Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

GrinRecently, a woman took her dog to the dog park for some fun and exercise. She envisioned him frolicking with other dogs and coming home happy and tired. Instead, the poor dog came away needing surgery to save his life, along with more than 10 puncture wounds. I saw the photos; suffice it to say they were both sickening and heart-wrenching. Just a few days later, another woman posted on Facebook about an encounter at the same dog park. Her dog had been attacked, had suffered serious damage to a limb, and needed to be rushed to the vet. The owner of the other dog refused to acknowledge that her dog had done anything wrong, and fled the scene.

Fortunately, both of these dogs will recover—physically, at least. As anyone who has ever suffered a bodily assault knows, the toll goes far beyond physical injury. The extent of emotional damage to any dog who has been attacked depends on the seriousness of the attack and on the temperament of the individual dog. For some dogs this type of encounter can, understandably, result in a fear of other dogs. And as any trainer worth her salt knows, that can translate to fear-based reactivity, which most people call aggression.

Does every encounter at a dog park result in physical or emotional damage to dogs? Of course not. But you might be surprised at how many dogs are having no fun at all, despite what their owners might think. When I was putting together my seminar Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play (for DVD click link), I needed lots of video of dogs playing. One of the places I spent time at was our local dog park. I filmed hours and hours of various breeds and sizes of dogs playing together. Although I was already aware that some dogs enjoyed playing more than others and that some encounters were definitely not positive, when I reviewed the footage in slow motion, I was shocked. Sure, there were examples of safe, non-threatening play. But there was also a myriad of instances in which dogs were practically traumatized as their owners stood by, totally unaware. One example comes instantly to mind: Within seconds of a man and his medium-sized mixed breed dog entering the park, the dog was rushed by other dogs who wanted to inspect him, as is typical in any canine group. But one of the greeters clearly scared the newcomer, who then lunged and snapped. The owner gave his dog a verbal warning for that defensive action and kept walking deeper into the park. Another dog approached and this time, with his tail tucked, the dog snapped and lunged more intently. The owner grabbed him by the collar and chastised him. Over the next five minutes, the dog had four more encounters that resulted in his being punished by the owner, each time more harshly. It would have been clear to anyone versed in canine body language that the dog was afraid, and was becoming more and more reactive because he was on the defense. It was difficult to stand there filming, and I considered aborting to go and speak with him. Just then, a woman who was a regular there approached and struck up a conversation with the man. Thankfully, she was able to convince him that his dog was scared and to leave the park. I’m sad to say that this was far from being the only negative encounter I filmed. More importantly, this sort of thing happens daily at dog parks across the world.

By now you’re probably thinking, Gee Nicole, how do you really feel? The thing is, I’ve seen the flip side as well. I’ve watched a group of ladies who meet at the park most mornings with their dogs. They’re savvy about canine body language, and although they enjoy socializing with each other as their dogs play, they constantly monitor the action. If play begins to become too heated, they create a time out by calling their dogs to them for a short break before releasing them to play again. In this way, they prevent arousal from escalating into aggression. The dogs all know each other and for the most part get along well. I have absolutely no problem with this type of scenario. Unfortunately, it’s far from being the norm. The typical scene at a dog park includes a random assortment of dogs whose owners range from being absolutely ignorant about dog behavior to being well informed, with most of the population falling somewhere in the middle. And why not? They’re not dog professionals, but loving owners who simply want their dogs to get some exercise and have a good time. In most cases, they’re not aware of the subtle or not-so-subtle signals that could indicate danger, or even that dangers exist. Comments like, “Ah, they’re dogs, they’ll work it out,” and “Oh, he’s fine” abound. It’s strange if you think about it: if you were the parent of a young child, would you send him in blindly to play with a group of kids that possibly included bullies and criminals? Wouldn’t you at the very least stand there and observe the play for a few minutes before allowing him to join the fray? If you did allow the child to participate, would you not keep an eye on him and leave if you felt there was a potential threat? And yet, at the dog park, the majority of owners never do those things.

In the best of all worlds, there would be mandatory education for dog park attendees as well as a knowledgeable staff member or volunteer at every park to monitor the action and to stop dogs who are known to be aggressive from entering in the first place. Perhaps a membership model would make this possible. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. And so, it falls to we owners to be advocates and protectors for our dogs. That means if you absolutely insist on taking your dog to a dog park, that you scan the environment before entering, that you monitor your dog’s play even while chatting with other owners, and that you intervene even to the point of leaving if necessary when you feel something is not right, even if that means facing social ostracism. Personally, I prefer play dates with known quantities rather than a park full of potential aggressors who might do serious physical or emotional damage to my dogs. If I do take mine into the dog park to run around, it’s during off hours when the park is empty. You might find this over the top or even paranoid. That’s okay. If you heard all of the stories I’ve heard over the years and seen all of the damage I’ve seen, you might think twice about whether dog parks are worth the risk.
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27 Responses to Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

  1. C.E.Robinson says:

    Great post! I tried the dog park route when Sammy was younger. One outing was enough. The dogs were unruly and some aggressive. We left and never went back. It worth trying others. Sammy has a “brother“ Charley now and gets enough socializing. 🍁🍂 Christine

  2. We took Maggie to a park where we knew other owners walked their dogs. We could not have worked it better as she seemed to meet all kinds of canines, starting with the smallest, a Yorkie, and ending with a trio of newfoundlands! None were aggressive, all owners respectful of others and their dogs, and it was a great way to socialise her.
    We were lucky, as no dogs were running amok unsupervised that particular day. It doesn’t always work out like that though. I;m glad the two injured dogs in your post are OK, but as you say, the trauma goes beyond the physical injury and they don’t forget. A neighbour close to our friend where we were staying has a westie which was attacked by a black and white dog when it was a puppy. Maggie was always ‘charged upon’ so we kept her away.

    • Leni says:

      I am afraid to risk taking my dog to a dog park as she is a runner. She loves to play with other dogs but as she is quite dominant she plays rough. I think I will keep her socially active with my daughter’s dog who is the same as her.😊

      • This is the beauty of knowing our dogs though isn’t it, we can keep them safe, we can let them play, but we know when they tend to get carried away. Maggie has a blind side and can ‘turn’ in warning rather than aggression. We know this, are wary and warn other owners accordingly, just in case.

  3. Jan says:

    well said. totally agree

  4. Anarette says:

    Same here, we don’t go to dog parks anymore and organize playdates instead.

  5. bronny1 says:

    i’m curious as to what you call a ‘dog park’. Here in NZ we do have dog parks but we also have other areas such as beaches and parks where dogs are allowed to be exercised off leash. We don’t go to designated dog parks mainly because they are not convenient andmy dog LOVES the beach (though she doesn’t love all other dogs), so we mostly go there. Dogs are loose but have not come across any that i feel should not be there because they are aggressive – though there is a very submissive spoodle type dog that we see occasionally who gets picked on constantly and we wonder why her mum takes her. I know quite a few of the dogs at this beach and a number are mixed breeds adopted from my local shelter. Owners generally walk up and down the beach watching their dogs and chatting to each other. My dog gets a bit growly if she feels surrounded so if there are dogs milling around i tend to call her through and keep walking which she seems to appreciate.

    Another beach in a different part of town apparently has more issues.

    Is this different to what you think of as a dog park?

    • wildewmn says:

      It’s great that you have dog beaches. We have those as well! But the dog parks I mean in the States are not beaches, and they vary greatly in size. Most are chain linked areas with dirt and grass. Some can be a few acres and some are a small chain linked square, which makes it difficult to keep walking or get away from other dogs.

  6. Nancy says:

    We stopped going to our local dog park when one large rottie kept going for our sweet girl’s back end. The owner could have cared less that his unneutered male was basically molesting every girl dog around. We left, but not without asking him to keep his dog under control as it was NOT a good day at the park for our girl. We tried again to go( different day/time) but there he was again and still doing the same. We skipped the off leash area and opted for a nice walk. Haven’t gone back since. We had to pull our boy from the daycare he grew up with and had 4 years with it. He was attacked by another dog and the owner was not really prepared to handle such an emergency. The original owner had passed away and his stepson took over. We paid a $650 vet bill to put Fred’s ear back together. That was a year ago. That stepson never even called to check on him. Now, it’s walks, yard time, and playing catch with us. It isn’t worth the risk to us to be around those who have no real clue into dog behavior and being a responsible owner.

  7. hen musson says:

    I also have hundreds of hours of dogs and owners at our local dog park. I have also seen how dogs react to each other when no humans are around…The dog park may be a much better place if they owners were not allowed in….People forget the dogs will never learn how to behave using Greco-Roman laws, nor will they ever Learn Judeo-Christian morals. I met a woman at the dog park, who was ‘disgusted’ the way her dog sniffed rear ends and licked other dog’s genitals. I tried to explain, but she said her dog was not going to do those things because…..I saw her again a few months later, and her dog was by her side. She told me her dog would no longer play with other dogs, and she thought he didn’t like other dogs because he always snapped at them when they came around…My dog ambled over to hers, and when he sniffed…Her dog spun around, and barked aggressively at mine…She had trained a normal dog behavior out of her dog, and convinced it that other dogs were misbehaving when they approached and sniffed….I have seen many other examples of misinformed and mistaken humans who ruined their dogs and will not accept help from a knowledgeable person…

  8. leaspurpose says:

    I have never and will never go to a dog park for many different reasons. This was to me a VERY supportive post. I don’t feel like my dogs are missing a thing by not going.

  9. Another great post Nicole. I tell folks the same thing all the time. People go to dog parks after work when their dogs have been shut in all day, energy level 10…then pull out cell phones and check Instagram, oblivious to what’s going on around them. I will always recommend a beach over a fenced-in park, where a dog who wants to escape an aggressive dog has few options. But still, scope it out first and be ready to leave and come back another time.

  10. Bobbie says:

    I got my fifth gsd four years ago and took her to a dog park at age nine months for some exercise and socializing. I’d never been to one before. There were several dogs there who had been going together for some time and they chased and bullied her. The other owners assured me she’d “learn her place” and would be fine, and I stupidly believed them. One day she decided she’d had enough and turned on one of them, so we were asked to leave. No problem! I learned my lesson and never went back. Now she’s a very large German Shepherd who is well trained and calm until another dog growls or lunges at her and then she reacts strongly, I think out of fear. Since she’s so big, it’s always her fault. I know it’s my fault for not understanding what was happening when she was so young. Now we take obedience and agility classes and long solitary walks together with no problems as long as we stay away from strange dogs. I wish I’d seen this article then.

    • Tim Steele says:

      What a shame! I saw a GSD puppy come into the park the other day for the first time and we made sure that she had a great time. She was a bit timid walking in. We let her advance at her own pace, kept the few puppy-bullying dogs away, and watched her start exploring, meeting other dogs, and playing. They practically had to carry her out of there because she didn’t want to leave. Fear is a terribly easy thing to install in dogs and terribly hard to overcome. But she can very likely still learn to enjoy meeting strange dogs if you find the right trainer. I even know of dogs who LOVE to have other dogs snark at them because they’ve been conditioned for that. There’s nothing wrong with managing the situation like you are. But if you’d like to give her the chance to make new friends, there’s help out there for you and for her.

  11. juliabarrett says:

    Yes, make this video! Please! I do take my dog to one of the local dog parks. I avoid the ‘sitters’ who ignore their dogs. I walk by myself, my dog generally stays with me, but he greets other dogs and, for the most part, is friendly. He has some friends who also walk there and he plays well one on on. I’m aware of his tendencies so I keep him at my side when we might meet up with other dogs with whom he has issues- typically dominant giant breed males. They don’t like him and he doesn’t much like them, although most of what happens is posturing. I’m not perfect, but I manage my dog. I am always watching him and checking out the situation. Most other dog owners do not and they look shocked! Shocked! When their dog snarls and goes after my dog. And they just stand there. Drives me insane.
    Last week my dog was bitten in the face by a female Great Pyrenees. The dogs had met twice, played a little in a friendly way. It was no big deal. The third time they met they greeted, we passed her, and the dog turned and attacked him, bit him in the butt, the neck and the face. I have a GSD and he’s no wimp, but he was screaming, while the owner of the other dog just chuckled and kept walking way down the trail. Meanwhile I broke it up. My dog had a bloody nose but was otherwise okay. Pissed the hell outta me.
    Even though my dog is well-trained and has never started a fight, that doesn’t mean I think he will never start a fight or show aggressive behavior toward another dog. It’s in a dog’s nature to do dog stuff for reasons which I may not always understand. Therefore I’m aware of him, his posture toward other dogs, and our situation.
    I’ll keep going to dog parks, but I tend to go during the least crowded times. My dog loves to run off leash and these fenced areas (one local park in particular is quite large and abuts wilderness) are the safest areas for him. However I’ll continue to be cautious and I’ll keep my eye pealed for that Great Pyrenees!
    Please make the video!!!

    • wildewmn says:

      I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your dog. And I wish it was an isolated incident rather than something that happens so often. The seminar video is available via the link in the blog. Maybe I should edit it to clarify, thanks.

  12. Tim Steele says:

    I suppose I’m very fortunate to go to a dog park where people are aware, watching their dogs, and reasonably knowledgeable about dog body language. Then again, much of their knowledge came because I helped educate them. I think that it’s our job to help people learn and it’s also my responsibility to provide safe opportunities for my dogs to interact with other dogs. Yes, I’ve left dog parks which didn’t meet my criteria. But I’ve been in many which are wonderful. Rather than abandoning the park to people who don’t know what they are doing – and leaving their dogs to suffer as a result – I’m more inclined to spread the word about how to manage good dog play. It’s very possible. Our dogs deserve that chance.

  13. luckydogsportsclub says:

    As a dog trainer I echo your remarks, observations and concerns. My town is building a dog park and they contacted me last year to be on the committee and offer suggestions. I suggested making people register for and take a course on dog park etiquette and body language before being allowed entry, and consider making it a membership-only facility for those that become educated. It was an exciting possibility! Unfortunately, that anticipation was short-lived. It is going to be just like the dog parks that we all know and don’t love. Changing the paradigm is not easy.

  14. Judy says:

    Have always gone to the dog park… first with a golden lab and now a Westie. I’m always aware of what’s going on. The majority of dogs are super friendly. Weekends are for exploring other areas because some of the people who go on weekends don’t manage their dogs. Plus Simba is an explorer and lives new adventures! I’ve seen people not protect young pups and I often will step in. Wish I didn’t have such a big mouth in the dog park! Occasionally there will be a person with a dog that seems too aggressive to be there and I tell the person it would really be best if they left. Overall our dog park experience is great!

  15. FJM says:

    In the UK dogs are allowed off leash in many human recreation areas. Because these are not labelled “Dog Park”, and are rarely fully enclosed, people tend to be aware of their dogs and keep them leashed if they are likely to misbehave. I think many dogs, especially older dogs, like to meet and mooch rather than play – mine like meeting other dogs, but each meet and greet is a matter of seconds. It is a tough one – dogs learn social skills through lots of interactions with other older dogs, but it is not always easy to find the right teachers. I have often thought that owners of good tempered, well socialised adults prepared to put over exuberant, rude puppies in their place kindly but firmly should offer their services to puppy classes and dog parks!

  16. Judy Bradley says:

    I’m so pleased you are expanding awareness of the possible problems in a dog park. I have had no bad experiences because I am not willing to take a chance with my dog’s emotional and physical health. Seemed obvious to me that the dangers you shared were a real possibility. Thank you!

  17. Barbara Wood says:

    As much as I would love to, we have resisted the temptation. We have had an encounter in our neighborhood with an intact Akita, and those thoughts are enough to haunt me. Our two have each other, and are going on 12, so we are good at home.

  18. Emily Foster says:

    Having an 82 lb German Shepherd, I highly appreciate parks that separate small dogs from big dogs. I think it greatly decreases the risk of injury.

  19. I could not agree more with this post. I adopted my dog almost 5 months ago, and once I determined that she was dog-friendly (and LOVED playing with other dogs), we started frequenting a few of the dog parks in our area. I have to say, most of our experiences have been positive ones: Sasha usually makes friends with whom she runs around and plays, and 45 minutes later we leave with her tired and happy. However, we have also had some negative experiences with ignorant people whose dogs have absolutely no business in dog parks. I also find it hard to be a dog trainer in this situation, because I can’t win: if I say that I am a trainer, people think I am being biased when I tell them that their dog caused the issue. If I don’t say that I’m a trainer, people might miss out on a valuable learning experience.

    Because these situations make me nervous, we have changed our dog park routines a little bit. Since my dog is young (a little over a year old) and LIVES to run around and be chased, we still go to the parks. However, now I only go if both my boyfriend and I can go together, just in case an issue arises and things get out of hand. We also go to the dog parks at non-peak hours, such as later in the morning on weekdays. Our city (Madison, WI) also has a private dog park that you can rent out with other people so that the dogs have an area to play with trusted doggy buddies. This way, Sasha still has fun and gets much-needed exercise while remaining a little safer. It’s not a perfect solution, but with how much joy she gets from playing at the dog park, we can’t keep her away forever.

    • wildewmn says:

      How lucky that you have a park near you that you can rent out for play dates! I wish we had that here. Good idea about only going when your boyfriend can be there just in case, and of course going at non-peak hours as well. Sounds like you’ve found a happy medium. 🙂

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