Dog parks: Are they Awesome or Awful?

As with most of life’s questions, the answer is: it depends.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association, there were an estimated 1200 dog parks operating in the United States in 2015. The Trust for Public Land notes that off-leash dog parks are the fastest growing type of urban park. That’s a lot of dogs in a lot of enclosed spaces that are self-regulated with varying degrees of success.

Dog parks don’t have employees who monitor the dogs’ behavior like doggy day cares do; they are meant to be self-regulated. You wouldn’t think that would be such a difficult task but when people abdicate that responsibility in favor of playing on their phone or socializing with the other humans or simply have wildly differing ideas of what constitutes appropriate dog behavior, things can get ugly.

In the interest of transparency, my dog, Jake, was attacked at a local dog park at age two and was never the same, becoming highly dog aggressive, which is where my love hate relationship with dog parks began.

Dog parks can be amazing places to socialize both you and your dog and for your dog to get to run and play off leash with friends. That’s what happens when dog parks work well. The main factor in whether or not a dog park will be a great place for doggy fun or more like yard time at a super-max prison depends on the people.

Besides Jake’s experience and the constant complaint of people not picking up their dog’s poop, I’ve seen tons of what I consider bad dog park behavior from humans. Here are some examples:

  • The guy who brought an unspayed female dog in heat.

  • The guy who brought a sick dog with no regard for the welfare of the other dogs (worms were literally falling out of the dog’s back end as he ran around the park).

  • The nanny who brought twin toddlers and let them run around chasing the dogs (and being chased).
  • The many people who have run away after their dog attacks another dog without checking to see if the other dog is OK or sharing their contact information.

dogs fighting at a dog park
Honesty, I could fill this whole page with examples of bad dog park etiquette. At the same time, I’ve seen dogs have an awesome time at the dog park and their human handlers remain watchful and responsible.

It was at the dog park where I truly got interested in dog communication and body language which helped lead me to the career I have today so I can’t be totally against them.

The bottom line about dog parks is that they are simply a play space. It’s the people who make them safe and fun or dangerous. Here’s the advice I give my clients (and follow myself) for dog park visits:

1. Before visiting a new park, scope it out ahead of time without your dog. Are the people paying attention? Are dogs monitored if they are getting unruly? What’s the vibe you get from watching the park for 30 minutes or so?

2. If you bring your kids with you, don’t let them run around like it is a playground. Most dogs are triggered to chase children and accidents can happen even if a dog is truly only trying to play.

3. If other people’s children are running around, don’t enter the park. It’s all fun and games until your dog knocks over their kid.

4. Be willing to leave if your gut tells you to. This is what I tell all my clients: have a plan B for the day. If you’ve set aside an afternoon at the park with your dog and after a little while your dog seems stressed or the atmosphere seems to be getting tense, just leave. Your dog would much rather have a lovely long leashed walk with you than cower in a corner off leash at the dog park, or worse, get in a fight.

5. Speak up for yourself and your pup. If someone’s dog isn’t playing appropriately with your dog, ask them to control their dog. If they can’t or won’t, leave.

6. Control your dog. Even if you see what your dog is doing as just playing but someone is concerned that it’s too rough for their dog, redirect your dog. Everyone has their own level of comfort around dog behavior and it’s important to respect that.

7. Don’t crowd the gate. This is where the most fights start. If dogs are crowding the gate, wait until they wander off before you enter and don’t allow your dog to crowd the gate when someone else is trying to enter.

8. Don’t bring food into the park. All the dogs will want some and fights can break out. This is how Jake got attacked. A woman had a muffin, offered Jake a piece and her dog attacked Jake. If you bring dog treats for your dog, keep them concealed and if other dogs want some, ask their handlers if it is OK first.

French bulldog wearing a bowtie

Dog parks can be great fun for both people and dogs. Just make sure you choose wisely, behave appropriately and leave if necessary.

If, as so many people do, you bring your dog to the dog park because he or she pulls too much on leash, download our free ebook that will have your dog walking like an angel.

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