Making the Right Call When it Comes to Dog Parks

Dog parks are popular destinations for many dogs and their owners.  However, these off-leash areas are not ideal for all pets or situations.  Here, the good and bad points of dog parks are discussed in an effort to help educate dog owners.

What is a Dog Park?

A dog park is an area where animals are permitted to roam off-leash.  This can be a sanctioned dog park, such as one that is maintained by the city, or simply an area where dog owners gather with their pets to play.  

Benefits of Taking your Dog to the Dog Park

The benefits of taking your pet to the dog park are diverse.  If you and your pet live in an apartment or are otherwise short on yard space, a dog park provides a wonderful opportunity for your pet to stretch his or her legs and exercise.  In addition, dog parks are a great meeting area for both animals and humans alike, providing a chance for socialization.  

Drawbacks of Dog Parks

Unfortunately, there are a number of limitations when it comes to the dog park, many of which can lead to behavioral problems and general stress for both dog and owner.

Aggression is a top concern when dogs are allowed unstructured playtime in an uncontrolled setting.  There are many types of dog aggression, each of which is possible at the dog park.  

Dominance aggression can occur when two dogs struggle to determine their hierarchy over one another and the owners do not diffuse the situation accordingly.  

Dogs with different play and/or greeting styles can cause a dangerous situation.  For instance, some pets prefer calm, drawn out greetings, while others have a tendency to immediately pounce on the nearest animal.  When two differing dogs greet, the animal that prefers a more subdued introduction might snarl or snap in an effort to ask for personal space.  This behavior, in turn, can be misinterpreted by the more energetic dog, leading to retaliation.

Fear aggression can occur if a dog becomes stressed and uncomfortable at the dog park, but the owner does not step in and “save” the animal.  If the signs of stress are not noticed (i.e. trembling, whale eyes, tail between the legs, appeasement behaviors), the next step a dog will take is to seek space by growling, snapping, or snarling.  Over time, dogs can learn to default to these behaviors both at the park and at home when feeling uncomfortable.  

Training Regression
Everyone has seen – or even experienced – the owner at the dog park who tries to recall his or her dog, only to have the pet play a long game of keep away.  The dog park can result in training regression in one of two ways.  For instance, dogs can observe the bad behaviors of other pets, and then mimic those behaviors at home.  In other instances, dogs will engage in bad behaviors, such as the game of keep away described above, which are inadvertently reinforced.  For this reason, it is recommended to only take well-trained and reliable animals to off-leash locations.  

Undesirable Behaviors
When dogs are in a pack of animals they can behave differently than they do at home.  Resource guarding can become a real problem.  For instance, your dog might view you as a resource, and become uncomfortable when other dogs draw near.  In addition, balls, toys, or treats can cause undesirable behaviors to surface if your dog feels the need to protect them as his or her own.  

Allowing your dog to spend time with other animals off-leash is great for their socialization skills.  However, it can also create problems.  A dog that spends a lot of time at the dog park may not understand why, when walking on a leash, he or she is not allowed to visit other dogs that pass.  This can create leash frustration, where the dog will lunge and bark out of frustration that he or she cannot say hi to a potential new friend.   

Inappropriate Playgroups
One reason that dog parks can be dangerous is because there is no policing of dog age, size, personality, or play style.  Instead, all dogs fall into one large pack, even though they might not be compatible playmates.  Therefore, a large, young, exuberant dog that plays rough might be intimidating to a small, submissive, senior dog that prefers calm play.   Inappropriate playgroups can result in misunderstandings among dogs, and, ultimately, dogfights.  

Sensory Overload
The dog park is akin to an amusement park for children.  However, when dogs enter into a state of sensory overload, they become overly aroused and unable to calm down.  This arousal can lead to inappropriate and uncharacteristic behaviors, and ultimately a dog that is difficult to control.  

Finally, dog parks can result in physical and emotional trauma for your pet that can be difficult to overcome.  When a dog has a negative experience – such as being involved in a fight – the animal might avoid dogs in the future.  Reversing the trauma often involves a lengthy period of desensitization and training, which is both costly and frustrating.  

Choosing a Dog Park
When choosing a dog park for your pet, there are a number of features you should look for in order to have the safest experience possible.

All entrances and exits should have double gates for safety.  The fencing should also have shielding that prevents the dogs already in the park from seeing other animals that enter.  Dog parks should preferably have multiple entrances so that dogs do not congregate in front of a single entrance.  

The park should be at least an acre with multiple geographic features that reduce the possibility of dogs running at one another full speed.  For instance, trees, hills, and lakes are all strategic components within a park.  Agility obstacles or structures are also useful for providing scared dogs areas to hide.

Dog Park Tips
When taking your dog to the park, there are numerous ways to make your trip successful.  Do not enter the park if a pack of dogs is congregating at the entrance, as this situation can make greetings and introductions tense.  

Watch your dog at all times, and interrupt your pet if his or her play style becomes too aggressive, hyperactive, or intense.  If necessary, move around the park with the pack in order to provide utmost supervision.  

If your dog is showing signs of fear, anxiety, or is bullying other animals, pack up for the day and head home.  

Finally, leave toys and treats at home in order to avoid resource guarding issues.  


The above should be used for reference and the final decision is made by you, but I do not recommend taking your dog to any park of day-care as the potential for issues to arise to too great and hours of training can be washed down the drain. However, if you must, use the above guidelines to help with your visit.

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