Trainers frequently get asked (usually with a slight wince by the client) how we feel about the dog park. And the answer, honestly, is it doesn’t matter how we feel. It matters if the dog park is right for you and your dog or not. And that is very animal and family specific. This blog outlines some considerations in deciding if it is right for you and your dog.
Dog parks are absolutely an important amenity to any community and we would be better off with many more of them. They provide desperately needed socialization, exercise and enrichment to many dogs who would suffer psychologically and physically without it.
And it is not an exaggeration to say in many cases the dogs would end up doomed to a life of misery and instability because of the behavior problems that would develop without dog parks to meet their cardiovascular, social, and enrichment needs.
This does not, however, mean a dog park is right for every dog or every human. And it does not mean every dog park is good. Some of them suck. In fact, dog parks quality and benefits to the dogs and communities vary greatly.
So, here are some thinking points in determining if and which dog park you would like to try. It is important to note that even if you and your dogs are good dog park candidates, anytime dogs are off leash together there is the risk of a bite, fight, or illness transmission. It might be worth the trade off. Like human kids, even if they get hurt or sick, it’s still important to play. But it is important to know the risk exists.
I would strongly discourage bringing dogs under 6 months to a dog park. And absolutely not before they are fully vaccinated. Coming into contact with a sick dogs poop could make your puppy extremely sick.
After 4 months, many puppies are fully vaccinated. But 4 months is a bad age developmentally to introduce your puppy to a bunch of unknown dogs. It is the age they are “losing their puppy license” meaning older dogs will become much less tolerant of obnoxious behavior. But the puppy has not yet had enough social experience to learn appropriate social behavior. So it is a common time to get attacked.
Senior Dogs - Dogs instinctively hide pain (pack mentality). So your senior dog may be in more pain than you realize. So I would be very cautious for their comfort and how they may react in a group environment. We humans may drop an F bomb if we get hurt unexpectedly, your dog can’t swear. They are likely to bite instead.
2. Dog social experience
If your dog does not have social experience or you are not sure, the dog park is not the right starting/testing point. It may be too scary for your dog and there is a lot of bullying that goes on that owners don’t recognize or care about. And your dog or another dog may react with aggression resulting in a scary experience or injury. It is best to get your dog social experience with friends or family’s dogs or at a reputable daycare. THEN try the dog park with a more resilient and socially skilled dog.
3. Dog size
Some little terriers or Shebas love too, and are a good play match for large breed dogs. But aside from that, unless there is a designated small dog area, I wouldn’t bring most small dogs to a dog park. (Though people do it all the time with no problems, I wouldn’t.) There is a chance as the little fluff ball is running they could look like prey to a larger dog and trigger the predator instincts. The dog may target them. (This is called predatory drift). The odds of it happening are admittedly small. But just personally I wouldn’t risk it. I do let my small dogs socialize with large breed dogs that we know or at daycare. But I wouldn’t put them in a pack of unknown mixed size dogs.
4. Dogs Dog Sociability
If your dog tends to start or get in fights, they are not having a good time. And in some cases working with a professional trainer can help the dog enjoy dog/dog socialization. But honestly, in most cases if the dog really doesn’t enjoy it, you are better off finding other exercise and enrichment activities for them. It is harder on the humans. And that is why it is my life’s work to PRESERVE sociability in dogs. But if it is already gone, or never was there, don’t push it. There are other ways to get off leash exercise and enrichment.
Note 1: If your dog is very dog social but gets in fights due to resource guarding toys or other treasures, you could probably work through this with a trainer and continue to use the dog park. This is different from a dog not enjoying a dog social experience.
Note 2: It is pretty common for a dog's enjoyment of a group play experience to decline with age. (Similar to how a human's enjoyment of a loud crowded show or bar may decline with age). If your dog hits social maturity (9-24 months) and stops liking other dogs, it's OK. That is just how some of them are neurologically built. At that point their enrichment needs are still high but their exercise needs tend to decrease so your dependence on off leash play may go down anyway.
5. Dog General Health
One almost superpower of dogs is masking pain. So if your dog is not in good health for any reason (arthritis, cancer, ear infection etc) I would not advise bringing them into a pack of dogs. It probably is going to be uncomfortable for them and they may get hurt easily in an already sensitive area and react with aggression.
6. Human Age/Health
I don’t recommend bringing children to a dog park. I realize people do it and it is a hard thing when you are trying to meet your dogs and families needs. And in some dog parks that are large and spread out it might be OK. But I have a 10 and 7 year old who are extremely dog savvy and I even have them help me rehabilitate aggressive dogs. And no way would I have them in a dog park.
Large breed adolescents can easily knock a child over, and if they scream they sound like prey and may get attacked. And not every dog has been socialized to children. So not only does that mean the child may get targeted by a dog, the child’s presence may cause more tension and fights within the pack because some dog senses danger.
Because of the risk of getting knocked over by dogs running by or jumping, any medical condition where a fall could cause a serious injury means you are at a high risk in the dog park.
7. Human comfort level
Your dog can sense your muscle tension, and your breath patterns. They can even smell your nervousness. (When you are nervous your stomach produces acid and the dogs can smell it on your breath). So if you are not comfortable you are not going to be able to hide it from your dog. And it may put them on edge. This will affect their behavior and enjoyment of the park.
In conclusion, lack of opportunity for off leash exercise and enrichment for urban dogs is one of the biggest problems I see in my practice. And in some cases a dog park is the perfect answer. Sometimes it isn’t. Every family needs to weigh everything out and make a decision right for them.