People often ask me, “Should I bring my dog to a dog park?” This is a topic of some debate and I think that there are too many variables under consideration to say anything absolute. I usually answer with a definite “maybe.” On the one hand, dog parks can be a great place for your dog to run free, interact with her own species and learn important social skills; a venerable “Shangri-La.” On the other hand, they can sometimes be hot beds of disease and hostile environments: the “Wild West.” It all depends on the park you choose, and if it’s a good fit for your dog.
I’ve been to a multitude of different dog parks, from Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Missouri and New Mexico. Each park has it’s own “flavor”; some extraordinarily and some dangerously awful. There are some common themes to both the good and the bad parks. So how do you know if the park you’re visiting will be a safe and fun experience for you and your dog? It’s as simple as “A. B. C.”
A – Attentiveness of the people. When you get to the park, watch what the other dog owners are doing. Do they have their heads buried in their phones? Are they not watching their dogs? I’ve seen where people drop the dog off at the park and then leave! Inattentive owners spells lots of trouble. First off, they won’t be cleaning up after their dog “goes”. Secondly, if their dog is acting out or is getting bullied by another dog, they won’t be aware of it. Not a good scene. On the other hand, if the people are watching their dogs play, they will be cleaning up after them and addressing any problems they quickly so that they won’t get out of hand.
B – Behavior of the dogs. How are the dogs in the park acting? Are there an unusual number of scared looking dogs hiding under the chairs or in the corners, with only one or two walking around? Is there a lot of growling and snapping going on? Do the dogs seemed stressed? Or do they seem happy and relaxed? Are they playing with one another? There will always be some dogs that are anxious, but what are the majority doing?
C – Condition of the park. How do the grounds look? While there will always be a stray poop or two at any dog park; if there are excessive droppings that is a warning sign. Also, what condition is the fence in? Are there holes, sharp edges or misaligned gates? If there are chairs or other equipment is it in decent shape, or are they falling apart or showing signs of neglect? If there’s grass, has it been mowed? If there’s dirt, mulch or gravel, is it evenly distributed? Also, be aware of holes that were dug. Many dogs will dig holes, but if the park looks like the surface of the moon that can be a injured leg waiting to happen.
Most of all, I think the best approach is to “go with your gut.” If you have a good feeling about the park, then go in and give it a try. If you get that feeling that screams “danger”, then seek out a different park or another activity. Trust your instincts.
If you do decide to go into the park, there are a few things you can do to make the experience more enjoyable and less stressful for you and your pup:
Avoid bringing any food inside. You cannot hide those treats from a dog’s nose, and you will be harassed by other eager dogs. You are also creating a competitive atmosphere, where fights can erupt.
Second, get your dog off the leash as soon as possible. Leashes create tension, as they make the dog that’s being restrained feel territorial or vulnerable. Unhooked, they have the space to run and are less “trapped”. This is especially important when you first enter the park, as that’s when all the dogs will rush to greet the newcomer.
Third, if your dog is being annoyed by another dog do not pick him up! That makes her a target for other dogs to jump on, and he and you can get injured in the process. The best thing to do is to get down to her level and “shield” her by holding her close to you. ***A word of caution here: if there is a fight or aggressive behavior, be extremely careful with this! You do not want to get bitten. This technique is only when the other dogs are just being overly pushy to get your dog to play, and not being aggressive. She’ll feel safe and the other dogs will leave her alone. This is why it’s so important to be attentive and to really know your dog. Before you do this, however, make sure she really needs you! She may just be having lots of fun.
Finally, try to remember that the dog park is a place for your dog to explore, socialize and just be a dog. Don’t hover over her too much. I know your instinct will be to protect her, but being a “helicopter” owner is not allowing her to be herself. Instead, be a good friend and if she comes up to you for reassurance, let her know you’re there for her.
I should also add that you shouldn’t be embarrassed of your dog’s behavior. If he doesn’t share toys, or ignores another dog’s request to play, that perfectly alright. Remember, he’s a dog, not a child, and his standards are different. Isn’t that what we appreciate about our dogs?
A good dog park experience can be one of the best things for your dog. It gives them the freedom to be themselves. They have a place that’s made just for them and allows them to be dogs. It’s also a great way to socialize your dog with both other dogs and people in an unrestricted and uninhibited way. This is real socialization, not the restricted “canned” social experience that he’ll get from puppy kindergarten where they are usually restrained and having to follow commands. Dog parks give your dog the freedom too grow and learn.
By the way, not all dogs like dog parks. My dog Cosmo never did, and that’s perfectly ok. I know many great dogs that don’t enjoy going. There are other fun things you two can do together. However, if it is something that you think the two of you would enjoy, find a great one and have fun!
I am very fortunate to live somewhat close to a terrific dog park. The people are attentive, respectful and friendly. The dogs all get along most of the time and are well mannered and well cared for. The park itself is pretty well maintained and looked after. It’s usually a fun experience for me and for my dogs. Do your research, visit parks in your area, and find a great place for you and your friend to go. Isn’t that what good friends do, they enjoy activities together?
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