With spring approaching, many have decided to take on a healthier lifestyle, and there’s no one better to take along on the journey than your furry friend. Local dog parks are wonderful places to let your dog exercise freely, especially for those living in the city or who don’t have a companion for their pup to play with. They are also a great place to introduce your dog to other dogs, filling the critical need for socialization. We’ve consulted some specialists and have all the information you’ll need before finding a dog park.

John Paver, owner of Paver Pet Supply and Lincoln Dog Park in Portage, has years of experience in pet nutrition and wellness. Most dog parks have rules that must be followed when using them. At Lincoln, the park is free to the public, but all dogs must be tagged, collared, and have all their shots. People frequently ask Paver for health advice. For example, most owners are unaware of how much exercise their dog should be getting. “If left to their own devices, medium to large dogs would walk for about 5 to 7 miles in a day,” he says. What about the harsh winter months? While dogs grow thicker fur with exposure to cold weather, he explains, short-haired dog breeds and those who don’t go out much could use protection. Coats and sweaters can be purchased at supply stores, and for dogs with a difficult fit, custom sweaters can be made. Dog parks are certainly on the rise over the last decade, and it can be attributed to a cultural shift that makes pets more commonplace. “In progressive cities, millennials are replacing their ‘first kid’ with their ‘first dog’ and want to make sure they’re doing all they can in terms of health and nutrition,” he says.

Where health is concerned, Dr. Neuberger of the VCA Allendale Animal Hospital emphasizes the importance of vaccinations, for the safety of your dog and others’. “Make sure to take care of intestinal and topical parasite prevention as well as flea and tick medication,” she advises. A cold known as “kennel cough” can be contracted at dog parks, so make sure your pet is immunized for that as well. Common illnesses are spread among dogs just as they are children, so look out for their health the way you would a child’s. The amount of exercise recommended depends entirely on the breed, so she suggests asking your vet or visiting the American Kennel Club’s Dog Breed Series on its website.

For those opting to pamper their pup, paid membership dog parks are available. Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Ada is a members-only 20-acre park with a doggy swimming pond, miles of snowplowed hiking trails, self-serve dog washes, and a coffee bar for owners. Since owners are concerned with aggression in addition to illness, there is temperament testing as well as required proof of up-to-date vaccinations. Monitoring interactions with other dogs is important. Park owner Pam Stanley mentions that dog parks aren’t just for your dog to socialize. People look forward to talking to other pet owners and forming friendships. “A lot of people have met at our park and gotten married. It’s a place people automatically have something in common; it’s great to have a common interest,” she said. Who doesn’t love a good 101 Dalmatians story… minus about 99 Dalmatians?

It’s key to remember that dogs need an active and social life just as much as we do, and there’s an increasing number of these pup-friendly spaces popping up. A great place to research local parks is bringfido.com, and users can search by area. When visited responsibly, parks are an excellent resource. Get those vaccines, grab a leash, and watch with a smile as your dog overflows with excitement.