doing so puts other people and their pets in danger and you will be financially liable for any injuries or damages that may result. Other dog owners depend on you to be responsible enough to admit that your dog does not play well with others.
The Whole Dog Journal suggests that dogs be reasonably confident and social. Dogs which are aggressive or scared have behaviors that are not appropriate for dog parks.
If your dog exhibits any form of aggression, remove him from the park immediately. And be prepared to remove your dog if another dog becomes aggressive. Do not discipline someone else's dog and never, ever try to break up a fight by getting into the middle of it. Distraction is the best defense when breaking up a fight.
Clean Up After Your Dog
Arm yourself with baggies on the way in. Dog parks supply these bags for a reason.
"We are all watching and we will all talk behind your back the same way we talk about people who don't wash their hands after using the restroom," Hanna says.
No People Food
Dog parks are great places to socialize with other dog owners, but that should not be considered an invitation to bring your lunch and eat it while your dogs are playing. Something as innocent as a dropped French fry can start a fight, Hanna says. As for dog food, it's OK to bring training treats but never offer your dog's treats to another dog, and be sure to keep the quantity of treats to a minimum.
Leash Your Human Kids
OK, we're kidding about the leash, but keep the small kids at home. Their idea of affection -- chasing or hugging a dog too closely -- can scare an otherwise friendly dog into aggression.
Don't Bring Female Dogs in Heat
This invites aggressiveness in male dogs and may lead to unplanned puppies.
Don't Bring Too Many Dogs
Some parks limit the number of dogs you can bring at once. But even if there are no restrictions, use common sense. Bring only the number of dogs you can handle. Three is usually the limit, Hanna advises.
Don't Bring Cats To The Dog Park
It's called a dog park for a reason. You may love your other pets as much as you love your canine companions, but dog parks are for dogs.
Your Dog Should Obey When You Call
Be prepared for the unexpected. Your dog should come when you call and stay beside you until you give the command that it's OK to go play again. If not, keep him on a leash. Better yet, keep him at home until he learns to obey your voice commands.
Be Responsible For Your Dog's Behavior
In addition to cleaning up after your dog, be responsible for whatever other mischief she gets into. If she knocks something over, pick it up. If she digs holes, cover them up. If she starts drinking another dog's water, coax her toward her own water bowl. You get the idea.
Keep Your Dog in Sight At All Times
Your dog may be off her leash, but that doesn't mean the leash should be out of your hand. Be ready to call and leash your dog at all times.
Know When It's Time To Leave
Dogs are like children. When tired, they get cranky and can spoil the fun for everyone. If your dog starts exhibiting signs that he's had his fill of fun, it's time to call it a day.
"A good dog owner strives to be a good ambassador in all situations," Hanna says. "A little courtesy, consideration and knowledge can go a long way to achieving that goal."
If you're still not sure, check out this handy, fun quiz from Animal Planet.