Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dog Parks and Foster Dogs

Should you take foster dogs to the dog park?

As with so much else when living with dogs, the answer is a clear, resounding... "maybe."

Under the right circumstances, and for the right dogs, dog parks can be a wonderful opportunity for a foster dog to burn off excess energy, improve her social skills, and increase her profile in the neighborhood -- all of which improve that dog's chances of finding a great forever home.

Nevertheless, it's crucial to recognize that not every foster is a good candidate for the park. Dog parks do present a certain set of hazards, and they do demand a degree of social savvy from both humans and canines. Those who are lacking can get themselves in a lot of trouble.

Dog parks allow all sizes and breeds of dogs to play together
If there's even a shred of doubt, I'm inclined to think that foster dogs should stay home. A foster dog isn't really your dog; it belongs to the shelter or rescue organization, and so I think foster parents have an obligation to make conservative decisions about their care. After all, it's the rescue who will be on the hook for vet bills if your foster dog gets hurt or injures another animal, and it's the rescue whose reputation will be damaged if your foster behaves badly in public. As foster parents, we're ambassadors for rescue, and it's incumbent upon us to present ourselves and our dogs in the best possible light. Among other things, that means not bringing iffy dogs to the dog park.

So how do you decide whether you should take your foster to the dog park?
Know Your Park

If you aren't already very familiar with your local dog park, stop by for a few visits, ideally during the same time of day that you'd plan to bring your foster. Take some time to observe the dogs and people. Are the facilities reasonably clean and secure? Do the dogs play well together? Are the people attentive to their dogs? If a dog displays aggressive or reactive behavior, how do the people intervene (if they do), and do the dogs seem responsive to their instructions?

Additionally, if you are fostering a small dog (less than about 25 pounds), check to see whether your dog park has a separate section for small dogs. Many do. If yours does not, you might want to talk to owners of small dogs to see whether there are informal playgroups that your foster pup could participate in. Otherwise, it may be best to give the dog park a pass, as small dogs can easily be injured by accidental trampling or buffeting, even when a larger dog had no malicious intentions at all. Again, it's just a matter of being cautious with a dog that isn't really yours.
A rainy, muddy day means fewer dogs, and is a good time to introduce a foster pup -- if you don't mind bathing her afterward!
 I'm fortunate: Seger Dog Run, our local park, is supported by a close-knit community of conscientious regulars who generally have polite, well-behaved dogs (and who are quick to remove their dogs at the first sign of a personality clash). Altercations are rare and swiftly dealt with. In hundreds of hours spent observing the dogs at this park, I have never seen a serious fight.

This is not true of all dog parks. Another city park attracts so many untrained dogs and irresponsible owners that I'm amazed anyone brings their pets inside. It's downright unsafe for people at times, let alone dogs. Fortunately, such parks are uncommon... but it's still a good idea to scout out your park before arriving with a foster.

If your local dog park is safe, friendly, and clean, then it may be appropriate to bring your foster.

Know Your Foster

The foster dog must be comfortable, and have some bond with you, before you take it to a dog park. I would never bring a foster to a dog park until I'd lived with that dog for at least a week and we had gotten to know one another fairly well. Not only must the dog recognize you as a safe person and be inclined to listen to your commands (in case trouble breaks out, you want the dog to immediately follow your guidance, or at least not be resistant to your interventions), but you need to know just how far you can trust your foster. By the time you're considering taking the dog to a park, you should have encountered plenty of other dogs in controlled circumstances while out on walks, and you should have some idea of how your foster responds to strange canines.

There are some dogs who should NEVER be brought to a dog park. Aggressive dogs, sick dogs, and females in heat have no business in a dog park, for hopefully obvious reasons. Puppies under four months of age don't have all their vaccinations and immunities up to speed, and should stay out of any place where they might be exposed to contagious diseases. Coccidia and giardia are, unfortunately, common in dog parks, and while these bugs rarely present a serious problem to healthy adult dogs, they can be nasty to young puppies. Similarly, dogs who are recovering from severe stress should stay out until their immune systems are back to full strength.

Other dogs are iffy cases: intact males over a year old, dogs who like to play rough (lots of high-impact body slamming and vertical paw boxing), elderly dogs, dogs who tend to guard their toys, and dogs who get along with certain genders, sizes, and/or breeds of dogs but not others -- all of these dogs can play nicely at the park, with close and careful supervision, but a foster who displays any of these signs should probably stick to playdates with approved partners. For these dogs, a public park is just not worth the risk.

But if your foster dog is in good health, up to date on her shots, and greets unfamiliar dogs of all shapes and sizes with tail-wagging friendliness and play bows... then you've likely got a green light to the dog park.

Evenings are another low-traffic time suitable for introductory visits.
During your first few visits, try to pick low-traffic times. Rainy days, late mornings, early afternoons, and late evenings tend to be less crowded. Fewer dogs means less chaos, so it's easier to keep a close eye on your own animals. If those visits go well, then you can relax into bringing your foster during busier hours -- and, who knows? He may just catch someone's eye while he's there.

Above all, always be cautious, and always be attentive. And have fun!

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