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My Love-Hate Relationship with Dog Parks and Why You Should Rethink Them, Too

I originally wrote this article a couple of years ago but have been having a lot of conversations about dog parks lately so I thought it was time to update it.

The first dog park in the United States was created in Berkeley, California, in 1979, by Martha Scott Benedict and Doris Richards. It was called the Ohlone Dog Park and is still in use today under its new name of the Martha Scott Benedict Memorial Park.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association, there were an estimated 1200 dog parks operating in the United States in 2015. The Trust for Public Land notes that off-leash dog parks are the fastest growing type of urban park, growing by 4 percent in 2015 and 89 percent since 2007.

That’s a lot of dogs in a lot of enclosed spaces that are self-regulated with varying degrees of success.

Dog parks don’t have employees who monitor the dogs’ behavior like doggy day cares do. They are meant to be self-regulated. You wouldn’t think that would be such a difficult task but when people abdicate that responsibility in favor of playing on their phone or socializing with the other humans or simply have wildly differing ideas of what constitutes appropriate dog behavior, things can get ugly.

I visited my first dog park in 2010 when I took my dog, Jake, to the Danehy Dog Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is where my love hate relationship with dog parks began. Dog parks can be amazing places to socialize both you and your dog and for your dog to get to run and play off leash with friends. That’s what happens when dog parks work well. The main factor in whether or not a dog park will be a great place for doggy fun or more like yard time at a super-max prison depends not on the dogs but on the people.

Why are some dog parks “bad”? Dog parks go wrong when the people don’t self-police the way they should. What you end up with is a bunch of dogs who’ve been crated all week and are now left to run crazy in the park while their human chats over a coffee on the bench or checks their phone. That was pre-COVID. A new issue cropping up at dog parks is that all the “COVID” dogs, who haven’t been appropriately socialized because of the pandemic, are showing up, getting over-stimulated and acting the heck out. Why is bringing a poorly socialized dog to the park or any dog but not paying attention to them during the visit not a good thing? Because it is a recipe for dog fights. Lots and lots of dog fights. My dog was attacked twice at our local dog park which is what ultimately made him dog aggressive.

Why do dog fights happen? Dog fights happen for a variety of reasons and with varying degrees of intensity. Here are some reasons why dog fights break out when dogs aren’t properly supervised:

  • Differing doggy play styles that lead to frustration (and fighting)

  • A dog who wants to play with a dog who doesn’t feel the same which can lead to frustration (and fighting)

  • A dog who is way too amorous for the other dogs which leads to frustration (and fighting)

  • A dog who is playing too rough which leads to frustration and even fear (and fighting)

  • A dog who is unsocialized and not reading the cues from other dogs properly which leads to frustration (and fighting)

  • Food and treats being handed out to some dogs but not others which leads to resource guarding (and fighting)

  • A group of dogs charging the entrance gate when a new pup tries to enter is a common dog fight scenario (overstimulation)

Do you see where I’m going with this? I don’t mean to make it sound like there is a war going on but dog fights can have serious repercussions for dogs (and people) even if the injuries aren’t that serious. The trauma of a fight can affect a dog’s behavior. The trauma of witnessing a fight can affect the behavior of witness dogs.

It’s not that dogs are all spoiling for a fight either. A fight is generally the final stage of a series of communication gestures that have gone ignored. Let’s say Dog A wants to play with Dog B but Dog B isn’t feeling it. Dog B walks away from Dog A to signal his no thank you. But Dog A is young and friendly and doesn’t have a lot of experience with other dogs yet so he happily follows Dog B around the park for a while trying to engage him in play. Dog A escalates his efforts from play bows to jumping on Dog B. Dog B escalates his “no’s” from walking away, to growling to….you guessed, starting a fight.

If the dog owners had been paying attention there were several opportunities to intervene. Owner of Dog A could have redirected his pup or left the park. The Owner of Dog B could have taken his dog for a walk instead so he wasn’t being pestered. Then there wouldn’t have been a fight at all.

When my Jake was attacked the first time, the owner had a muffin and gave a piece to her dog. Jake, a fellow muffin lover, strolled over to see if the woman was in a sharing mood. The woman gave Jake a piece of muffin and at the same moment her dog attacked him – resource guarding the food and perhaps his human as well. Jake was seriously injured and traumatized.

This incident happened not long after I adopted Jake from the shelter. As a brand new dog owner of my very first dog I didn’t know the danger Jake was in when he strolled over thinking about muffins or I would have intervened. I, like so many new dog moms, thought dog parks were just a fun place to bring my dog. Most people are not being irresponsible on purpose, they – like me in the beginning – just don’t know better. There is also often a huge gap between what some people feel is appropriate dog behavior and what other people feel is appropriate dog behavior. I’ve witnessed my fair of dog fights. I’ve been the owner of the attacked dog and of the attacking dog. I’ve had client dogs who have been attacked and others who have attacked and some, like Jake, who have been on both sides.

Bad dog park behavior I have seen:

  • I’ve seen people bring unspayed female dogs in heat.

  • I’ve seen people bring sick dogs to the dog park with no regard for the welfare of the other dogs.

  • I’ve literally seen worms falling out of a dog’s back end as he ran around the park.

  • People don’t scoop their poop either but that pales in comparison to all the other stuff.

What’s the solution for fights and other bad dog park behavior?

  • Easily accessible education

  • Clear and sensible dog park guidelines

  • Self-regulation meaning if your dog isn’t a good fit that day for the other dogs at the park, do something else. I always tell my clients to have a Plan B when heading to the dog park so if the vibe just isn’t right (too many dogs, too much barking, all big/small dogs and your dog prefers the opposite, etc.) don’t go in. Implement Plan B instead which can be as simple as taking a walk around the neighborhood.

Read on for tips on making the most of your trip to the local dog park.

Here’s some advice if you want to try out your neighborhood dog park.

Scope it out ahead of time without your dog. Are the people paying attention? Are dogs monitored if they are getting unruly? What’s the vibe you get from watching the park for 30 minutes or so?

Be willing to leave. If you’ve set aside an afternoon at the park with your dog and after a little while your dog seems stressed or the atmosphere seems to be getting tense, just leave. Your dog would much rather have a lovely long leashed walk with you that cower in a corner off-leash at the dog park.

Speak up for yourself and your pup. If someone’s dog isn’t playing appropriately with your dog, ask them to control their dog. If they can’t or won’t, again just leave. You are your dog’s best advocate.

Control your dog. Even if you see what your dog is doing as just playing but someone is concerned that its too rough for their dog, redirect your dog. Everyone has their own level of comfort around dog behavior and it’s important to respect that.

Dog parks can be great fun for both people and dogs. Just make sure you choose wisely, behave appropriately and leave if necessary.

If you haven’t already, download my free dog training ebook


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