Dog parks, friend or foe?
by Prescott Breeden

Risks and courtesies to make the Dog Park a fun and safe environment.


Dog parks appear to be a consistent source of controversy amongst dog owners and dog professionals.  Most professionals avoid the dog park like it was a dose of Parvovirus even though a trip to the park can be pure “doggie heaven” for your pooch.  The disappointing truth is that many factors can quickly add up to a damaging experience for the dogs instead of the fun canine social outlet that it should be.  The primary reason for this is that owners are perpetually bombarded with bad information.  Most of the information that’s readily accessible to owners is so caught up in anthropomorphic or wolf ideology that actual canine behavioral truths are few and far between.  In addition to owners having a lack of expertise in dog-dog interactions (do not confuse experience with expertise), the dog park has been flooded with dog walkers.  It is very common to see a dog walker with as many as eight to ten dogs, all with behavioral idiosyncrasies and all without enough individual attention.  With so many dogs at the park, problems can start spiraling out of control if owners do not have some basic behavioral understanding.  Here are a couple rules that every dog owner should know and respect before going to the park.

Rule 1: Do not have a dog on leash at the dog park.

In every trip to the dog park there is always at least one person with their dog on a leash.  This is a major issue because in general dogs that are on-leash do not cope with dogs off-leash.  If a dog has a problem with another dog, their standard tactic is avoidance, the flight response.  However if a leash is preventing them from flight, their only remaining option is to fight.  It is imperative that all dogs be off-leash at the dog park.  If a dog cannot safely be off-leash, then they have no business being at the park.  If you see a dog owner or dog walker with a leashed dog, it is important to ask that person to either take their dog off-leash or to leave the park.

Rule 2: Do not bring intact dogs to the dog park.

This rule applies to both males and females.  Bringing a dog that has not been spayed or neutered to the dog park is the equivalent of letting a teenager go to school with a loaded gun.  It doesn’t matter how well they play, the majority of aggression cases and bite statistics that come across the desks of canine professionals involve male intact dogs.  If you are at the park and you spot an intact dog, it is in your best interest to leave the park and return another time.  An intact dog is the indicator of an irresponsible or poorly educated owner, and either way they are a major red flag at the dog park.

(I have written an additional article pertaining to this rule thanks to some insightful comments from readers.  See article: “A response to my readers about dog park rules”)

Rule 3: Do not bring toys or food to the dog park.

Trying to tell an owner they should not play fetch at the dog park can be paramount to asking them to stop breathing.  The largest and most consistent problem in dog parks is the guarding of toys, food and people.  One of my last excursions to Marymoor Park was cut short when a Golden Retriever misinterpreted my dog’s desire to play as interest in their favorite Frisbee.  My dog, who doesn’t even play with Frisbees, was quite aggressively lunged at merely because of his proximity to the object (and were my dog a Frisbee fan, a fight would have likely ensued).  Dog parks are a place for dogs to socialize, not fight over treats and toys.  If your dog doesn’t particularly like socializing or playing with other dogs and would much rather play fetch with a ball, then they don’t need to come to the dog park.  It is a huge mistake for owners to think that all dogs need canine social interaction.  Many dogs are perfectly happy curled up in their owner’s feet or playing a private game of ball in the backyard.  Above all else, always respect the dog.

Rule 4: If there is a fight between dogs, do not reach in and grab a dog.

A massive amount of bite injuries come from owners trying to break up fights.  The ASPCA lists the best approach for breaking up a dog fight and can be found at the bottom of this link (http://www.aspcabehavior.org/articles/52/Choosing-Playmates-for-Your-Dog-.aspx).

Rule 5: Do not bring puppies to the dog park.

The dog park is not an appropriate place to socialize your puppy.  If you need a place for your puppy to play and socialize, numerous dog schools offer puppy play that is monitored by professionals in a safe environment.  Some dogs have no patience for the rude social behaviors of puppies and in some cases the result is a trip to the hospital.

Rule 6: Be responsible, keep alert for trouble, and always be moving.

Being a responsible dog owner entails respecting the needs of all dogs.  If another dog does not like your dog, it is inexcusable to let your dog bully them.  Keeping your eyes open for potential problems can be the difference between a trip to the hospital and a relaxing day at the park.  It is irresponsible to go to a dog park and sit on a bench to read a book or chat with your friend neglecting what your dog is doing at all times.  In addition, always keep moving.  The more you move around at the park, the more likely your dog is going to keep his eye on you and come when called.

In my experience, the smallest parks are the best parks to bring your dogs to.  I always advise against giant parks like Marymoor because the greater the number of dogs, the more likely a dog will be there that shouldn’t.  While the very best thing you can do is to arrange play dates for your dog, sometimes our schedules simply don’t mesh and the dog park is the simplest solution.  For those who adore the park and may have been breaking any of the rules I mentioned, I am not assaulting you or your habits.  Like I mentioned before, good information is hard to find and the purpose here is to educate, not chastise.

Remember the rules, be responsible, and always respect the dog.