When and how should I introduce my puppy to dog parks?
When to go
It’s safe to take your puppy to the dog park when she’s had all her vaccinations–usually around 16 weeks of age. Any earlier, and she’s still vulnerable to picking up a disease from the other dogs.
It’s a good idea to start taking her as soon as it’s safe. Dog parks are a great way to socialize your pup to other dogs, which you want to start as early in puppyhood as possible. (See our “Raising a dog-friendly dog” article for ideas on how to socialize pups who aren’t ready for the dog park.) Plus, if you take her before she hits adolescence–generally around six months of age–it’s more likely to be a pleasant first experience. Most adult dogs will be patient with a young pup who hasn’t mastered canine manners, but testy with an obnoxious adolescent.
If your dog’s already an adolescent, start off with fenced parks or have her drag a long leash so you can grab it if necessary. Teen dogs are more likely to ignore your calls to come or even run off into the street if distracted.
How to introduce your pup to the park
Dog parks with secure fences are the safer bet. Members-only dog parks tend to be even better, because they’re kept cleaner and aggressive dogs can be kicked out. If you can’t find a fenced park, go for one with lots of open space. More space lets dogs stay a safe distance away from bullies and the dangers of nearby streets.
To keep your pup from getting overwhelmed or too distracted to listen to you, make your first visit during off-peak hours–avoid the after-work and Saturday crowds–and keep it short and sweet, no longer than about 20 to 30 minutes. If you walk rather than drive, your puppy will burn off a little energy and be better behaved when she arrives. You can even do mini-training sessions along the way and use the dog park as a reward.
If your dog always comes when called, let her off leash as soon as you enter the park. Dogs communicate with each other mainly through body language, and for them, being on-leash in a new social situation is the human equivalent of being blindfolded or having your hands tied at a party, and it can lead to confrontation and fights.
If your dog needs more work on her recall, take off the short leash and snap on a long one that drags behind her as she plays. This gives her some freedom to roam but makes it easy for you to catch her. (You can find out how to practice the “come” command at the dog park here.)
Then, walk around the park instead of sticking to one spot. It helps keep your dog’s attention somewhat on you, and can prevent your dog from getting caught up in a pack or turf war.
And of course, bring along some biodegradable poop bags and clean up after your dog.