Giving our dogs the freedom to play with other dogs and have a good off leash run tempts many of us to take our dogs to a dog park. In fact, dog parks have become so popular that they have become the fastest-growing segment of city parks in the USA.
But are dog parks the ideal environment for our dogs or do they cause more problems than they solve? Unfortunately, there’s not an easy answer as not only do our dogs vary a lot in personality, but dog parks differ regarding quality, control and culture.
We look at some dog parks pros and cons and why understanding your dog should be the single most important factor in your decision as to whether to visit one or not
What is a dog park?
The first-ever dog park was established by a group of residents of Berkeley in 1979. Officially sanctioned by the city in 1983 the Ohlone dog park, later renamed the Martha Scott Benedict Dog Park was an experimental project that became a firm favourite with the resident dog owners.
In fact, the project was so popular that dog parks began to spring up all over the US now with an estimated 1,200 in existence and growing. But what is a dog park and how do they work? Simply put a dog park is an enclosed area devoted solely to canine activity.
Dog parks vary a lot ranging from a modest acre of open grassland up to an impressive 107 acres of parkland and trails of the Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-Leash Area in Evergreen, Colorado.
While some dog parks provide the bare minimum required to let your dog run free- an area of grassland and a fence. Others are well-designed and include separate areas for small and large dogs, double gated entrances for security and environmental considerations like shade, water faucets, drinking bowls and benches for the dogs’ two-legged caretakers.
What to consider before you visit a dog park
The most important thing to think about before you visit a dog park is your dog. While we may get excited by the idea of our dog running around having fun with other dogs for some dogs, it’s their worst nightmare.
So, think about the following before taking your dog to a park;
Is your dog socially confident?
Just like us, our dogs vary in how confident they are in social situations. For some dogs meeting and greeting other canines is the highlight of their day. Any new face is a new friend, and they waste no time introducing themselves and starting off a play session.
In contrast, unconfident or shy dogs need more gentle introductions as they can feel overwhelmed by a more outgoing dog. It’s not that they can’t or won’t make friends, they may just need a few meetings one to one before they decide to include a dog on their friend’s list.
If your dog is a social butterfly, a dog park is an opportunity to meet new friends and have a blast. For shy dogs, a dog park can be a scary place that can feel unsafe and overwhelming.
Knowing your dog’s play style is invaluable. My dog likes to play rough which can look scary to someone who doesn’t know him. But when he meets a like-minded dog, the play is full-on, noisy and includes lots of mouthing and shoulder barging, for both dogs, it’s a rewarding experience.
Many dogs, however, prefer a gentler approach to play and will not appreciate an invitation to a game of rough-housing. Introducing dogs that have a similar style is usually much more successful than trying to get your dog to play with all dogs.
How busy is your dog park? Even if your dog is social with others, large numbers of dogs in a small space can create tension. Around ten to twenty dogs in a group is plenty. Make sure you keep your dog moving so that frictions don’t arise.
What to look for in a good dog park
Dog parks vary a lot. Not only do they differ in size but also in amenities, management, populations and safety. Choose wisely as it’s both you and your dog’s wellbeing at stake.
- Safety – Is the park’s fence in good shape? How high is it? can your dog jump over it? And is secure enough at the base to prevent your dog from getting out underneath? Does it have a double gate system that allows dogs to enter without enabling dogs to exit without their owners? Is the park well-maintained and clean? Are there any hazards that could cause problems such as tree roots, stagnant water, or broken branches?
- Size and space – The size of a dog park is not as important as the space available, but consider both. Dogs need enough room to run around safely without bumping into people, other dogs or fences. Some small dog parks that have a low population of visitors provide adequate space to allow this. Whereas larger parks that are more densely populated struggle. So, when choosing a park always think about both size and area.
- Facilities – Does the park have a water supply, shade for sunny days and shelter for inclement weather? Are there separate areas for large dogs and small dogs? Do they provide doggy bags and an appropriate place to put them?
- Design – Is the dog park interesting? Are there lots of different areas and environmental enrichment to keep visitors entertained? Boring dog parks increase the likelihood of issues as dogs have nothing else to focus on besides each other.
- Management – Does your local dog park have rules? Are they enforced or even followed by the dog park users? Some private parks have paid staff on site to make sure that everyone is following the guidelines and can step in to prevent trouble.
Once you’re happy with your choice go and look at the regulars. Do the dogs seem comfortable and relaxed? What are the busy and quiet times, can you set up a playdate with an appropriate dog before introducing your dog to the whole gang?
Dog park etiquette
Basic dog park etiquette is essential to make the experience of visiting a dog park more pleasurable for both you and your dog. We’ve split etiquette into human and dog, but most of it comes down to you looking after and monitoring your dog’s interactions carefully.
- Watch your dog
Dog parks are not an excuse to let your dog run riot. If you are chatting to fellow park users, on a call or texting, you are more likely to miss subtle cues that indicate trouble or distress.
Many parks are owner controlled meaning that they rely on your ability to control your dog and notice any potential issues. Having a good understanding of dog behaviour is incredibly useful when using a dog park.
- Clean up after your dog
If you’re paying attention to your dog, there’s no excuse for not cleaning up. Dog parks get lots of visitors and not only is it unpleasant for both you and your dog to step in poop but dog waste can carry disease and parasites that can go from dog to dog.
- Remove harnesses, head collars and clothing
Although it’s wise to keep a collar and tag on your dog while they are in the park, remove all other items. Teeth and claws can get caught in harnesses and head collars when playing. Not only can this cause some nasty injuries, but it can also make your dog panic if they get stuck.
- Keep your dog away from entrances and exits when dogs are coming and going
Allowing your dog to rush up to a newcomer is not a good idea. In fact, entrances to dog parks are a known problem area. Imagine walking into a new environment and having 10 or 20 people all rush up to you at once and try to shake your hand. It would be overwhelming, and you may react defensively just to get some space.
Calling your dog away when a new face appears at the door gives both dogs the opportunity to meet in a more natural and less intense way.
- Keep moving
Rather than standing in a group and allowing dogs to congregate, walk around the park. It’s much more natural for dogs to meet and greet and then move on. Not only does it give dogs that are unsure of others an opportunity for escape, but it means that your dog is constantly moving with you and so lessens intensity in play.
- Know your dog!
Let’s face it; not all dogs have excellent social skills. Despite training and socialisation classes, my dog is still pushy. So, if you know your dog is shy, a bit of a bully, rude or just over-enthusiastic mediate their introductions to other dogs. A successful introduction can mean the difference between a life-long friend and an unwanted scuffle.
- Understand what play looks like
The play between dogs needs to be mutual. Some dogs play rough while others prefer more genteel interactions. So long as both dogs seem to be enjoying it and there are breaks in the action it’s all good. There are plenty of videos that show what appropriate play looks like and here is one of our favourites.
- How to deal with an argument
Dog parks excite dogs. Excited dogs sometimes get overstimulated which can lead to a lack of self-control. Don’t assume that dogs will sort out their own issues if they are unhappy with a playmate. A small disagreement can turn quickly into a fully-fledged fight without outside intervention.
Act quickly if you see your dog being bullied by other dogs or you think that the play is getting a bit one-sided. Giving both dogs some quiet time away from each other will give them the opportunity to calm down.
- Vaccinate your dog
Dog parks are not the place to bring unvaccinated dogs or small puppies. No matter how clean or well-run a dog park is they are still a hub for bacteria and parasites. It should also go without saying that you should NEVER bring a bitch in heat to a dog park.
- Recall and good training
Surely the idea of a secure off-leash play park is to let your dog have the freedom to run? Well yes, and no. An untrained dog quickly becomes a problem in a big group of humans and canines. Make sure your dog has good recall so that you can call them away from any trouble.
Not only does proper training make the experience of a dog park much more enjoyable for you but being able to control your dog around others means fewer potential problems.
Now both you and your dog are prepared, and you’ve chosen the ideal park let’s have a look at the pros and cons of using a dog park.
Dog parks – the pros
Urban dogs have limited opportunities for off-leash exercise. Dog parks provide a safe space for dogs to let off steam, have a good run and meet up with like-minded canines.
We know that under-exercised dogs often develop unwanted behaviours when they have excess energy or are bored so taking them to a stimulating environment can help reduce problems. Not only that but dog parks also offer;
- Physical health – Almost a quarter of the dog population is obese. A dog park provides an opportunity for your dog to get much-needed exercise and improve their overall physical wellbeing
- Mental health – Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise for our dogs. A dog park, especially one with lots of environmental stimuli can provide your dog with new sights, smells and experiences improving their mental wellbeing
- Socialization – There’s no doubt about it that dog parks offer a place for dogs to meet dogs. As social animals, dogs get a lot from positive interactions with other canines. Not only that but they also get the opportunity to socialise with lots of different people, rounding out their experience of human beings
- Owners benefit too – Dog parks are a great place to connect to other dog lovers. Share training tips, arrange play dates and belong to part of the community.
Dog parks – the cons
Everyone has a story about the downside of dog parks. While these stories of fights, dogs escaping or getting injured by broken fences and other hazards are common, there are also some other negatives to think about before visiting a park.
- Illness, infection and bacteria – Even the best run dog park can suffer at the hands of an irresponsible dog owner. Dogs can easily transmit viruses, kennel cough and intestinal infections to every dog in the park. Vaccinating your dog is essential. If you have an old dog, puppy or dog with low immunity take a pass on a dog park date.
- Socialization – We would all love a dog that is social as it makes life so much easier. But if your dog is not a social butterfly, please don’t put them through the ordeal of a dog park. A scared or nervous dog will not become less so if you subject them to lots of forced interactions. Try to set up one to one playdates
- Small and large – Unless your dog park has a separate area from small dogs, think carefully before bringing a tiny dog to a park that has lots of big dogs in it. Even if your little dog is socially adept, lots of larger dogs running around can easily and unintentionally injure a smaller counterpart.
- Disagreements – Unfortunately when dogs have conflicts they often result in a bite, cut or wound of some type. While serious fights are not frequent, even rough play can result in an injured dog. Injuries can be a real pain and take weeks to fully heal, especially if your dog has access to them and can lick the wound.
Dog parks pros and cons
There’s no doubt that dog parks offer a convenient way to exercise your dog. They provide both mental and physical exercise, and as an added benefit you and your dog get to socialise together.
However, dog parks aren’t for everyone. Don’t feel bad if your dog isn’t social or if they are a bit too pushy to be trusted in a big group. Exercising your dog on-leash isn’t the end of the world. What’s more, if you get to know your dog park well you still may be able to use it in quiet times or with dogs that have a similar play style to your own.