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What are the benefits of off-leash dog parks?
Off-leash dog parks have many benefits for dogs and their owners. They provide the opportunity for dogs to exercise, socialise with other dogs, enjoy the fresh air, practice training techniques, play games and generally race around and burn off energy. These activities are important for physical health because they prevent problems such as obesity. They also provide essential mental stimulation and prevent the development of problem behaviours such as destructiveness or excessive barking. For us, it’s fun to meet other owners, swap tips and even make new friends. Some of these parks even have cafes that include dog bowls, doggie treats and pupaccinos, an ideal spot for hosting a dog party!
Off-leash parks are being established by many local councils and are an important component of urban animal management due to increasing housing densities, resulting in more people living with their dogs in apartments or other homes without yards. Some off-leash areas include canals, lakes or beach areas where dogs can swim.
Are off-leash dog parks suitable for all dogs?
Despite their growing popularity, off-leash dog parks are not suitable for all dogs. To ensure that you, your dog and others can safely enjoy the experience of an off-leash park, there are several important considerations to keep in mind.
Remember that off-leash parks are public areas that are not supervised by trained staff in a controlled environment. There is no screening process to determine which dogs (or owners) may visit. This means the safety of both people and dogs depends on owners being responsible and adhering to good dog park etiquette.
It is highly inadvisable to take your dog to an off-leash park until they have undergone basic training, such as the training offered at puppy preschools, followed by more advanced training. You need to be confident that your dog will reliably come to you when called (the ‘recall’ command). If you feel unable to keep your dog under control, he or she is not ready for an off-leash park. As an alternative, your dog may benefit from a fenced off area within an off-leash park where they can safely run off leash.
You also need to be confident that your dog will relate to other dogs without becoming fearful or aggressive. Dog parks are highly arousing to all dogs due to the physical environment and the presence of other dogs. The stimulation of sudden contact with unfamiliar dogs of varying breeds, sizes and temperaments can be overwhelming for nervous dogs, especially where there is no easy escape from the situation. If your dog has not learned to socialise with other dogs, the interactions in an off-leash park, such as being approached by a group, or exposed to rough and tumble play, mounting, sniffing, chasing and barking, can be perceived as threats rather than sources of enjoyment. Another risk is that your dog may fail to read warning cues from other dogs to ‘back off’, which can lead to being bitten. A negative experience in an off-leash park has the potential to reinforce behaviour problems, especially for dogs who are not well socialised or have had traumatic experiences. For these reasons, do not visit off-leash parks until your dog has had many positive social experiences with other dogs. This can be achieved by mixing with known dogs who are well socialised, attending reputable training classes, daily walks and doggie day care centres where dogs are screened before attendance.
How can I make visiting an off-leash dog park a positive experience for my dog?
Firstly, it’s important to observe and follow the council rules in relation to the park you use. Off-leash areas are clearly signposted. It is an offence to allow your dog to be off-leash outside these areas. It is also an offence to allow dogs to enter children’s playgrounds.
Off-leash parks vary in their design. Some are totally fenced off but many are not, so dogs could become lost and encounter hazards such as traffic if they run away. Ensure your dog is microchipped and registered with the council and has identifying details (including your phone number and address) attached to their collar.
The risk of contracting infectious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites always increases when dogs congregate together. To reduce this risk, your dog must be fully vaccinated, wormed and treated for external parasites (such as fleas) before visiting an off-leash park. These preventative measures should ideally include a yearly booster to reduce the risk of kennel cough, or canine bronchitis, and a worming regime that includes heartworm, as many off-leash dog parks are in mosquito prone areas, particularly if there is a body of water nearby.
If your dog is unwell or is being treated by any medication that suppresses their immune system, avoid taking them to an off-leash park without first seeking advice from a veterinarian.
It is crucial that owners pick up their dog’s waste and dispose of this in bins. Off-leash parks always include litter-bag dispensers. Failure to clean up after your dog can result in being fined by a ranger. Dog stools left on the ground can contaminate the environment and spread infectious diseases to other dogs. In some cases, microorganisms in dog stools can infect humans, particularly children who may touch them and then put their fingers to their faces. Never allow your dog to come into contact with other dogs’ stools and ensure that any water they drink is fresh, to avoid contamination by parasites spread through urine or faeces.
All dogs should be desexed before being let off-leash to meet with other dogs. The consequences of undesexed males or females on heat visiting off-leash parks can include females being pursued and terrified, dog fights between competing males and unplanned matings.
It is vital to protect your dog from heatstroke, which can be life-threatening and occurs in situations where a dog’s body temperature becomes dangerously elevated. This can occur in off-leash dog parks where dogs are excited and engaging in high levels of activity in direct sunlight without sufficient shade. Dogs with obesity, flat faces (such as Bulldogs) or long thick coats (such as Malamutes) are at particular risk. Avoid these outings in very hot or humid weather or restrict visits to mornings or evenings when temperatures are lower. If you see your dog panting or salivating excessively, take them to a shaded area, offer water and consult a veterinarian if you see any signs of developing heatstroke. These can include agitation, weakness, abnormally bright red, blue or purple gums, or collapse.
When visiting an off-leash dog park, always bring a leash and monitor your dog continually. This means keeping them within your sight, rather than socialising and being unaware of what your dog is doing. Observe their interactions with other dogs and be alert to cues from your dog’s posture and body language that they are experiencing stress. This is more likely to occur in dogs who visit dog parks infrequently or who have not recently visited a dog park. Signs of stress include cowering from other dogs, a low or hunched posture, hiding, running away with a tucked under tail, reacting defensively when approached, snapping or becoming involved in fights. If this occurs, end the outing by calmly retrieving your dog and walking them away from the park on-leash.
Tragically, dogs have been injured through dog fights or collisions and some have even been killed at off-leash parks. There are currently no statistics available on the prevalence of these incidents, and observational studies suggest that aggression between dogs in off-leash parks is rare, but the issue has drawn considerable criticism of off-leash dog areas in the media and by some dog trainers. There are also risks to human safety if people try to separate dogs during a fight or if children are left unsupervised with dogs in off-leash areas. Even if you are confident of your own dog’s behaviour and ability to socialise with others, observe the off-leash park before entering and avoid parks that are over-crowded or where dogs are obviously out of control or behaving aggressively. Some off-leash parks have segregated areas for large and small dogs, so use the area that is appropriate for your dog’s size. Always closely supervise any children in your care and do not visit off-leash dog parks with more dogs than you can safely manage (preferably 2 small dogs or 1 large dog at a maximum).
Although there is no current regulation of off-leash dog parks, The Dog and Cat Management Board of South Australia has developed a resource (1) to assist local governments to design and manage these effectively and safely. This resource has suggestions for good planning that may assist you in your choice of an off-leash area, including: the provision of different activity zones (to allow both high running areas and quieter areas for one-on-one play between dogs or interactions with owners), secure fencing, multiple entry and exit points to prevent dogs converging at once, adequate water and shade, signage with rules for owners to observe, and dog equipment for enrichment and practising natural skills (such as tyres, tunnels, jumps).
(1) Government of South Australia. Dog and Cat Management Board (2013). Unleashed: A Guide to Successful Dog Parks.