Dog parks should be handled with care. While there are pros and cons to using dog parks in general, there are certain parks or groups that are better managed and much safer for your small pup. In some cases, they can be a very valuable asset to your dog’s socialization and continued exercise with friends. In other cases, dog parks can be the source of infection, disease, fleas, dog attacks, creating fears, phobias, and anxious behaviors. Unfortunately, many dogs have been traumatized or taught bad social skills while at dog parks.
Our dog trainers have recommended to never use dog parks to teach social skills or for early socialization. There are too many variables that can be dangerous for a Shih Tzu, or any other dog. Instead, they suggest puppy classes for young pups that offer structured, safe, supervised play sessions with similar sized and similar aged puppies. These play sessions will have a trainer available to intervene as necessary, to promote good social skills in your pup. The trainer should be there to prevent bullying or over assertiveness, and also to help the meeker puppies get a chance to come out of their shell. You may find other structured play groups in your local area run by volunteers, rescues, shelters, or Facebook groups. Play dates with friends that you know have healthy, well-mannered dogs, will also help to socialize and teach your pup good social skills.
Unfortunately, aggression from other dogs at a dog park can happen in an instant, causing physical or emotional trauma to your sweet pup. After a traumatic incident it will be much more difficult to get your Shih Tzu to trust other dogs. When in doubt, play it safe!
Another concern is parasites and disease at dog parks. When you feel your dog has the appropriate social skills to enter a dog park, also ensure they are fully vaccinated, current on heartworm and parasite prevention, as well as flea and tick prevention.
Remember, every dog park is different! There are different rules, different structure to the parks, different environments. Some are clean, some are not. Some are stiff with rules, some are fend for yourself. Some areas of town tend to have more concentration of certain dog breeds. Scope out some parks online. Check the reviews, the services. Sometimes it’s well worth the expense to pay a couple dollars to enter a nice, quiet, safe, well run dog park. Pick your favorites and do a drive by. Even park and watch. See if this is a place you are comfortable taking your dog.
Don’t feel like a dog park is the only place to socialize! There are more and more alternatives. Many dog trainers are starting to offer puppy play sessions. PetSmart has a program with regular puppy play groups. Find local dog groups online and start your own regular play dates with familiar friends. Grab a long 16 foot “training leash” from Walmart, take your pup to the beach or local park to romp around and make new friends (people and pooch!). Just getting out there is great exercise and socialization for yourself and your puppy. Just make sure everyone is safe, comfortable, and healthy! Ask your veterinarian or dog trainer for recommendations on dog parks or dog park alternatives near you.
Questions to ask yourself before heading to the dog park:
- Is my puppy or dog fully vaccinated, current on deworming, as well as flea and tick prevention?
- Does my puppy or dog have adequate social skills to approach and interact with strange dogs?
- Does the dog park have a separate area for small dogs?
- Are there rules I need to be aware of? One rule is sometimes NO leashes inside the fence. Some parks do not allow toys or food due to resource guarding.
Once you are at the dog park, you can sit outside the park for a few minutes. Watch the interactions.
- Are dogs fighting, barking, snarling?
- Are they playing happily and bouncy, or are they very intense with stiff body language?
- Are the humans at the park following directions?
- Are they watching their own dogs, are they offering treats in a no food park, are they allowing toys in a no toy park?
- Are any dogs resource guarding?
- Are dogs slamming into each other or playing gently?
- Are the dogs in the park a size that my Shih Tzu can safely play with?
- How many dogs are in the park, is it very crowded or kind of quiet?
- Are the humans getting along, do they seem friendly, or are they fighting and yelling?
- Is there anyone, or anything, in the dog park that may scare me or my dog?