Most dogs love to cool off in the water when the weather turns warm, so you might want to think about visiting a nearby dog-friendly beach. But before you slather on doggy sunscreen and load your pup into the car, it’s important to keep a few pointers in mind. Knowing how your dog behaves around other animals and whether she’ll respond to your commands are important when visiting dog beaches.
To help you judge whether your pet is ready for an off-leash dog beach, we’ve asked Lauren Novack, dog trainer and owner of Lauren’s Leash, for some guidance. Check out her tips so you can be sure your that both you and your fur baby enjoy all that a dog beach has to offer.
Gauge your dog’s sociability.
The first—and most important—question to ask is whether your dog is comfortable with other dogs, especially in social and busy environments.
“Not every dog is a social butterfly—and putting yours in a situation with lots of unknown animals can cause issues,” Novack says.
If your pup is shy or nervous around strange dogs, a dog beach or dog park is not a good place for socialization, she adds. Instead, a reticent dog would benefit more from guided, one-on-one interactions with carefully selected, temperamentally sound dogs. “Don’t be the person who brings a nervous, under-socialized or aggressive dog to a crowded, off-leash dog beach, because it’s just not fun for your pet or for others.
One of the most important things to remember when going to a dog beach is that part of being a responsible dog owner means picking up after your dog. You should always have a full supply of poop bags on you, so that you can be sure that you don’t leave any messes behind.
Go over the “leave it” command.
Dogs live to sniff everything they can—and dog beaches are no exception.
“There are many new critters and smells in these spots, including dead fish, shells and horseshoe crabs that will delight the canine senses,” Novack says.
Your dog may want to pick up, chew or roll in these new “treasures,” so a visit to the dog-friendly beach is an excellent opportunity to practice “drop it” or “leave it.”
“If you’re having a hard time,” Novack says, “you may want to bring a plastic bag and collect some beach items in order to practice refining these skills at home so they are more reliable for your next beach outing.”
Take advantage of that long, sandy shoreline by checking on your dog’s recall skills.
“A beach is a great outdoor place to go over your off-leash training after practicing diligently on a long line,” Novack says.
If your dog doesn’t come to you quickly—and away from new people, unfamiliar dogs, pesky pigeons and decaying fish—then you’re not ready for an off-leash dog beach.
Wade in slowly.
It’s important to let dogs acclimate to the water in their own time, Novack recommends.
“Some dogs love fetching tennis balls in the waves, but others see the ocean churning and run up the beach to higher ground,” she says.
If your dog loves to play fetch, start by tossing a ball onto the beach (never throw the ball farther into the ocean than your dog is willing to venture).
If you approach the water slowly, your dog will become better acclimated and more comfortable being around water.
“And if you’re very patient, many more activities might open up, including teaching your dog to ride a stand-up paddleboard,” Novack says.
Don’t force it.
You can lead your dog to water, but you can’t make him jump in, or so the saying (sort of) goes.
“As tempting as it may be, avoid picking up your dog and putting him in the water or keeping him on the leash and then forcing him into the water with you,” Novack warns.
This will only confirm a pet’s anxiety and reinforce the idea that the ocean is a big, bad and scary place that should be avoided, she adds.
Approaching or going into the water should always be up to your pet.
“If your pup does decide to venture in—even just barely to get his feet wet—you can help the process along by tossing a ball and feeding some dog treats in order to make the water a predictor of good things,” Novack says.
And don’t forget to bring along a towel to dry your pet off with before getting back into the car.
Consider getting a dog life jacket.
You might think dogs are expert swimmers, but Novack says a life jacket is still a must, especially for new dogs who don’t have any experience with swimming in pools, lakes or the ocean.
“Always make sure to check the surf and only let your dog enter the water if it’s safe for humans to swim without a lifeguard present,” she says.
Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City writer/editor and the mom of two teenage girls. She’s also the devoted owner of a rescue pup named Django, a temperamental Shepherd mix. Geddes has worked for Food & Wine, Parenting, Seventeen and Airbnb magazines and creates content for dozens of sites, including Care, Fisher-Price, the National Sleep Foundation and Realtor.