Sunday, January 24, 2016

Dog parks: tools to be used for good or evil

Dog parks can be valuable ways to exercise and socialize your dog. They can also be dangerous places where dogs can get hurt. And so we ask ourselves: are dog parks a good thing or a bad thing? I argue that they are neither. Like retractable leashes, they are just a tool that can be used well or badly.

Park design

The design of a dog park can have a lot to do with how well it functions. I think the size of the park is incredibly important. At my local park, we have a lot of space. And I use this space with my dogs. If there is a group of dogs that my dogs aren’t getting along well with, and I see trouble brewing, I move on to a different part of the park. In a small park, this wouldn't be possible.

Jenny at my fabulous local park

My local park also has a smaller area, separately fenced. It’s a great place to take a smaller dog when the park is full of big dogs, or to take a dog who needs a cooling down period after he's been acting like a bully. I don’t use this space much with my dogs, but it’s extremely helpful for a friend of mine who’s trying to teach her six month old to restrain his enthusiasm around other dogs by giving him time outs when he fails to control himself appropriately.

Park timing

I don’t go to the park when it’s crowded. Of course, it’s crowded at the times that are the most convenient for the most people: late afternoon, weekends, when the weather is lovely. I go in the mornings during the week. I lead a lifestyle which makes that possible (though I have to push back at work to protect that time). If you can only go to the park when it’s crowded, it might not be worth going at all. Tempers run high when dogs are packed in together with no real room to get away.

Dog management

This is the important one for me: I am always alert and managing my dogs. I keep an eye on them. One of them can have a short temper with other dogs, and I keep her moving, away from groups. If I see her meeting another dog, I am watching closely for her to get tense, and if I don't think it's going well, I call her away before something goes wrong.

This kind of management is hard for a lot of owners who don’t understand dog body language well. For this reason, I’ve founded a group at my local park with the goal of (among other things) providing educational material at the park to help owners understand how to identify and avoid problems before they start. Not everyone will be interested in this material, and that’s why it’s also important to me to attend a large park during low occupancy times.

Stuff happens

My dogs have been attacked at the park. One of my dogs has also been attacked while I was walking him on leash on a sidewalk. And once he got away from me and was almost hit by a car. That’s life. Is it more dangerous at the park than on a leash on the sidewalk? Possibly, though I’d love to see evidence one way or the other. Is it more dangerous to a young dog to fail to get his crazies out on leash, and then be at risk of being surrendered by a frustrated owner? Again, I can’t say, but there are risks to any choices about how we manage our dogs.

At the park, there are no cars, no cats, no children, no bicycles, no terrifying joggers just begging to be bitten. One of my park friends walked her dog on leash until he bit a roller blader who passed too close. Without the park, she would be unable to exercise her dog safely. My shy dog Jenny has made canine and human friends at the park that she is unable to make in situations in which she's restrained. She has made incredible gains in confidence. That has come at a risk, but to me, with a lot of careful management of the dog park environment, at the right park, with these dogs, it’s worth it.


  1. I wish I had a park like yours where I live. All the dog parks I have been to have children, squirrels (who are like cats, right?) people running around (joggers) and the big one that I go to also has horses and bicycles. The best park I've been to is over 1,000 acres and it's the place we've had the least problems at. I still think those smaller fenced dogs parks are a recipe for disaster and you couldn't pay me to ever enter one again. I used to be a regular at a smaller one and my dog has had so many bad experiences there that she is now very dog selective and grumpy. I've also seen so many attacks and bad things happen. I prefer the 1,000 acre park where I just hike and we run into a few dogs here or there out on the trails. I avoid the major congregational areas and my dogs have a better time.

    1. The one I go to is large AND fenced -- amazing. I completely agree that the small ones that are concentrated chaos are Bad News.

  2. In my experience, people tend to go around the same time daily, so you get to know a group of dogs and their people. This is useful, as the dogs can get comfortable with their extended pack and more people can be alert for problems.

    1. Oh excellent point! This is in fact the case with me, that I have a regular group and my dogs know them all very well. It makes a huge difference.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This post was a well-written and balanced point of view on dog parks. Most of what I have heard is "don't go", which for many is not a practical solution.

  4. As stated in the article. Dog Parks are great places to let your dog run and wrestle and socialize especially if you live in a big city.You need to be present when you are at the dog park. By that i mean pay attention to your dog and others around him. Dont let play get out of hand, pull your dog if he is misbehaving or if he is being bullied. I like to use parks where we can walk trails. We always use park time to brush up on commands as well.