Author: Anne Handschack
For many dog owners, dog parks are a godsend: They provide a safe, enclosed space to let their high-energy dogs run and wrestle. If a dog does not come when called or is an independent breed like a Husky, a dog park can be the only safe place to let the dog get off-leash exercise.
But dog parks come with downsides as well. Interactions between dogs may escalate into fights and the charged up energy of a group of dogs can quickly change into a serious fight.
Let’s look into whether or not you should bring your dog to dog parks – and how to determine whether your local dog park is the right place for your dog.
Not all dog parks are bad
Among my dog trainer colleagues, many condemn any dog park outright. This is not my own point of view. Dog parks can be good under the right circumstances. A good dog park has:
- Plenty of space
- A safe surface for running (ideally sand, wood chips or grass)
- A set of “regulars” – dogs that visit daily or weekly
You should always pick a spacious dog park. The bigger, the better! Squeezing two dozen dogs into a tiny, 2000 square feet park is a recipe for disaster. Instead, try to find a large park that allows dogs to get space from one another.
Some dog parks unfortunately still use concrete or gravel as a surface. This can seriously injure the feet of dogs that are running wildly and playing. Your dog’s paw pads may get roadburns or become raw. Another danger with gravel parks is that a dog that likes to fetch will pick up and swallow little pieces of gravel every time he gets the ball. These can accumulate in his stomach and cause serious medical problems.
Every time a new group of dog plays together, they have to “figure each other out”. The more unknown dogs your dog meets at a park visit, the more intense and potentially stressful the visit will be for him. If you can find a park that is frequented by “regulars”, it will go a long way towards making your dog more comfortable there. You should avoid parks that have groups of new dogs there every day – instead, aim for parks where your dog has a set group of friends that he knows and likes.
Not all dog parks are good
Some dogs should never visit dog parks, and some dog parks are outright dangerous. You should refrain from taking your dog to a park if he:
- Has shown reactive or aggressive behavior in the past
- Has resource guarding tendencies
- Is an intact adult dog
If your dog has reacted negatively towards other dogs in the past, chances are he will show this behavior again when put into a group of playing dogs. If you notice that your dog park is frequented by owners who bring their own reactive dogs there, you need to absolutely stop going. It will only be a question of time until a fight breaks out.
Some dogs show resource guarding tendencies regarding their owner or their toys. Your dog may snap at other dogs when they come too close to you or a toy you brought. While such behavior is pretty common, it has no place at a dog park. If a dog at your dog park shows resource guarding, do not go there.
In the US most adult dogs are spayed or neutered. Some owners choose to leave their dogs intact. Fights frequently break out between intact dogs and spayed or neutered dogs. Intact females tend to be more “edgy” and snarly, while intact males have a definite dominant trait. This can lead to a lot of problems in a dog park. If your dog is intact he should not go to a park, and if a dog at your local park is intact you should refrain from taking your own dog there.
Understanding dog park energy
Being able to read the energy level at a dog park will go a long way towards recognizing early signs of trouble and preventing escalations between dogs.
Generally, the more dogs are in one spot and the more excited they are, the higher the chance of an approaching fight. A “safe” dog park energy would be dogs walking around and sniffing or individual dogs playing together.
If a large group of dogs is barking, running, posturing or wrestling, chances are that the friendly energy between them will quickly change into a more serious one. In this case it is best to call your dog away from the group of dogs and leave the park for the day.
Certain types of dogs are likely to bring out intense emotions in other dogs. These are usually dogs that have a high body tension, square body built, erect ears, short coat and/or a high tail set. The typical breed examples for this are Huskies or Belgian Malinois. Even if the dog is friendly and playful, his appearance is likely to edge other dogs on. Parks that have many dogs that fall into the mentioned category have a much higher incidence of fights.
Dogs that are less likely to cause fights are breeds with low body tension, floppy ears, longer coat and a lower tail set. Doodle crosses (like Bernedoodles), Dachshunds or Beagles are typical examples.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not dog parks are a good choice for your individual dog will depend on the park itself, the other dogs visiting it as well as your own dog. A spacious park that is frequented by a set of regulars can be a great place to take your dog.
Small parks with constantly changing groups of dogs should be avoided – the risk of escalation is too high.
You should always supervise your dog at a dog park and assess the energy level of the dogs playing. Certain breeds are more likely to cause other dogs to become reactive and you need to be mindful of that. A park with ten Huskies has a much higher chance of a dog fight breaking out than a park with ten Bassett Hounds.
You know your dog best – use your own judgement to determine if your local park will work for him or not!