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Dog Parks: Merriment or Mayhem?

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

possibly aggressive dogs in dog park

In my last blog post, I described a fight that took place at my local dog park. Since then, I’ve witnessed an even more violent attack where two dogs belonging to one man latched on to another dog and literally tried to pull the poor dog apart. I’ll save you the trauma of the details. The dog lived, but it was horrific and is something that will stay with me for a long time to come. No doubt it will stay with that poor dog as well.

Most owners consider dog parks fun places to let their dog play with others while they socialize as well. Dogs, like us, are social creatures, and it can be fun for them to romp  and make new friends. But ask any professional trainer whether dog parks are a good idea, and we’ll advise you against ever attending one. Why? Are we killjoys? Worrywarts? Over-the-top protective of our and our clients’ dogs? Nope. We just know too much and have seen too much. We’re all too aware that when a dog is attacked, even if no grave physical injury results, there is damage in the form of serious emotional distress. That’s bad enough in and of itself, but it can also result in the dog becoming fearful of or fear-reactive toward other dogs. That can happen even if a dog isn’t attacked but is simply bullied, which happens constantly at dog parks. Imagine the cumulative and lifelong impact, especially on a young puppy.

I don’t have kids but I if I did, I can’t imagine I’d let them play with a group of assorted marauding kids of all ages and temperaments, especially without checking things out first. And yet that’s exactly what happens when someone blindly enters a typical dog park. More often than not, dogs run toward the newcomer, surrounding the dog, sniffing, jumping on, humping, or snapping at him. Welcome to the park! Even if there’s no overtly aggressive behavior, that forced attention can be overwhelming and some dogs don’t do well with it. There are also many dogs who, once inside, don’t find the experience fun at all. I’ve seen dogs hide behind their owners or climb or jump on their person repeatedly in distress, only to be told to go play. And I’ve seen many dogs who repeatedly target other dogs and bully them or get into fights over and over and yet are never reprimanded, because their owners aren’t watching, don’t realize what’s going on, or don’t care.

Now, I’m aware that there are some dog parks that are different. There are private parks that charge a membership fee, screen members, and have employees monitoring the action. I have no problem with those, assuming the monitors are knowledgeable and responsible and the operation is well run. Other parks are public but are so large that much of the tension is averted. Lastly, some people visit dog parks at such off hours that they barely encounter other dogs. These are not the scenarios I’m talking about. The vast majority of public dog parks, at least in the U.S., are not private, huge, or sparsely populated. Instead, it’s a free for all, with owners who range from being responsible and knowledgeable about dog body language and behavior to people who have absolutely no clue and/or just don’t care. Common sense is, unfortunately, anything but common. Given these facts, is it really worth it to expose your dog to others who could injure him physically or emotionally, along with possibly causing a lifelong fear of or reactivity toward other dogs? (There is also the chance of exposing him to disease as well, especially if he’s a young pup.) As trainers and behavior specialists, we are called in to address fear and aggression problems after the damage has been done. Behavior modification is time-consuming, can be challenging, and is an expense for the owner. Just imagine if, instead of exposing your dog to random dogs who might or might not play nicely or even be friendly, you set play dates for your dog as you would with a child. You meet, you screen, you arrange times, you monitor. Or, you find a well-run doggy daycare where everyone can be safe and happy.

I realize that some of you will read this and think I’m being overly cautious. Maybe you take your dog to crowded, unsupervised parks and have never had an unpleasant incident. You monitor your dog carefully and know your stuff. That goes a long way, but you can’t ever fully control the behavior of others, canine or human. You’ve been lucky so far. An acquaintance I had warned against dog parks early on when she got her pup recently relayed a story of how the pup was almost killed by another dog, and how she wished she’d heeded my advice. Sure, it’s all fine…until it’s not. And when it’s not, it may be too late. Please, please, please avoid typical public dog parks. As a trainer and behavior specialist, I would much rather have less business due to there being fewer traumatized dogs in the world. Our dogs give us their trust and unconditional love. Isn’t protecting them the least we can do? __________________________________________________________________________________ Don’t want to miss anything? Subscribe to the blog to be notified of new posts!

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