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Since 2009, the development of public dog parks in the United States has increased by about 40 percent.1 According to research conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association, 91 percent of Americans believe that dog parks provide benefits to the communities they serve.2
Not only do they give dogs a fenced-in area to roam freely and interact with their friends, but they can also deepen the bond between owner and dog and even allow dog lovers to meet like-minded individuals in the area. However, despite all the good that dog parks do, there are a few caveats.
Twenty-six percent of dog owners believe other dog owners to be irresponsible with their dogs in public, and a shocking 15 percent of dog owners say their dogs have been attacked at a public dog park.3 These are worrying statistics that warrant introspection and call for change. Are dog parks safe for dogs? How can we, as pet parents, make dog parks a safe, welcoming, and pleasant place for both dogs and owners? How should we properly introduce our dogs to the dog park and other dogs? How can we prepare our dogs for the park?
There are so many questions to consider before taking your dog to the dog park. In this article, we will take a look at how dogs socialize and the factors that determine a dog’s sociability before we dive into some tips on how to prepare your dog for the dog park.
- Benefits of Dog Parks
- Disadvantages of Dog Parks
- Is Your Dog Ready for the Dog Park: Dog Selectivity Scale
- Dog Park Safety Tips
- Dog Park Alternatives
- Final Notes
Benefits of Dog Parks
Are dog parks good for dogs?As previously mentioned, there are many benefits to having a dog park in the neighborhood. According to research conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association, Americans consider the top three benefits of dogs parks to be:
Dog parks allow dogs to expel energy in a fenced environment
Sixty percent of dog owners believe dog parks to be a safe place for dogs to exercise and roam: From fenced-in playgrounds in the city to larger fields and tracks in the suburbs, dog parks provide an area where dogs can run around off-leash. As owners, we can keep a close eye on our dogs at the park and not worry about whether they will get lost.2
Dog parks facilitate socialization
Thirty-nine percent of dog owners believe dog parks allow dogs to interact and socialize: Your dog will be able to meet a variety of dogs at the dog park, ranging in size, breed, and personality. They may find a new friend, learn how to be more confident in themselves, or even figure out what types of dogs they would rather stay away from. Dog parks are especially good for households that only have a single dog, allowing the dog to hang out with friends of their own kind.2
Keep in mind that the socialization period for a dog occurs before 12 weeks of age. This process isn’t just dogs socializing with one another; it’s the process of exposing puppies to new experiences to increase their confidence and reduce the potential for a lifetime of fear or anxiety.
Dog parks increase physical activity for dogs and their pet parents
Thirty-six percent of dog owners believe dog parks allow them to be active alongside their dogs: Dog parks provide a large, open space for you and your dog to take part in a range of activities, especially if you live in the city and do not have your own backyard. From throwing frisbees to dog agility courses, you will be able to run and sweat alongside your dog.2 Playing with your dog gives you the opportunity to easily achieve a more active lifestyle, lowering the risk of hypertension, depression, and other lifestyle diseases.4
Of course, other than these physical and social benefits that dog parks can bring to both dogs and owners, they also play an important role in the overall satisfaction and social connectedness of the communities they serve.
Disadvantages Of Dog Parks
Are dog parks bad for dogs? They can be. While these fenced areas seem like the ideal setting for a dog to unleash their energy, there are also certain disadvantages to dog parks that can put your dog’s health and safety at risk. Ever since their introduction to North America in 1979, dog parks have always been controversial.4
Dog parks can be a breeding ground for a variety of transmittable diseases, transmitting from dog to dog and dog to human. In the fecal samples of dogs that visited multiple dog parks and were allowed off-leash, 25 percent contained Giardia, 15 percent contained Cryptosporidium, and 17 percent contained Cystoisospora.4 Parasitic infections were positively associated with dogs that visited multiple dog parks.
Many dog parks also have the problem of dog fouling, or the failure to remove dog waste, leading to falls, injuries, and again, the transmission of diseases. The soil of the park can also be contaminated by urine and feces.4
One in 7 dog owners report their dogs being attacked at a public dog park.3 Going to the dog park also exposes you and your dog to the potential of encountering an aggressive dog. Aggressive dogs that are let off-leash may engage in fights with other dogs or even bite and harm dogs and owners. If a dog is intact, they may also exhibit unwanted behavior.
Dog park behavior can be unpredictable. While you might know your dog and understand their behavior, you should be attuned to the body language of other dogs at the park. While many dogs are well-behaved, others aren’t. The dog park is not a controlled environment monitored by professionals, increasing your dog’s chances of running into a dog displaying inappropriate or even frightening behavior.
So, are dog parks safe? Even well-socialized, trained dogs can experience overstimulation at dog parks and become stressed, leading to potential altercations. Since you’re unfamiliar with other dogs and don’t know their temperaments, dog parks aren’t considered 100% safe.
In addition, you don’t have direct control over your dog while they’re in a dog park because they’re off-leash. If there is a dog fight, intervention can be difficult.
Risk of injury
Dogs are typically more energetic and excitable when they’re in a dog park, which could be excitement, overstimulation, or stress. This level of energy can lead to an increased risk of injuries and accidents. For instance, dogs running or chasing each other can run into one another, resulting in sprains, strains, and breaks. Large dogs can accidentally injure smaller dogs by running over them.
Additionally, since dogs can become overstimulated in dog parks, there’s an increased risk of bites that occur during play or fights.
May not be controlled enough for effective socialization
While dog parks provide dogs with the opportunity to spend time with their own species, they may not be the best place to socialize your puppy. Again, the critical socialization period happens before a puppy is 12 weeks of age. During this time, a very young puppy might not have had all their vaccinations, making them more susceptible to illnesses.
Even if your puppy has had all of their vaccinations, the dog park might not offer a controlled enough environment for effective socialization, which allows you to expose your dog to new and positive experiences, including other dogs, environments, people, and sounds.
While puppies can interact with dogs at dog parks, they’re highly unpredictable. You simply don’t know the dogs at the dog park well enough. For instance, an over-excited dog can cause your puppy stress and result in a negative experience, making them potentially fearful of other dogs for the rest of their lives. There’s also the risk of aggressive behavior at dog parks, which can have the same effect.
Is Your Dog Ready for the Dog Park? Dog Selectivity Scale
If you’re wondering, “Are dog parks safe for my dog,” you should always consider their temperament and whether bringing your dog to the park is safe for them and other dogs. Dogs are typically stereotyped as friendly and loyal, but that’s not always true. Every dog is different, and how they react to new places, dogs, and humans will vary. While some pet parents believe dogs have a “pack mentality,” it’s a myth.
While dogs descended from the gray wolf, domestication and selective breeding have forced a divergence in behavior from wolf to dog and between breeds.5 Therefore, there is no pack hierarchy in terms of domesticated dogs like many used to believe.
Instead, the social structure between dogs and other dogs or humans is a result of genetics, socialization, and learning vs. consequences.5 The socialization period, also known as the sensitive period, begins around 3-5 weeks of age and ends around 12 weeks of age, or around 3 months.5
Therefore, when you bring home a new puppy at around 8 weeks of age, they’ve already entered the socialization period, and you have a limited amount of time to improve their confidence by exposing them to positive interactions with other people, pets, and new environments.
If a dog misses the sensitive period and was not exposed to new people, places, environments, and other types of stimuli, or they had a negative experience during the socialization period, they’re more susceptible to fearful behaviors, which may include aggression.5
Like humans, dogs have a range of sociability — some are more selective about their canine companions than others. It’s crucial to acknowledge and respect their preferences to ensure the safety and well-being of all dogs, especially at dog parks. Dogs known for their high selectivity might find these environments overwhelming or stressful, and they should avoid dog parks.
Dog Park Safety Tips
If you decide you want to visit a local dog park with your pup, the first step is to determine if they are ready to go to the dog park. There are certain prerequisites your dog should meet before going to the dog park to keep everyone safe and healthy, including:
- Vaccinated: Your dog should be up to date on their vaccinations to prevent themselves and other dogs from contracting diseases such as rabies, distemper, and even fleas, ticks, and fecal parasites. Dogs who are too young to have all of their vaccines should avoid the dog park as well.
- Spayed or neutered: An intact dog may be more prone to exhibiting aggressive behavior towards other male dogs at the dog park. If intact females are at the park, this could also result in unwanted pregnancy.
- Knows basic obedience commands: Basic commands such as “stay”, “leave it”, and “sit” should be learned before going to the dog park. Training your dog to know these commands can help nip any unwanted behaviors at the dog park in the bud. Leash training and off-leash practice should also be conducted prior to dog park visits.
- In good health: Make sure your dog is feeling good and up for a nice day at the dog park. Watch for signs of discomfort and check if they are in any way acting abnormal. They may want to rest rather than go to the dog park, and bringing a sick dog to the park can negatively affect other dogs as well. You should also bring water and treats. Some dog parks have water stations, but they’re not always clean. Instead, prevent the need to share drinks with other dogs and bring your own.
- Bring supplies: Many dog parks have some supplies available to you, but others don’t. Even if you’re attending an off-leash park, make sure your dog is wearing their leash before you enter the dog park. In addition, your dog should wear a collar with an ID tag just in case they hop the fence and get out of the park. At the same time, you should always bring waste bags and clean up after your dog.
- Understand their temperament: Some dogs thrive in social settings, while others can become anxious or nervous. If your dog shows signs of fear or discomfort around other dogs, avoid dog parks until seeking professional advice on how to address their issues. Keep in mind that not every dog wants to go to the dog park. Go on a walk instead if your dog experiences anxiety.
- Find the right park: After making sure your dog can go to the dog park and benefit from it, take some time to find the right dog park that suits their needs. Take a close look at all the dog parks near you and figure out what amenities they offer, whether they are fenced in, and if they cater to a certain demographic of dogs, such as small dogs. This way, you can make the most out of your park visit and ensure you won’t have to leave as soon as you get there.
Once you arrive at the park, there are several important dog park safety measures to keep in mind to ensure your dog has a positive experience. Follow these tips for a safe and enjoyable time at the dog park:
- Always keep an eye on your dog: Monitor your dog to stop them from doing anything unsafe. You can also stop any unwanted behaviors as soon as you see them happen. By keeping a close eye on your dog, you can also pull them away from any potentially harmful interactions with other dogs. You should also inspect the environment for dog feces and hazards like broken fences and sharp objects that could cause serious harm.
- Watch out for fear and aggression: If you have a dog who has exhibited aggression, avoid the dog park altogether because it can create dangerous situations for your dog, other dogs, yourself, and other pet parents. In addition, you should be aware of other dogs that might display aggressive behavior. Not all pet parents are as cautious as you are. If you see any dogs acting aggressively, remove your dog from the situation as soon as possible.
- Be respectful: Always respect the boundaries of other dogs and their pet parents. Some dogs are simply tolerant of other dogs and don’t want to play with yours. You should never force interactions. Instead, ask owners for their consent before your dog approaches.
- Watch out for resource guarding: Toys and treats can make some dogs very possessive. Make sure your dog knows they have to share and practice commands such as “off” and “stop”.
- Reward your dog before leashing up: Praise your dog for following directions and leaving the park when they are told to create a good habit.
- Know when to leave: While your dog might be excited to spend time at the dog park, you should always know when to leave. If your dog becomes overly stressed or anxious, remove them from the park and let them calm down. You can let them re-enter the dog park if they remain calm. However, always be prepared to leave. Understanding your dog’s body language and trusting your instincts ensure your dog’s well-being comes first.
Dog Park Alternatives
Even with all the dog park safety tips in the world, these public spaces are not the right option for every dog or their pet parent. Your dog’s temperament, health, age, and your personal preferences will impact your decision on whether dog parks are a good idea for your dog.
Luckily, visiting a dog park isn’t necessary. There are ways to provide your dog with the same benefits as a dog park, and they come with fewer drawbacks. Some dog park alternatives include:
- Puppy classes & daycare: Puppy classes and daycare facilities provide a controlled, supervised environment for socialization and learning. These programs include supervised playtime with other dogs, training exercises, and activities.
- Playdates with familiar dogs: Organizing playdates with dogs of family members and friends is another way to control your dog’s environment while allowing them to socialize. Since you’ll only have to monitor one other dog, it provides a safer socialization environment that leads to a positive interaction.
- Running: If you’ve considered taking your dog to a dog park so they can get more exercise, consider running instead. You can start with shorter distances and build up your dog’s endurance slowly. In addition, you should determine whether running is a good idea for your dog. Some dogs have specific health conditions that may make them incapable of vigorous exercise.
- Hiking: Hiking is another option for getting your dog out in nature, especially if they can’t run. You can research dog-friendly trails and keep your dog on a leash, allowing them to remain under your control at all times.
- Agility training: Agility training is a great option for high-energy dogs. It teaches them how to navigate various obstacles like tunnels, weave poles, and jumps, providing both physical and mental stimulation.
- DIY enrichment: DIY enrichment is a cost-effective alternative to the dog park, and you can do it in the comfort of your home. DIY puzzles and games can provide the much-needed mental stimulation dogs need.
Are dog parks stressful for dogs?
Every dog is different. Dog parks can be stressful or enjoyable for dogs; it depends on your dog’s temperament. Because dog parks are filled with unfamiliar dogs, unsocialized dogs can have negative experiences, resulting in fear and anxiety. In addition, dogs can easily become overstimulated, leading to anxiousness.
What can dogs catch at the dog park?
There are several illnesses spread from dog to dog that dogs can catch at the dog park, including:
- Canine distemper
- Kennel cough
- Canine influenza
Before you go to the dog park, ensure your pet is up to date on their vaccinations, and use a year-round parasite prevention product to protect them at all times when spending time around other dogs and potential feces.
What is the safest place for dogs?
The safest place for dogs is a controlled environment among their pet parents or other professionals. One of the safest places for your dog is your home, where you control everything around them, removing hazardous items, securing fences, and ensuring controlled interactions between them and other dogs.
A fenced yard is also a fairly safe space for dogs. It provides them with the space they need to roam free and engage in activities like running and sniffing. However, a fenced yard isn’t always safe. If there’s another dog on the other side of the fence, it could result in a negative experience with dogs. In addition, dogs may be able to bite through the fence.
Controlled environments with professionals like trainers, behaviorists, and vets are also safe because you have access to resources. For instance, if you take your dog to training class, you have the benefit of a professional dog trainer who can help your dog work through any issues they might encounter.
There are many factors to take into consideration before taking your dog to the dog park. Dog parks can benefit dogs in a variety of ways, including mental, social, and physical stimulation, but may also come with the risk of infectious diseases and canine aggression. Make sure your dog is ready for the dog park in terms of vaccinations, spaying and neutering, basic training, and more before finding a dog park that suits them.Learn more about dog socialization, how to train dogs to stop barking, and panic attacks in dogs with Dutch. Dutch is an accessible, approachable resource for all pet parents. Does your dog have anxiety? Consult a Dutch licensed vet today.