Parks and barks

Experts explain how to make a trip to the dog park a safe, fun time

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published May 28, 2014

 Ann Manor, of Royal Oak, enjoys a brisk and sunny day with her pup, Micky, at left, and his new friends at Red Oaks Dog Park.

Ann Manor, of Royal Oak, enjoys a brisk and sunny day with her pup, Micky, at left, and his new friends at Red Oaks Dog Park.

File photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — Julie Sherwood, of Clawson, had no idea three years ago that the puppy she adopted from a local animal shelter was a bit of a social diva. She learned the hard way.

“When I first got Brighton, she was climbing the fences to go play with all the neighbor’s dogs. So, I thought about taking her to the dog park so she could play with other dogs without getting me into trouble,” said Sherwood. “She was just about a year old the first time we went, and I was hooked. She just loved it so much.”

With dog parks popping up all over metro Detroit, more and more pet owners are bringing their canine companions out to play leash-free. The parks are fenced-in, allowing pups to run around and play together without the restriction of cages or tethers, and often have a number of amenities on site, like waste bags and water bowls.

Sherwood said she typically visits Red Oaks Dog Park in Madison Heights. She and Brighton go so often, they’ve developed a routine and a rapport with other frequent park players.

“I used to go at nine in the morning and beat the sun. There would be the same group of people there, and we knew what dogs were going to be there.  I’d make great friends there, and she would make great friends there,” she said.

If Sherwood wasn’t able to make it to the park by early afternoon, she and Brighton would have to skip a day, she said. She wouldn’t venture to the park around 5 p.m. when throngs of owners would take their dogs out for an end-of-the-day romp. It was just too chaotic.

“That’s when you get problems. There are too many dogs there, or some Joe Schmoe who thinks they can bring any dog there. I’ve heard horror stories,” she said.

Sometimes, Sherwood said, pet parents bring dogs to the park who aren’t comfortable socializing with other dogs. While some dogs might be timid or nervous around strange animals, others could become aggressive or even violent.

That’s not uncommon, said Lori Renda-Francis, a licensed vet technician and program director at the Macomb Community College Veterinary Technician program.

“Owners can recognize the body language of their dog and other dogs. They can see the early signs that their dog is not getting along with another dog and they may not be comfortable,” she said.

Renda-Francis explained that some of the warning signs that a dog is uncomfortable and could potentially get aggressive are when the hair stands up on the back of their neck and when they growl intensely. But each dog is different, and their guardians need to be able to spot trouble before it’s too late.

Jennifer Stinson, owner of Barka Lounge Doggie Daycare in Sterling Heights, isn’t a fan of dog parks at all for that very reason. There are too many negligent owners who don’t keep a close eye on their four-legged friend and put the other pets on the playground at risk, she said.

“Some of these owners just seem to think when dogs are fighting, they’re just wrestling around. Or they’re growling and just playing, and they don’t know the difference between a play growl and a dangerous growl,” she said. “They don’t know when play has escalated into something they should step in to.”

Renda-Francis suggested taking dogs to doggie daycare facilities for a kind of socialization test before heading to a dog park. Stinson agreed but said that dogs who are obviously aggressive won’t be allowed in, either.

“We’re kind of trained in body language, so we don’t let play get out of hand. We just let a couple groups play at a time before we step in and redirect them,” Stinson said. “We work with them on stuff like gate control, so they don’t all rush to the gate when someone walks in, and basic training like sitting and calling them to come to us. It’s a controlled environment. But we can’t take unsocialized dogs.”

If your dog hasn’t been around many animals and you’re wondering if they’re even socialized enough for doggie daycare, Stinson suggested seeking out a basic obedience class or a puppy socialization group. Both of those can often be tracked down online.

Sherwood said she’s seen dog park newbies bring their pets to the park on leashes to see if they’re ready for the interaction. She said it’s not the best way to see if your dog is social, as it only causes confusion with the dog when they see other pets running free.

If you think your pet is up to the challenge, be sure you keep a close eye on the dog at all times. If you sense a problem is coming, call your dog away. And if the worst should happen and a fight breaks out, it’s imperative that owners don’t pull their dogs apart by the collar, according to Joanie Toole, administrative supervisor for the Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center.

“You have to pull them apart by their back legs. It’s the only way to do it without getting bit,” she said, noting that bites and other injuries are the biggest complaint she hears from people about dog parks.

Another thing to be sure of before you head out for park fun is that your pup has all the necessary immunizations, according to Toole. Rena-Francis agreed and added that thorough checkups will help keep your pet and others safe from spreading disease.

“Get every vaccine you can for communicable disease, and have fecal exams done on at least an annual basis,” she said. 

If you’ve gone through your preparation checklist, Renda-Francis said dog parks can be a great way for your dog to meet new friends and get the exercise they need, especially if you don’t have a large fenced-in yard for them to run in.

“I’m a big believer in dog parks, and here’s why: There are a lot of different benefits, but most importantly, they get to interact with other people and animals. The socialization helps them to become a better-behaved family member,” she said. “It needs to be done with caution, but thousands and thousands of animals are euthanized every year because of behavior problems. They don’t know how to get along with others because they’re not exposed to it. It’s not their fault.”