So you have decided to take your fur kid to the off leash dog park. What are some things you as a fur parent can do to ensure this is an enjoyable and safe experience for you both?
Well, as with everything, preparation is key. The first thing is to make sure your fur kid is in good physical health with up to date vaccinations and parasite protection. Fur kids with weak or compromised immune systems (including the very young & the very old) and/or those with severe allergies/sensitivities may be better off avoiding off leash dog parks altogether. Again, remember, there is no system of checking for admissibility at the gate (refer to https://justfurkidsdogdaycare.com/blog/dog-parks-are-they-for-your-fur-kid/)
Fur kids entering the park can be coming in, knowingly or not, with illnesses and parasites, and many of which are easily communicable through casual, indirect contact. Ticks and fleas can be picked up off the grass and brush. Internal parasites like worms are found in poop and can be transferred through being stepped in and then by licking or scratching. Viruses like kennel cough, are transmitted through direct contact during play and can be contracted even with the Bordatella shot, as that only protects against certain bacterial strains.
Another item of preparation is attire. As discussed in a different blog, clothing, collars, and harnesses can sometimes be dangerous if left on, (https://justfurkidsdogdaycare.com/blog/crate-training-your-fur-kid/) especially in the case of horseplay/dogplay. Although the park is enclosed, it is probably not advisable to go completely naked during play, but do try to remove unnecessary items, especially if your fur kid is an avid wrestler. A collar comes in handy if you need to manually extract your fur kid from a situation or if they somehow get out of the safe confines of the park. All other extraneous gear should come off during play. Paws and teeth get tangled up in this stuff far more often and far faster than you can imagine. Serious injury can occur in a blink of an eye. And no fur parent should ever have to experience trying to break apart two panicking dogs stuck together.
If you are bringing toys to the park for your fur kid, only do so if your fur kid is used to playing with toys in a group setting. In an open area, you may encounter unexpected joiners to your toy play. If your fur kid does not have experience with toy sharing, the dog park is not the best place to learn. This is something best learned in an environment where the object of desire is not perceived to belong to a specific fur kid, but rather, to the human who also controls the play. Unless you are absolutely confident in your ability to read the body language of all the fur kids involved as well as to convey the message that the toy is yours, you may not want to attempt this.
The second item of preparedness is mental preparation. Though the idea of going to the park is to burn off excess energy, having your fur kid go in hot with all that pent up energy is just inviting trouble. Going back to the bar analogy, that would be like hitting the bar right after a frustrating day at work… nothing good ever comes of that! Instead, try doing a bit of something structured and/or physical to give some release first. Go for some leash walking in the neighbourhood before entering the park, packwalk to the park, practice commands, or do simple agility exercises like hopping on/off benches and weaving around fence posts. Calm the mind and body of your fur kid before entering the park and they will react much better to the stimulation.
Finally, and this should be a given, but if you are going to an off leash area, your fur kid should have excellent recall. Your fur kid should not only stop doing whatever they are doing when you ask, they should also respond immediately to whatever you ask. Whether they do this as a response to an audio or visual command, they should do so… every single time. An obedient fur kid is a safe fur kid. This in my opinion, is the single most important skill your fur kid should have in order to be successful at an off leash dog park.
If you determine that your fur kid has the right personality to enjoy the dog park experience, ensure that they also have the appropriate physical health, frame of mind, attire, and skill set to do so. As their fur parent, set them up for success by doing the preparation.