Dog Parks: Merriment or Mayhem?

Group of dogs at park smelling each other.
In my last blog, 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?
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21 Responses to Dog Parks: Merriment or Mayhem?

  1. iamtimsteele says:

    I’m a professional trainer – and I disagree. Yes, ot all dogs should go to dog parks. And not all dog parks are created equally. While it sounds like the park you visit is filled with problems (and is therefore a park I wouldn’t visit), we have a number of great parks in our area. People are attentive to their dogs, friendly with one another, and generally have basic knowledge of dog behavior and body language. As such, I take my own dogs frequently, I take client dogs sometimes, and I teach my clients about good dog park etiquette (including when it’s a good time to leave). Are there risks? Absolutely. I suppose the safest place for my dogs is on the couch inside – but that’s no way to live. With the right park, filled with the right people and dogs, we can greatly reduce the risks you’ve described.

  2. I’m so sorry you witnessed a horrific fight. It can be really scary when these things happen. But most fights in parks can be noisy and sound and look terrifying and at the end, all of the dogs are just fine.

    I’m reminded of the saying, “a ship in the harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for.”

    Dog parks provide a good way for canines to engage in species appropriate behavior, sniff new things, engage in wonderful enrichment, and humans can enjoy themselves too.

    While bad things can happen at dog parks, bad things can happen crossing the street too. A few years ago, a couple were walking their dogs. In a horrific incident, a car hit them, killing all 3 dogs and one of the humans.
    But despite this awful tragedy, I don’t think anyone would say that we should stop walking dogs.

    I’m a dog trainer. I love dog parks. I encourage my clients to take their dogs to them (unless there’s a reason not to) and i wish that you, as such a respected and known name in our industry, would consider that the vast majority of dog park visits result in a good time for all involved and the worst case is almost always a non-injurious fight so long as big and small dogs are segregated.

    Thanks for listening, Nicole.

    • Sarah says:

      Dog parks are wonderful things and in all my years of having dogs, they are a saving grace. I have never seen any bad things happen there and if a dog gets too rambunctious, the owner takes the dog and leaves. My dog goes to the dog park 3/4 times a week and loves it. We are all very happy with this!

    • Jenny Haskins says:

      I think that there is no argument that some dogs are safe in some parks some of the time, and that they enjoy being there.
      But the thing is the “BUT” — these attacks and other unpleasant instances tend to (from the human’s point of view) come out of nowhere. And once the damage is done, it is done. There is no use blaming the ‘other dog’ or the ‘other owner’. You were the person taking your dog to these unsafe places and exposing them to the possibility of such incidences.
      I disagree with the analogy of ‘crossing’ a street. Firstly because we cross the street for a purpose, that has little or nothing to do with our dogs, and secondly most of us follow normal practice and only cross when it is ‘safe’. Being hit by a maniac speeding along a road just as we are crossing it with our dogs seems to be about as unlikely (if we’ve checked) as being hit by a meteorite. Possible but Improbable.
      Not to mention that I really do NOT want any of my dogs involved in any sort of fight. EVER!

  3. Douglas W St. Clair says:

    Looking at this article as an example of a risk management problem. The question being, is your dog going to enjoy or even be safe in a dog park?

    I taught a graduate-level Systems Safety Analysis course to those jolly folks who design Nukes, Conventional, Biological, and Chemical weapons in the late 1960s. During the teaching, a co-worker pointed out when it comes to assessing risk there are two kinds of people. One sort of person decides the risk of something based on ‘the likelihood of its occurrence”. The other person decides based on what they believe will be their magnitude of regret should it happen.

    I think the which approach they are biased toward is coded into the DNA along with left- or right-handedness. To the degree that is true questions like the one above are very hard to resolve when a likelihood person and a regret person argue what to do in a situation like the one described because on one level they are describing hypothetical but on another level, their position is ruled by their very strong attachment to likelihood or regret. The fact the argument hinges on not the situation but the method by which they assess risk the likelihood of agreement is small.

    • wildewmn says:

      Interesting thoughts, Douglas. I think the factor you’re leaving out is the “type of person” who is basing their opinion on time and experience in the given situation, rather than conjecture or fear or what might happen.

      • Douglas W St. Clair says:

        I am not sure what labels one might be used to define the ‘Type of person’. But as usual, unhampered by facts, I shall plunge forward. I agree that a person’s experience, or lack of, it materially impacts their decisions. However, I believe, always lurking in the background is the general bias toward likelihood or regret. Now I perhaps should have added in my original post that no one is so biased toward likelihood or regret that every decision will be made unswervingly based on their predisposition. Their predisposition will be set aside sometimes without so much distress the person needs counseling and special medicine when they deviate now and then.

        For example, I am primarily a regret person. I don’t drive with the window down and my arm on the driver’s windowsill. The likelihood I will be sideswiped and my arm ripped off is about zero. However, my magnitude of regret would be high if the highly unlikely event should occur.

      • Douglas W St. Clair says:

        I re-read your comment and got a different take. I think what you are describing is what I referred to as the likelihood biased person. I think their approach is the most common one. Regret people are less common and as I mentioned we (meaning myself and a few others) do use likelihood frequently too. I don’t think likelihood people are as apt to choose regret.

    • Jenny Haskins says:

      Hi St Doug 🙂 I agree with you.
      Basically could I live with myself if this all goes wrong, a good policy.

  4. Jenny Haskins says:

    There are ‘dog parks’ and ‘dog parks’. I would avoid like th4e plague those crowded small fenced areas with masses of dogs running around ‘interacting’ with each other. I am truly surprised and rather horrified that people will take their dogs to these places. On the other hand large park areas (of 10 or more acres) with grass and trees, is a wonderful opportunity to let your dog be him/herself. Let him/her check out all the other dogs that WERE these recently 🙂 Do some off lead training and recalls 🙂

  5. Gerald Ingram says:

    This is becoming all too often. I do not advise my clients to use such areas. I think it is much better to have play dates with known owners and dogs. There is just too much ignorance in the public to risk dogs and peoples lives.

  6. puppyluver88 says:

    Our dog parks charge. It “looks” like fun for many from my vantage point of the road, driving by. I see how some dogs would love it.

    I would never subject my dogs to a volatile situation. Mine are quite happy in their own pack.

  7. Nicole, I started writing a blog post on this same subject, but have not finished/published. Now I don’t need to; I’ll just point clients to yours. I agree wholeheartedly.

    I worked with three dogs in the past month that had “single event learning” episodes being attacked in a dog park and all three have serious fear issues around other dogs. In each instance, it happened during what was likely the second fear imprint period (after 18 weeks/before adolescence.) I will be sharing this blog post frequently.

    On another note, I still appreciate your contribution to my littermate syndrome article a few years back, and hope to see you in Portland in October.

  8. Terri Abbett says:

    Good post. I totally agree. My first rescue dog was attacked and injured to the extent of 10 stitches and a drain in her flank. Were it not for her quick thinking to get under a bench and the ability for myself and the other owner to see what was going on and appropriately intervene it could have been much worse. Eve could have been killed and/or I could have been hurt because I was committed to protecting her. I stopped going to dog parks and started looking for a place with more land and an appropriate second dog so I would not have to use dog parks. I have since always had two or more dogs on a small average and never gone back to a dog park.

  9. Trish says:

    While traveling in California, I went to many dog parks with my young dog. I’ve never seen so many fights between owners. The dogs could work it out but not the owners but that is California for you. The dog I have now needs a very large dog park as she is a running dog. Her defense is to run so as long as she can run away from dogs that may intimidate her we are on off leash beaches.

  10. I cannot agree with this too much. You have put every concern I have about dog parks in one very eloquent and informative post. What surprises me is that there are some modern methodology trainers commenting who think that dog parks are OK to suggest to their clients. I cannot even properly express my concern about that. That’s not what all of the quality trainers I know would say. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and the prevailing wisdom among trainers (and the quality organizations of such!) has always been that a dog park is a take your risk kind of place with a high potential of something bad happening. If you are a member of the public going to a dog park, you do not have the expertise of keen observation skills that the dog behavior professional field has. That raises the likelihood that something bad can happen to your dog. I can’t even imagine approving of any of my clients taking their dog to a dog park. I live in an urban area with an abundance of dog parks and 95% of them are very large. That doesn’t help. None of them are safe. The only dog parks/socials that I personally support are those that are well supervised and quality controlled with approvals and evaluations by a dog behavior professional. I make this very clear to my clients. I would typically suggest a supervised social or play dates with friend’s dogs that the client’s dog enjoys. There’s also sniffspot for pure sniffing/running enrichment purposes. There’s plenty of data to support that adult dogs generally don’t want a lot of friends, rather like adult humans. They are dog selective at best. Why take a chance in a public dog park? All it takes is one time and your dog is injured.

  11. philospher77 says:

    I’m just going to add a few comments/experiences. First off, I have been to the same dog parks as Nicole, and as she says, there are dog parks and there are dog parks. What many people may not understand is that land is at a premium in southern California, and thus our “dog parks” are less than an acre (for the large-dog section of the largest park I know of). The second-largest and less frequented one that I know of is half an acre. That’s about the size of the yard I grew up living on in Missouri. Now imagine having 10-20 unrelated, strange dogs in that area, running around and acting crazy. The first thing it does is a lot of damage to the surroundings, so there is next to no surviving grass (the fact that we are on the edge of a desert doesn’t help!). So it is a very sterile environment, and there is very little for the dogs to do there except interact with each other and the other humans. I know, I go to them off-hours to work on distance commands, and my dogs are ready to leave once we stop working because there just isn’t anything that interesting in there if there aren’t other dogs.

    The other thing that many people don’t understand is that dogs act differently in packs than they do on their own. I had my bomb-proof, sweet greyhound at the dog park one day. She was the kind of dog that was a true alpha… calm, quiet, confident. The kind of dog that other dogs instinctively liked to be around, even the shy and timid ones. She’d also been used as a breeder, so she had really good dog skills. Other dogs just naturally seemed to calm down and settle around her. Not the kind of dog that I ever thought I would have a problem with. One day, someone brought in a young dog, who made the mistake of squealing and running for safety for some reason. And every dog in the dog park, including my sweet girl, suddenly ganged up on that poor pup. Admittedly, my girl just chased down the park with the pack, and then sort of milled around along the outer edge with a sort of confused “what now” look, which made it easy for me to go get her and get her out of the situation. But I was shocked, because all she generally did at the park was wander from human to human to get pets, and I would have said that she was never the kind of dog to get involved in a dog fight. But that day, it was definitely “pack” against “prey”, and I’m pretty sure the only reason the pup survived was that he’d run under a bench where there was humans who could form a barrier between him and the dogs.

    That was when I started to rethink my decisions on dog parks. There may be some where it is an acceptable risk, but the ones around me aren’t, except in very particular circumstances, mostly involving being very empty. Because I do also deal with the fact that yards are very small in Southern California, so they are one of the good places for doing distance work.

    • Douglas W St. Clair says:

      The Wilde woman in her most recent post (above) wrote, “The other thing that many people don’t understand is that dogs act differently in packs than they do on their own.” and as I am apt to do my mind wandered to a word and its variants I have been thinking a lot about recently and that word is adapt.

      Firstly as I see it what she is describing a pattern of adaption. When dogs are alone their behavior adapts to that state. When dogs are walking with someone and there is only the walker and the dog the dogs adapt to a second state. When dogs are on a leash and in the presence of other dog’s the dogs adapt again to a third state. Finally, when the dogs are off-leash and in the presence of other dog’s the dogs adapt again to a fourth state. Understanding these various states and many others are no less important than learning the signals dogs use to communicate their feelings of calm, fear, nervousness, etc and I believe trainers should include them in their curriculum.

      Secondly some general comments on how I read and think about posts like the one that introduces this thread, I have read a lot of posts, like both of The Wilde Woman’s, which in this case was on her thinking in the aftermath of a nasty incident. Essentially what these posts have in common is they have taken something, described it carefully, and explained its significance or asked others for help in addressing it.

      With regard to all the posts in this genre, I have been extending the timeline in my mind for some distance in time before and after the incident as described because very few things happen where nothing of importance preceded it. Every incident will bring changes some good, some others not so good because everything is subject to Steve’s Law which states, “If nothing changes everything will be the same.”

      I have found that as I imagine things which may have preceded the incident and those that are likely to follow it I look for interventions I might have attempted to forestall an incident with a bad out the outcome in the future or worked to make one with a positive outcome occur sooner.

      Another way to look at this is a well-crafted description of an incident nicely presents a bounded description of the incident. Those bounds might be seen as a box in which the incident if presented. I am suggesting there is much value in thinking outside the box.

  12. Lou Carter says:

    I’m not a professional, but I can see both sides of this: I’ve witnessed upsetting incidents at dog parks, but my pups have had hundreds of happy hours there too. I try to stick to the times when it’s quietest (especially at first), and avoid the tiny overcrowded parks that others have spoken about.

    • Jenny H says:

      There is NOTHING wrong per se with off-leash parks. Provided that they are roomy enough to let the dogs run, are not crowded and the dogs are supervised.
      These tiny little fenced areas that people think it is OK to let your dog loose with a lot of other unknown dogs are appalling.

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