Dog parks are a place where dogs and their owners can spend time outdoors and off the leash, doing “dog things” with other dogs. They have become very common in our urban and suburban landscapes, and are places where owners can take their dogs to play, have some enrichment and get some exercise. In an environment where dogs (and their owners) are increasingly isolated, they are a place to socialize and have some time in the fresh air and sunshine. They can be either publicly owned and maintained, or can be managed and funded privately. Some are even private membership-based clubs for dog-owners. They are very popular and surveys have shown that the majority of Americans consider them to be a benefit to neighborhoods. The New York Times reports that dog parks are among the fastest-growing social amenity in the United States.[i]
There are varying opinions about dog parks, based on peoples’ experiences in them. The internet is full of emotionally-charged articles about dog parks, many of them highly negative and verging on hyperbole, including claims that “Dogs die violently at dog parks all the time.” [ii] A simple Google search of “Dog Park Horror Stories” will provide endless accounts of dogs being brutalized by other dogs or people at these parks. In reviewing a sampling of these anecdotal and unverified accounts, I found that they were all related to dogs being over-aroused and stressed, and/or their owners behaving irresponsibly.
There are very few quality studies of dog-to-dog behavior in dog parks. However, the consensus among them is that actual dog-to-dog aggression in these parks is very rare and very seldom result in injuries. In fact, a 2018 study by Howse, Anderson and Walsh found that “there was little to no evidence of dog-dog aggression, with the possible exception of “lunge approach”, which occurred infrequently. This finding is consistent with two other published studies… which reported low prevalence of aggressive behaviours in two different dog parks, and no incidents leading to injury. Thus, overt aggression is rare in direct observational research despite apparent widespread concerns among trainers of high risk for conspecific aggression at dog parks.”[iii] An earlier study cited differences in dog’s interactions based on individual personalities but found that all the dogs were in a highly excited and/or stressed state while in the park.[iv]
Based on the available behavioral studies and on reputable newspaper or internet articles, we can conclude that dog parks can be a pleasant environment that allows well-socialized and extroverted companion dogs with a means of exercising, playing with other dogs and getting some enrichment in the terms of new experiences. But this all depends on several factors: The dogs’ personalities, the health of other dogs in the park and the knowledge and attention of the dogs’ owners.
There are some simple facts about dogs and dog parks that many owners fail to understand:
First, all dogs are not the same. They have varied personalities and experiences and have different preferences. For instance, I’ve had three smooth collies in my adult life. And I’ve had each of them in safe well-run dog parks. The first one was overjoyed by the park. She was the queen of whatever group of dogs she socialized with and always managed to get a pack of dogs to join her in a “chase me” game using every square inch of the fenced area. She also made sure that she met every owner and invited new dogs to socialize. We were frequent visitors and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My second collie hated being in the dog park. He was socialized with other dogs and wasn’t fearful of them, but he was completely overwhelmed by the experience of being in the park. He spent the entire time trotting around the fence perimeter, looking for a way out. After that one experience, we never took him back. The third collie is socialized with other dogs and meets them politely but is completely indifferent to them. She loves to play with her human family and the people she knows, and she loves to go for walks in her neighborhood or on the local beach but has no interest in other dogs. We’ve taken her to a dog park, and she spent her time exploring and investigating new smells, much as she would in her own yard, but didn’t spend a single minute socializing or playing with other dogs. The point I’m making is that some dogs just won’t like being in a dog park and some are just not interested in other dogs. There’s nothing wrong with that, its just the way they are.
Second, a dog park is not a place to get to train your dog, or to help them get socialized. You can safely take a dog to the park after they are well socialized and after you are confident in their training. For example, I once worked with a shelter dog a shelter dog whom I spent month working with, rehabilitating her, and socializing her with humans. Over time she progressed from being fearful of people to accepting and bonding with me, after which I got her to accept new people, play nicely and interact well with people and other dogs. She was adopted out to a man (I had a bad feeling about this guy, but it wasn’t my decision) who was given all the usual instructions to take things slow, let her get used to him and his home, gradually introduce new experiences, etc. But… The day after her adoption, I found her back in the intake section of the shelter. I found out that less than six hours after adopting her, he brought her to a crowded dog park and let her off leash. So, naturally, there was a complete meltdown. Rather than learning from his error, he blamed the dog and returned her that day. The good news is that, once we got her settled down, she was adopted out to a nice young couple and that last I heard she was living a great life in a loft in Boston.
Third, the dog park is an unfamiliar place full of new smells, new and excited dogs, new people, etc. This is a stressful situation for dogs to be in. Ottenheimer et al, found that dogs in these parks are generally stressed state, regardless of their outward behavior. And not all dogs handle stress well, many have limited communications skills.
Fourth, a lot of dog owners are clueless about their pets’ behaviors. Some of them are too busy chatting or flirting to pay attention to what’s happening around them, and some of them are just jerks. They will not always pay attention to their dogs, won’t understand that their dogs are becoming overstressed or over-excited, and may not intervene when their dogs act inappropriately.
Fifth, dog parks are not for puppies. Although a puppy can safely interact with other dogs once they’ve had all of their vaccinations, when they’re about 17 weeks old, they are still forming their personalities and can be very negatively impacted by any negative experiences. They should be socialized with people and other age-appropriate dogs in positive and controlled settings. Any negative experiences, such as overly rough play by other dogs, bullying, or anything that is intimidating or frightening that a puppy experiences can adversely affect his still-developing social skills. Many experts recommend against taking dogs to a park if they are under six months of age, or even less than a year old, depending on the dog.[v] My own recommendation is to hold off on bringing a puppy to a dog park until he is well past his second fear impact period, which will fall between five and twelve months of age Developmental-Stages-of-a-Dog.pdf (animalnerd.com). between A supervised puppy playgroup is a much better option for pups who are still developing social skills.
Sixth, and very importantly, do not bring a dog to a park who has not been spayed or neutered. The presence of a female dog in heat will cause unnecessary drama among the other dogs, particularly among any intact males. In many cases, dog parks specifically prohibit any male or female dogs who have not been spayed or neutered.[vi]
So: Should you take your dog to a dog park? Sure. Absolutely. That is, if, and only if, you do the following things:
Get to know your dog. Does he really like to play with other dogs? Is he nervous around them or avoid any dogs at all? Does he try to engage with them and invite them to play? Also, how to they react around him? You need to determine whether he has good manners and doesn’t play too roughly or overwhelm other dogs? If you have any doubts about this, don’t take him to the park. Find other ways to socialize and exercise him. If your dog mature enough to be there, and are his social skills sufficiently developed?
Next, check out the park you’re thinking about using. Visit it during the time of day that you are most likely to bring your dog. Get to know the other owners and watch them with their dogs? Do they keep an eye on their dogs and act responsibly? Do they pick up after their dogs? Are they people that you want to hang around with? How are their dogs acting? Is the play too rough for your dog to be part of, and do the other owners intervene? Trust your gut on this. Is everyone there a dog owner, or do dog walkers show up with a bunch of dogs and turn them loose inside? (Yes, this happens.)
What about the park? Is it securely fenced? Is there a double gate at the entrance to prevent dogs from escaping? Is there fresh water inside? Is it maintained in a clean and safe manner? Who is responsible for the park? Is it privately funded or is it a municipal park? Also, are there separate areas for large and small dogs?
Once you’ve checked all these boxes, there are a few other things you need to do:
Make sure that your dog is completely vaccinated and is protected against parasitic diseases. Talk to your vet about his heartworm preventative and make sure that it includes protection against intestinal parasites. In addition to his rabies vaccination, your dog should also be immunized against parvo, distemper, Bordetella, canine influenza and leptospirosis.[vii] The simple fact is that dogs relieve themselves in these parks, and they are frequented by nocturnal wildlife, making them playgrounds for parasites, bacteria and communicable viruses; some of them transmissible to humans. And many of the parks have communal water bowls that are shared among the dogs, which provides another route for sharing diseases and parasites. Make sure that your pet is protected.[viii] Also, wash your hands thoroughly when you leave the dog park.
I strongly recommend that you do not bring small children to a dog park and, if there are small children present, do not bring your dog inside. Aside from the health issues mentioned above, this is not a childrens’ playground and it is not safe for them. Having little kids excitedly running around among a group of excited off-leash dogs is never a good idea, particularly if the particular dogs from the childrens’ family tend to be protective of them.
I recommend that you do not bring any food or dog treats to the park. The dogs are already in an excited state, and you have no idea how they will react to the presence of food or of other dogs receiving treats. There is a strong potential that this may result in dogs either aggressively guarding the food or becoming overly excited.
If you bring any toys to the park, be prepared to go home without them. Once you throw a ball in a dog park, it can become the property of any dog that wants it. Also, you risk the possibility of a dog deciding that the ball is a resource to be guarded, resulting in a fight. If you do bring a toy and manage to leave the park with it, completely disinfect it right away.
Be a good citizen. Familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations that are posted at the park, and abide by them. Bring waste bags and promptly clean up your dog’s poop and dispose of it properly. Bring hand sanitizer and share it with other dog owners.
The bottom line is that dog parks are a great place for some dogs and some people to enjoy off-leash time, socialize, exercise and have some fun. But they are not for everybody. Your dog may be much happier just going for a walk, playing with known human or dog friends, or just hanging out with you.
[i] Lowery, S. (February 6, 2020). The Dog Park is Bad, Actually. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/smarter-living/the-dog-park-is-bad-actually.html
[iii] Howse, M. S., Anderson, R. E. and Walsh, C. J. (2018). Social Behaviour of Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris) in a Public Off-Leash Dog Park. Behavioural Processes 197 (2018) 691-171
[iv] Ottemheimer Carrier, L., Cyr, A., Anderson, R. E. and Walsh, C. J. (2013). Exploring the Dog Park: Relationships Between Social Behaviours, Personality and Cortisol in Companion Dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 146 (2013), 96-106
[v] Anderson, T. (October 5, 2018). Why Puppies and Dog Parks Don’t Mix. Modern Dog. Retrieved from https://moderndogmagazine.com/articles/why-puppies-and-dog-parks-don-t-mix/101482
[vi] Brent, L. (April 28, 2019). How to Avoid Aggression (and other problems) at the Dog Park. Parsemus Foundation News. Retrieved from https://www.parsemus.org/2019/04/how-to-avoid-aggression-and-other-problems-at-the-dog-park/
[vii] Nicholas, J. (June 24, 2021). What You Should Know Before Taking Your Puppy to the Dog Park. Preventive Vet. Retrieved from https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/what-you-should-know-before-taking-your-puppy-to-the-dog-park
[viii] Nelson, S. (May 16, 2013). Dog parks offer fun, but veterinarian says a few precautions can make visits even better. K-State News. Retrieved from Dog parks offer fun, but veterinarian says a few precautions can make visits even better | Kansas State University | News and Communications Services (k-state.edu)