Dog Parks: Outdated Menace or Tool for Socialization?
How to evaluate and use your local dog park to have a good time while avoiding conflict
Alot like TGIFriday’s, the social hub of the 90’s, dog parks used to be the secret socializing spot for dog lovers everywhere. Friends of Fido gathered in private fenced fields, formed their own social clubs, and developed an urban culture advocating for outdoor space for pooches in a time when dog culture had yet to reach its height. Now, though, pet owners are openly proud of their furry family members and most cities have multiple parks that are well-funded and publicly advertised for anyone to bring their pets to. In an age where many urban homes place a premium price on yard space, dog parks can also be the answer to the urban pet lovers exercise quandary.
In recent years, though, dog parks have taken on a reputation for being more dangerous than convenient. Most dog owners have at least one bad experience at their local dog park due to anything from poorly maintained fencing to irresponsible park goers. This is why it is important to evaluate your park space before you go in order to minimize the chance for altercations, de-escalate disagreements while you are there, and choose the best park for you and your furry friend.
Why Dog Parks Are Awesome:
At their core, dog parks have a lot to offer: in urban jungles they are often the only place to find wide open spaces for a rambunctious dog to run, they are the social hubs for local pet parents to meet and discuss common issues, they prevent the urban sprawl of subdivisions which destroys habitats for wild animals, and they create a valuable outdoor resource for communities to be proud of. However, there are more benefits to these green spaces than meets the eye.
Dog parks can be an excellent instrument in your socialization tool kit. They often offer a variety of surfaces to run on, from gravel, pavement, grass, crunchy leaves and woodland loam. These are not often found in many cities and can provide interesting tactile stimulation so dogs get used to unusual feelings beneath their paws. Dog parks also play host to multiple scents, not only from rival dogs but also stemming from their varied scenery (other wild animals, different plants and man-made items). They also offer physical stimulation through providing open space for your dog to run to their hearts desire. Many dog parks feature seamless fencing on their perimeter so you can unleash your pet.
Finally, dog parks are excellent environments to find social play groups. Not just important for other pet parents and trainers, socializing in a group is also important for dogs. When appropriately introduced to one or more dogs, visiting canines learn appropriate play behaviors, group interaction etiquette, games between dogs, and how to introduce themselves to a fellow dog in a variety of situations and temperaments. When in structured play with a knowledgeable trainer or guardian, dogs of different sizes can even learn to play in a healthy way without injury.
Human pet parents can learn how to interpret dog discussions too. While we may be familiar with the body language of a dog who lives with us or we socialize with every day, another dog’s body language can remain a mystery. By visiting the local dog park and monitoring the body language of other dogs who we may not be familiar with, we can learn what a tensed lip might signal or why a dog may approach another dog in an arc rather than head on.
If you are curious what conversations you may be missing between dogs (or you want to brush up on your canine vocabulary), check out the “Anatomy” section of Doggie Residence, which highlights what various body languages might be signaling.
When Dog Parks Go Bad:
Despite all the positive that dog parks can bring to your pets’ lives, they also bring with them a lot of unique dangers. Unlike when walking your pet on a sidewalk where you have a great deal of control of both your own and other pedestrian’s behavior, the dog park brings with it a certain amount of chaos. It is a complex environment with many changes to conditions from one moment to the next: in a park with multiple unleashed dogs of unknown training and temperament, a lot can go wrong.
The most practical of all dog park concerns is the ability for your pooch to pick up an illness or parasite. Many modern dog owners fully vaccinate their pups and provide flea, tick and heartworm medication, yet still find their dogs mysteriously fall ill after a visit to the local dog park. For instance, vets in Charlottesville, Virginia began warning dog owners to avoid local dog parks due to an outbreak of an unknown respiratory illness in August this year according to this Fox News article. While the 150 dogs affected in that outbreak did not suffer lasting harm, dog parks stand as being the perfect vectors for passing infectious ailments, especially if they offer an established watering hole.
Most concerning of all dog park dangers is the types of dogs (and owners) you may encounter when visiting. Many parks have established rules for expected dog behaviors for anyone who visits the parks, but no one is in charge of enforcing these standards. Unfortunately, this results in many inexperienced dog owners hearing that they should socialize their dog and immediately seek out a dog park, only to bring their terrified and fearfully aggressive dog into an environment they are neither ready for nor safe to be in.
While dogs do need socialization, many pet parents mistake the levels of socialization needed before bringing them into the potentially stressful environment of a dog park. When these poorly socialized, inattentively monitored dogs are brought to the dog park, they often escalate disagreements between their fellow dogs into violence. Many of the injuries that occur between dogs due to fighting in dog parks results from one or more poorly socialized dogs not having their body language monitored by their owners. Despite this danger, there are multiple ways you can avoid fights.
Evaluate a Dog Park to Minimize Risk:
Despite the possibility for your casual visit to the dog park to go wrong, these urban furry retreats offer a lot for potential visitors. The key is evaluating them in an effective manner. Here are the main tips to check on before bringing out your furry loved one:
- Visit alone before you bring Fido: It can get complicated when juggling an energetic pup while trying to think critically, leave the dogs at home on your first visit so you can take your time to walk through the whole area with no distractions.
- See if there is a behavior standard posted clearly: When you arrive, is there a sign in an easily visible place which outlines the rules and guidelines for visiting? Are the rules reasonable and cover all the common behaviors: pets must be fully vaccinated, pets must be under owner control (not necessarily leashed) the whole time, or owners must clean up after pets?
- Thoroughly check out the digs: Check the perimeter fence for gaps, see how clean the watering bowls are, see if there are human socializing points like picnic tables or chairs, and look for extra commodities like agility runs. Gold star dog parks should provide separate spaces for different sized dogs to keep play groups equal but are not always found. They may not be important for you, depending on your dog.
- Check to see if a waste system is provided: does the park provide doggy doo bags? Are there garbage cans readily accessible? Is the park littered with landmines, which can signal a poorly maintained area? Not just important for your shoes, this can be a good determiner to see how sanitary the park is and how likely your pet is to pick up parasites or infections.
- Visit with the park goers: Evaluate how alert the other pet parents are to the dog behavior, are they in a different area entirely or are they actively engaged? Have they been coming to this park for years or are they all newcomers? Do their dogs seem well adjusted and playing nicely or is it a recreation of Mad Max? How the dogs behave now is a good indication of how they will be when your dog comes around, so see if you would feel comfortable with letting loose with the pets already there.
Remember that not all dog parks were created equal, some may not be the best choice for your dog’s temperament or needs. While dog parks can be a valuable community resource for parents or trainers of overly-energetic dogs, not all parks will bring with them a tranquil experience.
By Lauren Pescarus