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 dog parks pros, and cons and why understanding your dog should be the single most important factor in deciding 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 favorite 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 greatly, 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 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 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, and his body language 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 with 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, many 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 amenities, management, populations, and safety. Please choose wisely as it’s both you and your dog’s wellbeing at stake.
Is the park’s fence in good shape? How high is it? Can your dog jump over it? And is it fenced securely 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.
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?
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.
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 ensure that everyone follows 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 and dog owners 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 one 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 body language 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 behavior 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. If you want to enjoy the benefits – pick up the poop.
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 hurt your dog and cause some nasty injuries, but it can also make your dog panic if they get stuck.
Keep your dog away from entrances and exits.
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 to get some space.
Calling your dog away when a new face appears at the door is allows both dogs to meet more naturally and less intensely and encourages good behavior.
Rather than standing in a group and allowing dogs to congregate, dogs and owners should 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 socialization and play.
Know your dog!
Let’s face it; not all dogs have excellent social skills. Despite training and socialization classes, my dog’s behavior 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 and healthy play looks like, and here is one of our favorites.
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 an owner’s 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 or aggressive. Giving both dogs some quiet time away from each other will allow them to calm down.
Vaccinate your dog
Dog parks are not the place to bring unvaccinated dogs or small puppies. The risk is too great no matter how clean or well-run a dog park is; they are still a hub for bacteria, parasites, and disease. 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 local dog 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 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 behaviors when they have excess energy or are bored, so taking them to a secure area to expend energy and get much-needed stimulation has real benefits and reduces 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 socialize 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 disadvantages 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 parks can suffer at the hands of irresponsible dog owners. 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 for 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, many 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 behavior 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 stimulation, and as an added benefit, you and your dog get to socialize 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 a 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 pet.