When Lance and I lived in California, we used to take our dogs to the dog park every day, sometimes twice a day.
At the time, we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Riverside and I thought the local dog park was the only outlet I had for my corgis’ energy. I genuinely think they enjoyed the dog park when I took them, but, over time, they slowly began to out grow it.
They became less tolerant of the under socialized dogs that were there. When body language went ignored, the intensity in which they would communicate with other dogs continued to escalate. Neither Moose nor Koda ever ended up in a fight, but it certainly could have lead to one had I not been as proactive as I was.
Don’t get me wrong, we witnessed a good share of dog fights while we lived there. These fights would never happen “out of the blue”. There was always a similar root cause. It was constantly the same set of circumstances over and over again:
I would sit and watch as an overly-eager, high-strung dog would ignore clear communication signs from other dogs around them: growling, bared teeth, stiff bodies, avoidance… Eventually, there would be one dog that didn’t want to put up with it any longer and snap.
Over the years of watching this scenario play out over and over again, I have learned that my dogs have no business being in a dog park. At least, not nearly as much as they used to.
Facts about Dog Parks
1. They are often filled with rowdy dogs and oblivious owners
Dog parks are a congregating place for under-socialized and under-stimulated dogs compounded with oblivious dog owners. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen dogs barrel into a dog park with no self-control while their owners are nonchalantly hypnotized by their phones and paying no mind to their dog.
Even the best-behaved dogs need to be supervised and corrected on occasion.
2. They are a breeding ground for pests and diseases
Anytime you are exposing your dog to other strange dogs, there is always a chance to transmit diseases or parasites. The dog flu has been extremely prevalent over the past few years. Vets are now vaccinating for it yearly but, as with any virus, there is no guarantee that your dog won’t contract the viruses since they are constantly changing.
Parasites are another problem that often arises in a dog park. There is almost always a ridiculous flea infestation that seemingly plagues every dog park in existence. (it’s like an all you can eat buffet for those little guys)
Our local dog park once had a tick outbreak that forced it to shut down for several weeks. We didn’t have ticks in our area, but a single dog had traveled outside the area, picked up ticks, and then dropped them in the park. There were over 50 families that called the city to report the tick problem that ultimately forced the park shut down temporarily.
3. They can build bad habits for your dog
I often see people bring toys into a dog park which is a BIG no-no in my book. Playing with a single toy with say, 5 dogs, creates a very competitive environment that can lead to dogs getting hurt in an accident or due to resource guarding. If your dog doesn’t resource guard with toys, that can quickly develop that behavior when they are surrounded by ill-mannered dogs.
4. They don’t always tire out your dog
Have you ever taken your dog to the dog park for over an hour, only to come home with a dog full of energy? The truth is that dog parks do not always tire out your dogs. Most trips to the dog park do not sufficiently stimulate your dog mentally or physically.
Most dogs will go to a dog park, sniff around for a bit, maybe play with another dog or two, then leave. The mental and physical stimulation is short-lived and will likely result in your dog still having energy when you get home.
5. Your dog REALLY doesn’t need/like to be around other dogs to be happy
You see dogs that jump up onto their humans, hide behind them, stay near the fence, cower, or move away when another dog comes near. They are doing everything they can to say “I don’t want to be here”. So many of us think the dog park is good for them or that they are actually enjoying themselves when they are surrounded by other dogs, but this is not the case. Dogs do not need other dogs for their stimulation or happiness. Moreover, you CANNOT make your dog like other dogs by forcing them to be around other dogs, especially in a busy and unpredictable dog park.
6. The playstyles don’t mix
Different dogs have different play styles (chasing, wrestling, body slamming, biting…) that aren’t compatible with eachother. So, growing tension among dogs is inevitable. Moose and Koda are very mouthy, intense dogs when they play. This herding play style is usually not compatible with dogs that don’t have a similar play style and can easily lead to conflict.
7. There are potential long term effects
If something happens at the dog park: your dog is scared, bitten, or a fight breaks out nearby – your dog’s behavior can be affected for the rest of their life. Your dog doesn’t need to be directly involved in a dog fight in order for their behavior to be altered. Even one bad experience can have long-term effects on your dog.
Alternatives to the Dog Park
Play fetch or frisbee:
Fetch is an awesome game that engages both your and your dog both physically and mentally. By chasing after the toy the dogs burn off serious phsycial energy while exercising their minds by finding or catching the toy and bringing it back to you.
Walk around the neighborhood
Walks are a great low intensity exercise. Every walk is a little different, providing new smells and sensations for your dog, stimulating them both mentally and physically.
Go for a hike
If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with dog friendly hiking trails, take advantage of them. Much like walks, they are a great work out but also can come with some amazing views. Some of my favorite memories are from our mountain hikes in southern California!
Go swimming in the lake
Swimming, by far, is the best exercise out there. It forces your pet to use every muscle in their body while swimming with little to no impact on their skeletons. This is a great way to cool off in the summer and also burn off some calories.
Arrange play-dates with dogs that are compatible
Over time you will build relationships with people and their pets who get along well with your dogs. These play dates provide a safe and controlled environment for you and your pets to blow off some steam with like minded friends.
If going to the dog park is your only option, for one reason or another, here is what I do IF I decide to take my dogs to the dog park:
Are there too many dogs crowded together?
Do the dogs surround any new dog that arrives?
Do any of the dogs seem to be bullying other dogs?
Are the humans paying attention to their dogs, or are they busy talking to each other or on their phones?
Are the humans tolerant of each other’s dogs?
Did someone bring a ball, Frisbee, or another toy that could cause conflict?
Are there a large number of intact males?
Is there a separate area for the smaller dogs to play?
Is the park double gated and is the gating/fencing secure?
If any of the above questions are a “yes” I will leash up Moose and Koda and head home. I tell myself that if I have any doubts about whether my dog or others are acting inappropriately, the play is getting too rough, or my dog is not having fun, I will LEAVE immediately. This mindset is always in the best interest of my dog and will set us up for successful trips to the dog park should we go.
After every single trip to the dog park, my dogs come home and go straight into the bath. I will check their coats for fleas and ticks before they are allowed to roam the house.
As much as humans love to socialize with other dog owners, I don’t believe or support congregating in large groups with “random” dogs, especially in a confined space. It truly is a recipe for disaster. There are dozens of different ways that you can exercise and stimulate your dog in an efficient and effective way. Take some time and find an engaging and enriching activity that you and your dog can do together and next time, skip the dog park.