“Don’t be cruel!” a woman called out (I think jokingly) as I walked my youngest dog through the park a few weeks ago. It was a weekend morning and there was a mix of leashed walkers and off leash dogs—mostly in a corner that those of us walking our dogs stayed clear of. There is this guilt that is perpetuated by dog park enthusiasts: Owners are made to feel that by protecting their dogs–and keeping them out of dog parks–they are being inhumane, when in fact the choice to not go to dog parks is anything but.
“She’s recovering from double knee surgery,” I called back with a smile. The woman took this as an acceptable “excuse” and followed after her young Vizsla (who didn’t look when she called his name). I didn’t tell her that even if we weren’t in surgical recovery, my dog wouldn’t have been off leash.
For urban dog owners, dog parks have become a way of life. They provide an option to exercise dogs, an outlet to make up for the long hours owners spend away at the office or for living in an apartment without a yard. Dog parks have become expected amenities across the country, found everywhere from big cities to suburban neighborhoods. Private dog parks are even becoming common in upscale apartment communities, and in some dog friendly workplaces like Amazon and Google. As popular as they are, every time I hear about a new one I cringe–because they are actually extremely dangerous places for dogs!
I often hear people say that they want to take their dog to the park in order to socialize them, but I can’t think of a worse place to socialize your pet. Socialization is important not only for puppies (when it’s developmentally essential), but also for dogs throughout their lifetimes. It’s how we teach them to properly interact with other dogs, animals, people, and the world around them more generally. Yes, dog parks are a place to socialize your dog, but probably not in the way you are intending to. Dog parks are like inviting a group of playground bullies to teach an etiquette lesson… Not very ideal.
Dog parks are unfortunately mostly populated with two kinds of dog guardians:
- LAZY owners. Those who let their dogs loose at the park and then proceed to drink coffee, talk on the phone, answer emails or play games on their cell phones, or flirt with other dog park parents. Basically, doing everything and anything but managing their dog, the one thing that they should be doing in a dog park.
- GUILTY but well-meaning owners. Those who feel bad that they don’t have a big yard and/or lots of free time to spend with their dogs, and have been duped into believing that the only way to ensure their dogs have a quality life is by letting them play at the park.
Contrary to cultural mythology, dogs aren’t actually pack animals, and even if they were, there is nothing natural about throwing a group of random dogs together. If you spend any amount of time at a dog park, you’ll notice that fights are common. Everything from small skirmishes to the kinds of fights that land your dog (or you) in the hospital. Some dog park fights are even fatal.
In addition to the issues that arise from poor guardianship and fights, dog parks are more likely than other types of play to cause lasting and serious physical orthopedic injuries. I’ve known orthopedic surgeons and other orthopedic specialists who joke that dog parks are a major part of what keeps them in business! Rough dog park play is not why my youngest dog needed bilateral (double) knee surgery, but if you have the power to reduce the risk of major orthopedic surgery, your wallet will thank you. Similarly, I’ve never met a dog trainer with any kind of experience who encourages clients to take their dogs to dog parks. Most dog professionals know just how dangerous and stressful these situations are to dogs, even if people find them a lot of fun.
I meet a lot of people who feel bad or even guilty that their dog doesn’t enjoy dog parks or isn’t social enough to be safe at the park. There has been a pop culture obsession with the dog park. In reality, dogs don’t need to go to a dog park to live enriched and active lives. In fact, what your dog wants most of all is to spend time with you! A far better use of your time together is to actively engage your dog on a walk or hike together. You can do sniffing walks where you let your dog pick your route and dictate the pace of the walk. One of the most enriching things you can do with your dogs is to spend time together working on new and fun skills like trick training. There are an array of dog sport training classes that you and your dog can participate in together.
Have a dog who actively enjoys playing with others? Set up playdates with other dogs they know, or who are well matched in size and play styles. This is a much safer way to provide your dog with the opportunity to socialize and play with other pups.
If you aren’t going to heed my warning and want to take your dog to the park, there are ways you can make the situation safer:
- Always obey signage.
- Don’t let large dogs in small dog play areas.
- If you see a fight or other skirmish happen, remove your dog from the area.
- If you see other guardians not paying attention to their dogs, leave.
- Similarly, make sure you have the time to focus all of your attention on your dog while at the park.
- Keep your dog leashed until you are in the designated off leash area. Part of being a good canine citizen is obeying leash laws.
Finally, I would ask you to really consider if your dog enjoys their time at the dog park—or if you’re going because you think you (and they) are supposed to. If you’re going because you like it more than your dog does, or because it seems like the easiest way to manage having a dog with your other work/social/family commitments, you may want to consider a different way to enrich your dog’s day. Just remember that for every dog who actually enjoys being at the dog park, there are many more that at best tolerate it, and at worst find it stressful.