Dog Park Behavior: What You Need To Know

Key takeaway

Dog parks are a great place for dogs so exercise, socialize, and work on their mental acuity. However, they can also be hot spots for diseases and canine aggression. Knowing whether you should take your dog to the dog park, how to prepare them for the dog park, and what to watch out for at the dog park can help them enjoy the dog park to the fullest.

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 safe, 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. 

26 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 good 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 and what to watch out for when you are at the dog park.

Benefits Of Dog Parks

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:

  1. 60 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 
  2. 39 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 
  3. 36 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 moderately 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. 

Benefits of dog parks

Disadvantages Of Dog Parks

However, 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 

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 act out.

Dog Selectivity Scale

Dogs are typically stereotyped as friendly and loyal, and in many cases, that is true. Dogs are highly social animals that tend to get along well with both humans and other dogs.5 

Domesticated from the gray wolf more than 10,000 years ago, the social structure of dogs is known as a pack hierarchy. Dogs can communicate with a combination of facial expressions, body positions, tail and ear movements, vocalizations, and even through scent.5 

However, just like some people are more shy and selective with who they wish to interact with, dogs have a scale of selectivity as well. With social dogs on one end and aggressive dogs at the other, your dog can fall anywhere in between and even change their position as they gain more life experiences. Knowing where your dog is on the selectivity scale can help you recognize how they may act in a social environment such as a dog park and how you can support them to be as comfortable as possible and stay away from harm. 

Dog selectivity scale

Social

A social dog genuinely enjoys interacting with other dogs and appears happy, relaxed, and trusting in most situations. At a dog park, a social dog may come up to your dog and ask them to play together even if it is the first time they meet.6 

Tolerant

Tolerant dogs are more neutral compared to social dogs. Rather than actively seeking out interaction, they may wait for other dogs to come to them. Tolerant dogs are polite when meeting new dogs and will do well playing alongside other dogs with good social skills.6

Selective

Selective dogs only get along with dogs they approve of and may have clear preferences that we as pet parents cannot decipher. When interacting with other dogs, selective dogs may require more support. They benefit greatly from a proper introduction and it is always a good idea to keep a close eye on them when they are with other dogs at the dog park.6 

Aggressive

Aggressive dogs do not like being approached by other dogs and may act out if greeted, even in a friendly manner. These dogs require proper training, introductions, and supervision to be able to behave appropriately at a dog park. Some aggressive dogs prefer no interaction with other dogs at all and it may be best to avoid the dog park all together.6

There are many factors that play into how sociable a dog is, including age, sex, individual experiences, environmental factors, and genetics. Knowing where your dog falls on the dog selectivity scale can help you come up with a plan for what training and preparations you need before heading to the dog park.

Preparing For The Dog Park

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 and ticks. 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 at the dog park. 
  • 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 going to the dog park, and bringing a sick dog to the park can negatively affect other dogs as well. 
  • Not too shy or nervous: A dog that is too shy or nervous may be stressed out at the dog park. Make sure to work through any issues before bringing your dog to the park. Not every dog wants to go to the dog park. Go on a walk instead if your dog experiences anxiety.
  • Not reactive or aggressive: To keep everyone safe, if your dog is reactive or aggressive, it may be best to stay at home until this behavior is changed. 

Times to avoid the dog 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.

Next, you may be wondering how to introduce your dog to the dog park you’ve carefully chosen. All dogs would benefit from a slow introduction, as the dog park you are taking them to is likely full of new sounds, smells, people, and dogs. Try to go to the dog park for the first time when not a lot of people are there. Walk about the perimeter of the park near the fence to get your pup used to the location. Introduce your dog to a few others and keep the interactions short and sweet. If your dog seems overwhelmed, listen to what they are telling you and leave. If they are content and relaxed, help them release energy by exercising or providing mental stimulation. 

Dog Park Tips

Even if your dog seems comfortable at the dog park after a few visits, always keep these tips in mind to ensure their safety. 

  • Practice recall: Recall is a very useful command that can keep your pup safe in a dangerous situation. 
  • 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, you can also pull them away from any potentially harmful interactions with other dogs. 
  • Watch out for aggression: You should work through any aggression before you go to the dog park. However, you still may need to watch out for aggressive behavior from other dogs at the park. Every dog has a different personality and threshold for tolerance, so watch out for signs of aggression to keep your dog away from danger. 
  • 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. 

Three dogs hanging out at the dog park

Final Notes

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. 

References

  1. "Dog park rankings for the 100 largest U. S. cities." The Trust for Public Land, https://cloud-tpl.s3.amazonaws.com/images/landing-pages/ccpf/2018/City%20Park%20Facts_Dog%20Parks%202018.pdf

  2. "Americans Agree Dog Parks Benefit Local Communities." National Recreation and Park Association, 5 Nov.2018, https://www.nrpa.org/about-national-recreation-and-park-association/press-room/americans-agree-dog-parks-benefit-local-communities/

  3. The State of Public Dog Parks Across The United States." Sniffspot, 11 Jul. 2022, https://www.sniffspot.com/blog/sniffspot-community/the-state-of-public-dog-parks-across-the-united-states.

  4. Rahim, Tissa. "Public Health Considerations Associated with the Location and Operation of Off-Leash Dog Parks." Journal of Community Health. 12 Oct. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5830495/

  5. Landsberg, Gary M. and Denenberg, Sagi. "Social Behavior of Dogs." Merck Veterinary Manual, Oct 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/normal-social-behavior-and-behavioral-problems-of-domestic-animals/social-behavior-of-dogs.

  6. Lowrey, Sassafras. "Understanding the Scale of Dog Selectivity." American Kennel Club, 19 Aug. 2022, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/understanding-scale-dog-selectivity/