What is it about this ever present attraction to dog parks? Clients ask me all the time about where to find one, if they are safe, etc… Whenever I am asked, I always feel a slight raise in my heart rate. Why? I’m going to go on record right now and state that I am NOT a fan of public dog parks. Yes, they are fenced and secure. Yes, many dogs enjoy the social, active interaction with other dogs. HOWEVER, the unfortunate truth is that if you wait long enough, something BAD is going to happen. You can bet on it.
I have personally witnessed some dangerous dog fights at public dog parks and can cite many horror stories about serious negative physical, emotional and financial consequences of these fights. Here is my top 10 reasons to avoid dog parks (not listed in any particular order):
- Fluctuating Social Dynamics of Dogs: Public dog parks allow any licensed and vaccinated dog to participate. There is always a ‘revolving rotation’ of dogs that come and go, throughout a given day. The daily social dynamic of dog interactions is different at all times. Any new dog that enters, can disrupt the social hierarchy that has been established by the other dogs already present. This creates constant flux and confusion for dogs and also creates anxiety and frustration levels to escalate quickly into negative confrontations.
- Biased and Uninformed Dog Owners: Dog owners, are by nature, similar to parents in that everyone believes their dog is ‘perfect’---i.e. well behaved, friendly and social. Most pet dog owners cannot or do not choose to acknowledge their dog’s imperfections and are extremely tolerant of poor social behaviors that their dog may show in a dog park setting. Also, in my experience, if you confront an owner about their dog’s poor behavior, they are likely to be extremely defensive and unable and unwilling to listen to your concerns or address the poor behavior.
- Poorly Socialized Dogs: An unfortunate high percentage of pet dogs have had minimal to no formative socialization with other dogs. They’ve lived the majority of their life with humans and/or with perhaps 1-2 other dogs. They may have never been around other dogs and lived alone in a back yard. Many pet dogs have not been taught proper social behavior around dogs---especially strange or assertive dogs. They have not been taught the universal dog language about avoiding conflict and calming signals to ease anxious social dynamics, which is intuitive to dogs that have had good formative socialization. These un-socialized dogs often wreak havoc at dog parks. Acting dominant, insecure, anxious, frenetic and even aggressive. Their behavior will, in turn, create conflict and anxiousness in other dogs, even ones that have been well socialized. This is a recipe for disaster.
- Dog Owner Motivation: I frequently hear clients comment that their dog “NEEDS” to be with other dogs and have play time. While it is true that many dogs are social creatures that enjoy interaction with other dogs. The truth is many dogs do NOT prefer the company of other dogs and when forced to engage with other dogs, they become stressed and fearful. It is the human desire to see their dog be social, for no other reason than they ‘think’ or ‘have heard’ the dog needs it. Yet the dog has no desire to be in that situation!
- Sharking: “Sharking” is a term used to describe when one or more dogs will gang up aggressively on another dog. I’ve seen even normally friendly dogs become aggressive toward another dog that is being bullied or aggressed upon by another dog. This is all too common at dog parks. A dominant dog will begin bullying a more submissive dog and it may escalate to aggression. Once the aggression starts, other dogs in the area will also join in and aggress, as their instincts kick in to do so. It is incredibly dangerous and ugly to watch.
- Liability: Most city dog parks have posted signs that clearly indicate the city is not liable for any injury or illness that may occur in the park. If your dog is attacked and injured, you would be liable for any costs. You may try to demand the other dog owner pay for damages in small claims court, but frequently dog owners will slip away and leave you with the burden of paying for costly vet bills.
- Personal Danger: What do you do if your dog is in involved in a dog fight? Do you rush in to separate the dogs? Do you do nothing but watch? Each year thousands of people are bit while trying to break up dog fights. It is entirely probable you may be grievously injured in your attempts to intervene.
- Unsanitary Conditions: Any situation where multiple dogs gather can increase the potential for communicable diseases and illness. I’ve witnessed some very unsanitary dog parks, with stagnant water in un-sanitized bowls, abundance of fecal matter on the ground and un-sanitized dog toys that have been mouthed by hundreds of dogs. Even vaccinated dogs may be exposed to the following: Parvo, Distemper, Kennel Cough, Leptospirosis, intestinal parasites, blood parasites and fleas.
- No escape: Most public dog parks are enclosed with a fencing system. This keeps dogs in, but can escalate anxiety for dogs. If a dog is being bullied, he has no place to run and hide. It is well known that open space dog run areas have less fights and conflict between dogs. Dogs are able to get away if necessary and avoid bullying and conflict. There is no escape in a fence dog park.
- Bad Behavior can be contagious: As I stated earlier, dogs have an innate ‘pack mentality’. When they get around other dogs, they are more likely to mimic other dog’s behaviors. It is entirely probable if you dog spends enough time at a dog park, he is going to start displaying unwanted behaviors that he learned from other poorly behaved dogs. Typical behaviors that may be mimicked include: barking, jumping up, playing keep-away, nipping, sharking, aggressive play.
What are safe alternatives to dog parks? Here are my favorites:
- Create your own private play group, with other KNOWN FRIENDLY DOGS! Pick a safe, secure area where the dogs can interact in a positive and safe manner. Carefully screen any new addition to the group.
- Let your dog attend a licensed ‘doggy day care’ center that is run by professional trainers who are qualified to identify and address poor social behaviors in dogs. Make sure they allow you to observe your dog in the group play sessions to ensure the professionals are doing their job.
- Never mind the dog park! You should play with your dog!! Our dogs should receive the lion’s share of care and entertainment from us. Take your dog for a leisurely walk. Throw him a ball in the yard. Take him to the beach. Teach him some fun games or enroll in a dog agility or rally class. If you dog gets the physical and mental stimulation he needs, he certainly doesn’t need to go to a dog park.
As always, please keep your dog safe and happy! This is the best thing you can do for your best friend!