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Are dog parks safe

The essentials

  • Dog parks allow pups to socialize and exercise — Dogs have exercise and socialization demands that dog parks can help satiate.
  • Be aware of potential risks — Understand that rough play can sometimes lead to injuries and be mindful of the possibility of disease exposure can help ensure a safer experience for your pet.
  • Vaccination and training are key before dog park visits — Make sure your pooch is up to date on their shots and has basic obedience training.

These enclosed spaces offer several benefits, including socialization, exercise, and safety from running away or getting hit by a car. Even people who don’t have dogs of their own love to stop and watch the pups running around living their best lives.

However, it’s important to be mindful of potential challenges, such as occasional disagreements between pets or owners who bring unvaccinated dogs. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of dog parks.

Advantages of dog parks

Dog parks offer a space for dogs to congregate and get some off-leash time in. This can be especially beneficial for city dwellers who don’t have a yard for their best friends to get their energy out. Here are some of the advantages that dog parks have to offer:

Socializing your dog

Dogs are social creatures, and dog parks can provide a great space for your pup to work on their social skills. Because of the diverse range of dogs that visit these parks, it’s an opportunity for your pooch to get used to various breeds, sizes, and ages.

Dogs learn behavior cues from their interactions with one another. For example, if you have a big dog playing too rough with a small dog and they let out a loud yelp, that may signal to your dog that they need to be more gentle with smaller breeds.

Exercising your dog

Different dogs have different exercise needs, but all dogs need exercise. Dog parks encourage your pooch to run with other dogs, burning off calories and stimulating them physically and mentally. Even a dog with a fenced-in yard may not be enticed to run as much by themself as they would be if there was a pack of dogs around.

There are several behavioral and health benefits to the exercise that dog parks offer. You’ve probably heard the saying “a tired dog is a good dog,” and nothing tuckers a dog out more than sprinting laps with fellow furballs in an enclosed space. This can curb poor behaviors at home, like chewing up furniture or excessive barking out the window.

Of course, exercise is also important for your canine companion’s health. Dogs with sedentary lifestyles run the risk of obesity and heart problems. And, while too much exercise can be damaging to a dog’s joints, too little exercise will deprive them of the muscle mass they need to strengthen their joints. This is especially important in dogs with hip dysplasia or luxating patella.

Getting to know your dog

Dog parks also offer a chance for you to get to know your dog a little better when it comes to their manners and temperament. Do you have an introverted dog that sticks to your side or an extroverted dog that gives chase to other pups in the park? 

Maybe your dog prefers cuddling up to all the humans and ignores dogs completely, or they’ll run with dogs for a bit and then stand by the gate ready to leave. It’s hard to know how your dog is around others if they never get to be around others!

Protecting your dog

While some city and state parks have off-leash hours, they are not fully fenced-in like dog runs. This means there’s a greater risk of your furry friend taking off and getting hit by a car or biker. Dogs can also get scared by sudden loud noises and run away.

There’s also a lot of litter and foreign objects in parks and sidewalks that your dog can ingest, not to mention dead animals. And while some litter can still find its way into a dog park (especially if owners aren’t respectful), it’s less than the amount of waste you’d find in an area where people regularly have picnics or barbecues.

Providing a community for your dog

Your local neighborhood dog run can be a communal space for your pup to make friends and run with a pack. It’s where all the local pups and their humans can congregate without worrying about disturbing those who may not be as dog-friendly. 

It’s also a great place for dog owners to meet other dog owners to arrange more private playdates or find trainers who can help them work on their social skills.

Disadvantages of dog parks

All that said, for every advantage dog parks have to offer, they also come with a set of disadvantages. While you can take steps to make sure you’re being a responsible guest at the local dog run, you have no control over other owners who may not be properly supervising their furry friend. 

Here are some drawbacks of dog parks that you should be aware of:

Aggression in dogs

The last thing an owner wants is for their dog to be seen as aggressive. But the truth is, just because a dog commits an act of aggression does not mean they’re a “bad dog.” More often than not, this is simply a miscommunication between pups (and owners, for that matter). 

Let’s take a look at the three types of dog aggression:

  • Defensive aggression. Dogs have “fight or flight” instincts just like humans. When a pooch perceives something or someone as a threat, they’ll either retreat or, in the case of defensive aggression, they’ll bark, growl, or even bite.
  • Frustration aggression. Does your dog excitedly pull on the leash the whole way to the dog park? The tighter the leash, the more restrained a dog feels, leading to frustration. They can then carry this frustrated energy into the dog park and act aggressively.
  • Facilitated aggression. If your dog lingers close to you at the dog park, then they consider you part of your pack and thus feel the need to protect you (and expect protection in return). This causes dogs to snap at approaching humans or pups.

Trauma in dogs

Dog parks can be overwhelming for pups traumatized from past abuse, neglect, or incidents with other animals. This is especially prevalent in rescue dogs, as the loud barking and running around at a dog run can trigger memories of their time in the shelter system.

If your dog is acting shy with their tail tucked between their legs, they may be anxious with all the commotion and need to be eased into the experience rather than thrown into a crowded dog park. Try organizing one-on-one playdates with other dogs and then gradually working your way up to a public dog run.

Dog fights and injuries

One of the potential risks at dog parks is your pup getting into a scuffle with another dog, which can sometimes lead to injuries. There have been instances where pets have been seriously hurt by another dog they get into a fight with. It’s important to be vigilant and take precautions to keep your furry friend safe.

  1. Break up the fight —  If your dog gets into a tussle with another dog, break it up immediately by picking up their back legs like a wheelbarrow and walking them backward (ideally, the other dog’s owner will do the same). An air horn can also deter dogs from fighting and bring attention to other owners to come help.
  2. Examine your dog — After the situation has de-escalated, check your dog for bite marks and exchange vaccination information with the other owner if any open wounds are present.
  3. Leave the dog park — Even if your dog has not sustained any injuries, it is important to leave the dog park as soon as a fight occurs. Your dog will be overstimulated and in “survival mode,” which could lead to more squabbles.
  4. Seek veterinary care — Dogs injured in a fight should be brought to the vet for a check-up. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may require emergency care.

Learned disobedience in dogs

Owners who take their dogs to the dog park without proper training also run the risk of reinforcing bad behavior in their pooch. For instance, if your pup is digging up holes at the dog park, they may think it’s okay to do the same in your garden back at home. 

You’ll also want to work on recall training so your dog knows to come to you when called, even if they’re distracted by other fur babies. Negative experiences like a fight can also set your dog up for bad behavior back home with other household pets or your neighbor’s dogs.

Resource guarding in dogs

Bringing toys to the dog park can also be risky, as it may lead to resource guarding. This is a possessive behavior where dogs feel the need to “guard” their treasured belongings, whether it be their favorite ball, a stick they picked up on the way, or even their humans.

Dogs may even try to steal toys from other dogs and claim them as their own, leading to aggression when the toy’s rightful owner tries to get it back. Signs of resource guarding include hyper-fixation on an object, growling when others approach, and body stiffness.

Diseases in dogs

While most dog parks will have a sign saying all dogs must be vaccinated, typically, no one is at the entrance checking every dog’s vaccination status. Some owners may not know the rules of the park, or some may not care.

And even if a dog is up to date on their shots, it doesn’t mean they’re not carrying a contagious disease like influenza or external parasites that could infect other dogs. If your pup is showing any signs of illness, it’s best to keep them away from other pets until they’ve been checked out by a veterinarian.

One of the most common types of illnesses from dog parks is an upper respiratory infection. Bordetella, parainfluenza, and canine influenza are all highly contagious.

Dr. Erica Irish

Tips for visiting the dog park

While you have no control over other owners and their pups, there are steps you can take to set your own pooch up for success at the dog park. It’s important not to force your dog into a situation they’re uncomfortable with and watch body language to ensure they’re having a positive experience. 

Here are tips for having a pleasant day at the dog park:

  1. Choose the right park — Dog parks come in all shapes and sizes. Some are grass, some are dirt, and some are concrete. Some have separate areas for large breeds and small breeds, whereas some are free-for-all. Some are tiny, and some are multiple acres. The more you learn about your dog, their social skills, and their obedience, the more you’ll be able to assess which local dog run is best.
  2. Supervise, supervise, supervise — While it can be nice to interact with other owners, remember that you are there for your pup. Keep a close eye on them and be ready to intervene if necessary.
  3. Take breaks — Dogs should get a breather between bouts of running and playing to avoid getting overstimulated or overheating. Take your pooch off to the side for some gentle rubs or a quick water break.
  4. Leave when necessary — You may be tempted to stay at the dog park for longer if you don’t feel your pup has gotten enough energy out. Still, it’s important to listen to your dog’s body language and leave when they’re getting testy, bullying another dog, or waiting by the exit to go home.

What to avoid at the dog park

Just as important as what to do at a dog park is what not to do. For starters, you’ll want to avoid these enclosed spaces if your dog isn’t up to date on their vaccines and preventives. If your puppy is too young for immunizations, then they’re too young for the dog park. It’s also super important to make sure they’re spayed or neutered.

You’ll also want to leave your pup’s toys and treats at home, as such belongings can lead to resource guarding and tussles between dogs. Instead, try running around a bit to get your dog excited and in playful spirits. Some parks also have rocks or see-saws for canines to interact with.

Dogs also tend to crowd around the entrance as a new dog enters. This can be too much, too soon for your furry friend, so it’s best to wait until the coast is a little clearer before entering. On that note, don’t let your dog team up with other dogs to gang up on another one.

There are many factors that determine the safety of dog parks, and unfortunately, not all of them are in your control. You’ll want to test the waters and see how your dog does, then calibrate accordingly. If done right, a dog run can be a rewarding and special place for your best friend that helps them spread their wings and become the social butterfly you want them to be!

Frequently asked questions

What are the disadvantages of dog parks?

While most public dog parks require things like vaccines, spaying, and neutering, typically there is no one there to enforce these policies so you can’t guarantee owners are obeying the rules. Dogs also run the risk of getting injured in a fight or developing trauma from a bad experience.

Do dogs actually enjoy dog parks?

Every dog is unique, and while some enjoy dog parks, others simply don’t. Owners will need to assess their dog’s age, size, and temperament when determining if a dog run will offer a pleasant experience to their pup.

How are dog parks beneficial to dogs?

Dog parks provide an enclosed space for dogs to exercise and socialize with one another. Because they’re fenced-in, there is minimal risk of your dog running away or getting hit by a car.

Are dog parks really that bad?

Some dog parks are better than others, and it largely depends on the owners’ responsibility. Dog parks known to have careless parenting and aggressive dogs should be avoided.

Are dog parks appropriate environments for all dogs, or should some owners avoid them?

While many dogs benefit from the several perks dog parks offer, others are not a good fit for them. If your dog is reactive, traumatized from a past experience, or overly-shy, then a dog park should be avoided.