Dog parks can be great places for your dog.They can meet and play with other dogs, run in large areas free from their leash and safe from traffic hazards. They can meet all kinds of new people of different colors, ages and sizes, and some of those umm people even dish out treats!

Dog parks can also be dangerous places for your dog. Most dog parks have rules posted requiring the dogs to be vaccinated and excluding “aggressive” dogs. That’s great in theory. Have you ever had to show proof of your dog's vaccinations before entering a dog park? Not every dog owner is responsible maintaining their dog's vaccinations. Between, sharing kisses, water dishes, and toys, dogs who frequent dog parks run the potential for being exposed to worms, giardia, and other parasites and diseases.

As these dogs meet for the first time, the owners' attention is somewhere else - a recipe for trouble.

Also, what is considered aggressive? Is a dog playing rough and very vocal, or is he truly exhibiting signs of aggression? Are you prepared to make the distinction? Is any other owner in the park? If your dog is on the receiving end of the rough treatment, does it matter to you?

Now you might be thinking that dog parks aren't such a great idea. So, I’ll tell you that I regularly go to dog parks with my dog. I began because we lived in an apartment, and she is a high energy dog who needs to run. I have continued, because it is a great place for us to work on training with distractions. Once she had solidly learned a basic behavior, we went to the dog park to work on it there. Not only was this great for her, it dramatically improved our bond. Which is, after all, why I got a dog in the first place. Also, it has given me a dog who will pay attention to me and work for me despite the presence of other dogs. Nice bonus.

However, to enjoy the advantages of a dog park, I had to make a few choices. Initially, part of why the dog park seemed so great was I could let my dog run around and burn some energy with other dogs, and I didn’t have to do that much work. (After a full day at work, I’m not really all that excited about playing two hours of fetch!) I quickly realized though, that going to the dog park with my dog was not about me sitting on the picnic bench while she ran around. It was still about me paying attention to, and spending time, with my dog. I needed to know where she was and what she was up to....AT ALL TIMES. This is not only for purposes of poo patrol, but also because I wanted to know she wasn’t starting any trouble, no other dogs were starting any trouble with her, and she wasn’t barking at people or chasing kids. (Although I do not think dog parks are an appropriate place for young children, they are there and it’s my job to make sure nothing unpleasant happens between my dog and the toddler walking around with graham crackers on her hands and face.) These are each your responsibility when you go to the dog park.

Parker and Cassie, already good friends, enjoy a romp together at an off-leash park.

Each and every time I go to the dog park, I assess the other dogs and owners in the park. If I see anything I don’t like, either before I get in the park or while I’m there, we’re out of there.

The Threshold Area. Most dog parks have a double gated area to take your dog off-leash before you are both actually in the park. First, take your dog off-leash in this area. DO NOT walk into the park with your dog on leash. When you walk into the park with your dog on-leash and all the other dogs are off-leash, you are potentially creating a number of problems. First, you may be affecting your dog’s body language. When a dog is pulling on leash, all their body is going forward and they are telling other dogs they are a challenge...even if they don’t actually intend to be. Second, by keeping your dog on-leash when all the other dogs are off-leash, you are putting your dog at an enormous disadvantage. If your dog feels the need to get away from the onslaught of dogs, she has no way to. Being unable to get away, she may feel the need to defend herself.

The Rush. Without fail, when you and your dog arrive at the dog park, many other dogs will rush the gate to greet you. How friendly of them. The problem here is that dogs in dog parks form loose packs, and they will want to quickly assess where your dog fits in that pack. This may lead to some conflicts. Also, the sheer number of dogs at the gate may overwhelm your dog, and again, he may feel the need to defend himself. One way to avoid that particular pitfall is to just wait it out. If you stay in the gated area until all, or most, of the dogs have gone back to running around, you can avoid a lot of potential problems. This may mean you have to wait for quite a while, but it will make the dog park experience much more pleasant for your dog, so it is worth it. Also, if your dog is gathering at the gate as new dogs arrive, either call him off or go get her. Let the new dog have a chance to get in the park with a minimum of problems.

The little Maltese is looking unsure about meeting the Boston Terrier. After this photo was taken, she returned to her owner's side and did not play with the other dogs.

What Is Your Dog Saying? Pay attention to your dog at the dog park. Be ready to accept that your dog may not be an appropriate dog to be in the dog park or may not enjoy the company of other dogs or that many other dogs. Let me just tell you right now, dog parks are great fun for SOME dogs. They are a nightmare for others.

Is your dog being a bully? You might think, “He just plays rough like that.” Look at the dogs your dog is playing with, if they aren’t enjoying it, your dog is being a bully. Dogs are masters at communicating their discomfort and fear. A dog who behaves appropriately will respect that another dog is uncomfortable and either leave the dog alone, or ease up. If your dog does not do this, then your dog is being a bully. Own up and either remove your dog from the park or at least make him back off of the dog he is bullying.

Dog parks are for socializing, NOT socialization! What's the difference? The difference is that a well-socialized dog can enjoy socializing at the dog park. However, a dog that needs socialization, whether that means a young puppy having his first experiences with new dogs away from the litter or an older dog that is exhibiting fearful or aggressive behaviors around other dogs, the dog park is a BIG FAT NO. Socialization is the process of carefully exposing a puppy or dog to new environments and individuals in a way that the dog has a positive experience, creating a good association. However, dog parks are often overwhelming, if not terrifying, for some dogs. Hold off on the dog park until your dog is already well-socialized.

Ultimately, the choice about dog parks is up to you. But, as with every aspect of having a pet, if you choose to go to dog parks, do so with your eyes open.

Additional Note: It is quite common for dogs to become less social with new dogs as they mature. While your dog as a puppy or adolescent may have reveled in a trip to the dog park, you may see that, while they still enjoy a romp with a longtime friend, they become less interested or even intolerant of new dogs who want to play. If this becomes the case, it is time to put an end to dog park visits before that intolerance develops into a more defensive behavior.


Slideshow: Body Language at the Dog Park

Dog Parks

Puppy Socialization: Beyond the Dog Park

Puppy Play Groups


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