Dog parks can be a great place to let your pet roam free to his or her little heart's content. They can be an opportunity for Fido or Speedy to make friends and meet other dogs. It's also a great place for dog owners to meet other dog owners and socialize.
But experts suggest a couple guidelines to keep in mind, whether it's your first time at a dog park or if you're a seasoned pro.
For starters, don't go straight to the park, says Greg Stewart, a Butler County Humane Society volunteer trainer and owner of Pivotal Dog Training in Pittsburgh.
“Make sure that the dog park is not your dog's only source of burning off energy. That's what people do. They bring their pent up dogs straight to the park,” he said. “ Too much energy and they don't know what to do with themselves.
“It can result in conflict, whether it's happy excitement or nervous excitement.”
Stewart suggests walking your dog outside of a fenced, off-leash area prior to entering.
Both of Butler County's fenced in dog parks — Jade's Dog Park in Alameda Park and the Cranberry Rotary Dog Park in Cranberry Community Park — have surrounding park space to walk.
Last year, Cranberry Township also added a third dog friendly area in North Boundary Park. A wooded portion of the park — the site of the township's disc golf course — is devoted to on-leash trails for dogs.
Experts also suggest that a dog park shouldn't be a dog's first exposure to other dogs, whether it's a puppy or a newly adopted rescue. In fact, most will suggest keeping a puppy out of dog park altogether.
“You want them to have some socialization before they go in there,” said Nancy Kieffer, director of dog training for the Butler Dog Training Association in Renfrew. “The first time can be really scary.”
Stewart echoed the sentiment.
“If you want to socialize a dog, try to find family friends with dogs (first),” he said. “Get your dogs with pets that you know.”
Then introduce them to a park slowly, preferably when it is not as crowded.
This can avoid conflicts that may affect a dog's behavior in the longterm. A negative experience at a dog park can teach a dog to fear other dogs, experts agree. That, in turn, can become a lifelong trait if not handled correctly.
That's especially true with puppies. Stewart suggested waiting until a puppy is 8 months to even a year old, before exposing them to dog parks.
“People do it with the best of intentions,” Stewart said of rushing dogs to socialize at a park. “I certainly wouldn't bring my puppy to a dog park.”
With puppies it's also a health concern. If they haven't completed all of their vaccinations they can be susceptible to numerous diseases, viruses and bacteria.
“Parvo is everywhere,” said Butler County Humane Society director Jennifer DiCuccio, referring to one particularly debilitating virus that can be expensive to treat and even deadly.
Unvaccinated dogs can carry it and the virus can be transmitted through direct contact with feces.
DiCuccio warns that many dogs might not be up to date on vaccinations.
“The majority of our strays that come into the shelter are not up-to-date on vaccines,” she said.
Numerous Western Pennsylvania area dog parks have been known to close for periods of time after a positive test is traced back to a park.
Treating a pet for a virus like parvo can run up vet bills as high as $5,000, she said.
In addition to puppies, DiCuccio suggests not bringing a newly adopted dog to a dog park as it can also be overwhelming to a dog that is already adjusting to new owners.
“From a shelter perspective,” she said, “dogs take time to decompress. We wouldn't recommend they go to a dog park right away.”
She suggested giving them two to three weeks to adjust to their new home before introducing them to new social situations.
But cautions aren't just for new dogs. Kieffer stresses that it's important to closely monitor your dog in the park for a variety of reasons.
“Stay off your cell phones and have your focus on your dog,” she said.
Watch when your dogs are rough housing, she recommends.
“Play drive can turn into prey drive,” she explained. “One minute they are playing and then the next a dog is dominating the other.”
Monitoring your dog's activity level while at the park is also important, Stewart said. It's good to recognize when a dog is tired and ready to leave, especially on hot summer days.
“There comes a point when they've exhausted themselves through play. You don't want to over-stimulate them too long,” he said, recommending no more than an hour in the park without a break. “The more dogs that are there the more exhausting it is.”
Dogs that are tired may be more likely to react aggressively if other dogs persist in play. And in hot weather they will be more prone to heat exhaustion, he said.
“You don't want an over-stimulated dog in the dog park,” Stewart said. “Imagine working a double (shift). At the end of it, you probably don't want to be around other people.”
At the end of the day, it's also important to consider that the dog park may not be appropriate for every dog.
“You have to know your dog,” Kieffer said. “Some dogs are not happy with other dogs, just like people. (The dog park) might not be the best choice.”
Beyond those guidelines it's important to check on the rules for each park as they may be different.
The dog area in Alameda Park, for example, located at 184 Alameda Park Road in Butler Township, doesn't allow children younger than 14, where as the park in Cranberry, found at 1171 N Boundary Road in Cranberry Township, allows children but they must be accompanied by an adult. Some may supply bags for dog waste, while others require users to bring their own.
For more information on dog parks and dog behavior, Kieffer suggests doing your own research online. Check a park's rules before you go, learn your own dog's behavior and what to recognize in other dogs.
“There's a lot of good stuff out there to look at before you go,” she said.