To Dog Park or Not to Dog Park?


For a lot of dog owners, the question of whether to take their dog to the dog park is easy. There’s nothing like the sight of a young dog joyously playing with other dogs, running, leaping, bowing, and in general having the Best. Day. Ever. The added benefit is you get to basically stand in one place while your dog gets lots of off-leash sprinting time, and you return home with a really tired dog. Pretty much every other kind of exercise requires some effort on the human’s part. Even a game of fetch requires you pay attention long enough to throw the ball when your dog brings it back. But the dog park provides an outlet for doggie exercise that is really beneficial for a busy working person to take advantage of, minimal effort required. Especially if you have a really social, friendly dog, the benefits can be too enticing to keep you away from the dog park, and I get why so many people opt for this option for exercise and fun for their dogs. Plus, it’s fun for us people too.

But as with all good things, there can be risks. Some people opt for the dog park when their dog is really not appropriate for this kind of group setting, and even if your dog is really friendly, a bad experience with another dog – especially in their formative months – can have a lasting effect and lead to other issues. If you’re already dog parking successfully, I think that’s great and suggest you carry on. But if you’re cautiously weighing the pros and cons of dog parking, here’s a few things you can chew on while you decide whether to park or not.

How does your dog earn access to the dog park?

I can count on one hand the amount of times my three-year old dog has been to the dog park. That’s because he has literally been a grand total of five times. But that’s not five times in three years – that’s actually five times in two years. Why? Because I waited until he was a year old, well past his prime socialization time, to take him. Now, you may be thinking that is because he had issues with other dogs – quite the opposite. He loves other dogs and has developed some really excellent skills for communicating with them. That’s because I made sure he knew some ground rules before we ever went to the park. The dog park can be a bit of a wild ride, with dogs running and playing and practicing high-arousal behaviors. So the way my dog earned his pass to go to the dog park the first time was he learned how to NOT play with other dogs first. It might sound contradictory, but learning how to be calm in the presence of other dogs was his ticket to get to practice being, well, a bit not calm with other dogs. This way, he’s much more likely to come away if another dog is being confrontational. He’s much less likely to develop frustration-based leash reactivity (“But Moooooom, I always get to run around like a crazy man with other dogs. I gotta get over to that dog!!!”). And he had an excellent base of behaviors we had practiced together which makes it much more likely he will check in with me, listen to me, and leave the park with me when I say it’s time to go. So my golden rule, which you’re welcome to adopt as your own, is: You get to play with other dogs when you learn how to NOT play with other dogs.

Other options for exercise.

Do you have other options for your dog to exercise? Some folks live in an apartment or a house without a yard, so their dog’s only chance to be off-leash may be the dog park. This is a really compelling reason to head to the park, because being off-leash is one of those great pleasures in a dog’s life – and their humans generally love seeing them run (safely) free. But keep in mind, exercise and freedom at the dog park doesn’t teach good leash skills and it does not replace attention and training from the owner. So if you’re heading to the park to give your dog freedom, go for it. But if that means you never walk, hike, or train with your dog, this may come back to bite you later.

Know your dog.

What dog do you have? I had a solid year to get to know my dog and how he responds to stressful events, people, and other dogs before I ever entered the park with him, so I had a reasonable guess as to how he would act if another dog growled at him or took something he was playing with, or if a person tried to pet him. If you’ve just adopted an older dog and you don’t know them very well, the dog park is a recipe for finding out what you don’t know the hard way. There are perfectly lovely, social dogs who do not enjoy the mass chaos of 20 dogs running around together. And if your dog is a dog who will be slightly stressed by these uncontrolled greetings, he may also be a dog who responds with fear, reactivity, or aggression in these high-octane situations. You don’t want to be “that guy” who brought your dog to the park and caused a fight, and you don’t want to put your dog in a situation where they feel that kind of distress. Trust me.

You may also have a dog who, while they don’t fight or respond fearfully, also just politely declines to play or interact with other dogs at all. In this case, a one-on-one activity away from the mayhem is probably going to be more suitable, and it pays to honor your dog’s feelings.

Know when to hold em, know when to fold em-The case of the “Be Nicers.”

In any situation you encounter with your dog, it’s wise to size things up first before committing when it may be inappropriate. After all, if you’re going to bother going to the dog park, you want your dog to have fun. So assess the situation first. Do a quick scan of the dogs you see- does it look like everyone is getting along? Know that if you pick peak times – say a sunny Saturday around noon – you’re more likely to run into a crowd, and more dogs present makes for more interactions, good, bad, and otherwise. If you see a dog who looks extremely stressed, you may opt for a quick walk around the area before entering the park, at which point that stressed dog has hopefully been saved by his owner and taken home. If you see lots of owners on their cell phones, that’s like a swimming pool full of kids with no lifeguards. How will you deal if a dog is not appropriate to your dog and you don’t know which Facebooking owner to ask to please call their dog?

Also, pay attention as new dogs enter the park. Years ago, when I took my small dog to the park in town designated only for small dogs, we spent about ten minutes in the park and he greeted the other small dogs pleasantly but did not engage in play. I was not surprised because I know him well and playing with other dogs has never been part of his repertoire. Suddenly someone came in with two dogs and repeatedly warned them very loudly to “BE NIIIIIIICEEEEE!” RED FLAG. We took this as our cue to go. I suspect this owner had concerns her dogs wouldn’t actually be nice and did not know how else to warn people or control her dogs. This was a clear time to exit with my dog. Take the cues and keep your eyes open. If someone has a dog at the park that they shouldn’t, do yourself and your dog a favor and head home. 

Be engaged.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned you can basically stand in one place while your dog plays if you are at the dog park. This is very true. But it’s going to be better for your dog, and for you, if you are engaged while they play and meet other dogs. Just because there’s no leash attached to your dog, that doesn’t mean park time should really be a no-rules free-for-all. Watch your dog and praise them when they do behaviors you like. Pick up their poop when they go! Engage with other owners as well, at least with a brief “Hello, nice dog.” Keep your cell phone tucked in your pocket – it’ll be there if you need it. Responsible dog ownership is a full-time job.

What if I don’t have a dog park dog?

Never fear. There are many dogs who are perfectly lovely companions who don’t want to hang out at the dog park. There are other options. In Western Oregon, we have lots of logging roads and forest areas you can take your dog to roam. If they don’t have a solid recall or you’re not sure they do, use a 30 foot long line attached to a harness. This will give them lots of space to wander, but not too far. You can also take a class with other dogs in it. Just because you don’t have a social butterfly does not mean your dog should never be around other dogs. My small dog who only spent ten minutes at the dog park also did agility, lives with other dogs, and was my partner in a six month long intensive dog training program where he attended weekend-long workshops with other dogs and people. He’s a really good boy, he just thinks playing with other dogs is dumb.

Also consider getting together with a small group of friends who have dogs for some off-leash playtime in the yard, or a leashed walk so the dogs can sniff and pee on stuff together (super fun stuff according to dogs!).

In summary, here’s a quick recipe for a Dog Park Dog:

1 young, healthy dog

6-12 solid months of positive dog interactions

1 excellent recall

1 quick response to owner’s requests

1 heaping tablespoon of ability to calm down in the presence of other dogs

1 safe park at a non-peak time

1 engaged owner with poop bag in hand and cell phone put away

There are safety risks everywhere – that’s life! At the end of the day, humans have dogs because they bring us joy. So get out and play with your dog, and if they are a candidate for the dog park, have a great time. If they’d do better in a different environment, honor that, seek it out, and have fun.