Whole Dog Journal's Blog October 7, 2012

Hazards of Dog Parks, Revisited

Posted at 12:00PM - Comments: (28)

Just a few years ago, I lived in a densely populated city in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was , by and large, dependent on  dog parks for my dogs’ off-leash exercise. You know how when you see something all the time, you become accustomed to its quirks, to the point where you don’t see them so much? That’s how I was about dog parks a few years ago . . .  but not now. Today I’m lucky enough to live in a small town that is literally surrounded with public open spaces, wildlife areas where dogs can be walked off-leash.

Recently, I spent the better part of a morning at a large, nice dog park in the town where I used to live. I wanted to get some new stock photos for WDJ’s files; it’s been literally years since I did this at a dog park. Perhaps because I have been absent a few years, some of the things I saw shocked me! Such as:

-How most of the people who brought their dogs to the park stood in one spot, not far from the entrance, and talked with each other (or on their cell phones!), mostly ignoring their dogs. How few people walked with their dogs to the far corners of the park.

-How much poop there was that was lying around, un-picked up.

-How many of the dogs were wearing all sorts of gear that is unsafe for playing in groups, including pinch collars, choke chains, and harnesses. (It’s all too easy for a dog to grab another dog by the collar or harness, and get his teeth or jaw stuck in the other dog’s gear, leading to panic and injury – or even death by strangulation, if the panicked dogs cannot be freed quickly enough.)

-How many “bully dogs” there were. (I’m not talking about “bully breeds” – pit bulls, bulldogs, and the like. I’m talking about dogs who seem to enjoy picking on and harassing other dogs. There is a big difference between a dog who likes rough play and a bully. The most significant one is that the bully won’t ever be caught rolling on his back or playing the “submissive” dog role. Many dogs who like to play rough but are NOT bullies will voluntarily take their turns at the bottom of a wrestling match.)

-How the most aggressive dog I saw was owned by the most aggressive human I saw. When a scuffle broke out between two other dogs, this one man’s dog dove in and attacked one of the dogs who was involved in the original skirmish. Given that the new aggressor was a mastiff, his owner had to literally throw himself on the dog’s body – twice – in order to pull the giant dog off his much-smaller victim. (Shortly afterward, a woman who watched this whole scene from outside the park called to the mastiff owner to put his dog on a leash. However, he, at least, if not his dog, was still quite “amped up,” and he started yelling at her to mind her own business, with a few curse words thrown in for emphasis. When she said it WAS her business, as she wanted to enter with her dog but didn’t feel his dog was safe or under control without a leash, he cursed at her some more. And even though the pack was populated by a number of people and their dogs, no one else either came to the woman’s defense – even though she was right, the dog should have been put on a leash following the fight – nor attempted to calm the obviously upset, out-of-control mastiff owner.)

Dog parks can be fantastic resources for people with well-socialized dogs who have energy to burn and need space -- and other well-socialized dogs – to play with. But they are not without drawbacks.

Do you still use dog parks for exercising your dogs? How do you feel about them?

Comments (27)

I have had neither a dog park nor a need to use one for the last 6 years living in a rural city. I do take my dogs on lots of off-leash walks on mostly deserted dirt county roads, and use a couple of nice city parks on-leash for training, exposure to other dogs, or when it is too hot to use those dirt roads where there are no trees.
I did, however, used to go to a specific dog park near my home in a residential area of Denver and would say i saw quite a bit of poop left, and the occasional owner not paying attention. People did visit with each other, altho most tended to concentrate in the area where the dogs were also playing, looked out for each others' dogs (one elderly man was not very mobile and was a regular, so people kind of looked out for him, helped with water, etc). Generally the regulars were really cool. Many people threw balls for their dogs and any who wanted to join the chase. And other people walked the perimeter with their dogs, or in small groups.
There was a regular tho who would bring 3 large Labs and get on his phone and not pay any attention. His dogs were mostly fine, a little older, fatter and not a problem. One night tho there was a scuffle near the double gate and he fell on his dog, them proceeded to punch it in the ribs and go balistic; i stepped in and several other people backed me up, one man took the dog aside and several of us talked about whether we should call AC or the police, someone else knew his car and got his plate # - while it was an unpleasant experience and i was sad to see him take his dogs with him, i was gratified that we came together in that situation.
I also have an ACD and i had to watch him carefully as his play style was a bit rough for some of the other dogs; my Corgi was just an annoying "referee," barking all the time on the perimeter of any playgroup. So ultimately i used the park less and less for my own reasons.
There are some gorgeous dog parks in Ft Collins, CO, one has several fenced areas within the whole park, for small/less active dogs, larger/more active, and one with a huge pond complete with diving dock. Lots of space to get away from any crowds and bec it is also part of a large city park and open space there are also on-leash hiking trails. I have only visited a few times and cannot speak for the general population of owners, but when i was there people were very cool - maybe it is a Colorado thing ;)

Posted by: Rachel S | October 15, 2012 1:36 PM    Report this comment

In Clearwater,FL the city and surrounding cites and Pinealls County has several parks. All are the same with fenced in sections for different size dogs except for one special dog park in Clearwater, FL. The entire park in fenced in.Prior to entering the park you notice a hosing off section, which is nice when leaving.The rules of the park does say keep the leash. Most follow that rule. Enter the double gate to a huge open area. In the center is a sand path. One of the path leads to the left to another gate section where there is an agility path. Or follow the path over the wooden bridge. There is several sand trails. It is remains me of old Florida. There are water fountain for the dogs throughout the park. Trash cans and spotted throughout the park a stand for people to donate bags for "scooping". There are benches but most of the people walk with their dog or dogs following the trails. There are times where some dogs get "overload" in play or dominance. When that happens you are able to select another trail. As for the poop. It is not that bad at this park. Maybe because when you are walking with your dog you see the poop stance when it happens.BTW I do keep the harness on my dog. It helps when there are dog "arguments" it is easier and safer for me to pull him back without chocking him with a collar pull. Also, he can still see the other dog has we are backing up. But generally at this park you can easier get your dog to focus on something quickly before anything escalates. If you are in Clearwater, FL check out our Enterprise Dog Park.

Posted by: ANNABELL R | October 13, 2012 1:39 PM    Report this comment

I've been to a dog park. I was not impressed by the handling skills of a number of the owners plus the poo left on the ground was repulsive. I have not been back. I did not want my dog to pick up paracites from other dogs.

I arrange play dates from time to time with friends who have great handling skills and wonderful dogs. The rest of the time my dogs are tired out from very early (it's dark outside) ball and frisbee romps at a local field that is always deserted so early in the morning. Reflective coats and lights on my dogs make quite a show but I'm the only one who sees. What fun! No poo, no fights, no yelling. Quiet beauty in motion.

Posted by: ThrpyDogTeam | October 12, 2012 1:17 PM    Report this comment

There is a dog park behind my house, and when I first moved here I was thrilled to have one so close for the dog I was going to get. I quickly learned how awful this particular dog park is, for all the reasons you mentioned above. We will go there only if there is no other dog in the pen, otherwise Sophie gets plenty of exercise at home, at doggie playdates and at Boxer meetups that we attend - where our group of responsible dog owners watches out for each other very closely. At least once a week, I hear a fight break out down there (I'm that close to the dog park), and Sophie shows signs of stress when that happens. It's a shame that people can't be more responsible. We've fantasized about opening up our own "doggie country club" where our canines can play in a much better environment...perhaps someday.

Posted by: sdbeachgirl | October 11, 2012 11:21 AM    Report this comment

Great topic, Nancy, and many very great responses. Just want to say, too, that your new art format is very clean, colorful and upbeat! Thanks for all you do to help us be better dog pals.

Posted by: Becky and Buddy | October 10, 2012 8:28 PM    Report this comment

Our area obtained a dog park this past year. IT is WONDERFUL! Our 2 aussies LOVE going there to meet new dogs and familiar ones. The 14 year old walks about, sniffing slower-moving, older dogs and pups. The 16 mo. old runs & runs, to his heart's desire. Yes, occasionally, someone will arrive with a not so well behaved dog. Those of us at the park will mentor the person with such a dog, if s/he is open to such. Otherwise, we will temporarily go to another area of the park, the stream, pond or nearby trails, coming back to the fenced in area when that owner w/dog has left. We find the dog park to be esp. great for folks who HAVE NO yard in which to exercise their pet. The park is great for our young dog who NEEDS to be around other dogs of his age and running ability/interests. We find most owners to be very cognizant of their dogs' actions at the park, monitoring and adjusting the dogs' behaviors, as needed. Gradually, the park has been adding benches, trees, litter/pooh containers, animal caregiver/groomer banners (along the fence), flowers, balls and frisbees. From the start, the park displayed a list of RULES for all to abide by. MOST folks DO clean up. Some of us find stray pooh that we clean up just so that all of us can continue to come to this fine Canine Commons in NY! This park is the best thing that ever happened to us and our dogs, even tho' we HAVE plenty of field/woods for our dogs to run on at home. As with any issue, humans need to become educated. It is not the dog's fault if a park appears to be dangerous. Those in charge should be notified. A list of rules should go up. Occasionally, a monitor should patrol the grounds. Perhaps a complaint could be submitted to the org. which operates the park. Just giving a person's vehicle's lic. # would help identify who the human is who needs coaching in this area. An unruly, unleashed dog does not belong in this setting and should be banned from it, so as to protect all of us who care about, love and train OUR dogs..

Posted by: Pakayakers | October 10, 2012 7:49 PM    Report this comment

Being sensitive to other's feelings toward pitbulls, I do not take my dog to the dog park. Many people confuse his enthusiasm for aggression. He loves playing with other dogs after he gets over his initial excitement. However, some people are too afraid of the breed for me to relax in the dog park environment. For socialization, I take him to a day care that is staffed with individuals who are extremely experienced in handling so-called "bully breeds". My dog absolutely loves it there.

Posted by: Leigh F | October 10, 2012 3:09 PM    Report this comment

My experiences with dog parks is mixed....they do have a small/large dog area at ours, but as others have said,owners that don't watch or clean up after their dogs is a big pet peeve. The other issue that really annoys me is the people that bring 2-4 yr old children in the dog areas. When you get several medium to large dogs running and playing, a smll child can easily be hurt. I have had my knees almost taken out by dogs that were involved in a hearty game of "Catch me if you can !"

Posted by: Rita A | October 10, 2012 1:49 PM    Report this comment

I have been to many dogparks since I got my first dog 3 yrs ago. He LOVES to play and is so good w/ other dogs (my husband says he's a therapy dog for OTHER dogs). A few times I've met bully dogs but nothing that I haven't been able to help by body blocking the dog or getting his attention and petting him for sitting. I think to enjoy a dog park you have to have a lot of love for dogs AND people, then you're much more forgiving of the many things folks do that are less than conducive to a good social experience. You can lead by example as judgement rarely inspires.

Posted by: MuttLover | October 9, 2012 9:54 PM    Report this comment

12 year old Buddy (Bischon / Poodle mix) loves to romp and run, but not with other dogs. He does like a bit of freedom, though. There is nowhere safe to let him off leash here, but we have found the long clothesline to be a great compromise between leash-walking and off-leash freedom. On weekends we go to a quiet, little-used and vast area where we can walk/run to our hearts content. Buddy gets to be himself, sniff all he wants, go where he desires. He loves his outings on 'the rope"!

Posted by: Becky and Buddy | October 9, 2012 8:17 PM    Report this comment

I recently moved to a town with a dog park. I am very glad to use it because I am not allowed to fence in my yard and must keep my two dogs on leashes when outside. So, I really appreciate the dog park and my two dogs both like it. My little Papillon stays close to me and she is very polite when approaching another dog, big or small. My second dog, a miniature Australian Shepherd, loves the park and just wants to run around and play chase or fetch -- it's really essential for him since I have no other outlet for his energy. So far, no bad incidents with either of my dogs, but I have heard a story of a horrible incident there involving a dog fight and a person bitten in the face. So I try to go during hours when few dogs are present. I do watch my dogs all the time and call them to me if the play appears to be getting too rough. Luckily, they both have very good recalls. Also luckily, most dog owners clean up their dog's poop and some even clean up any poop they find; we all bring the plastic grocery bags to put in a bin for everyone's use.

Posted by: margeam | October 9, 2012 5:21 PM    Report this comment

We no longer take our Boxer boy to the park for many of the same reasons listed. We have had some serious issues with dogs that have not or are not socialized and owners who just don't care. One owner brought a pittie (no offense to pitties, i love em!) that was not even hers and just let him off his rope. He immediately attacked my dog and would've killed him if I had not been standing next to him and grabbed the pit by the collar and twisted. The "owner" didnt even have a leash on her! Our boy loves to play and would love to go back, but that was a deal breaker for me.

Posted by: Mary H | October 9, 2012 4:06 PM    Report this comment

Short story is that my only 2 experiences at my local dog park were horrendous and I will never ever go back. I have property so she can get lots of exercise at home (and lots of ball throwing) but for socialization, I take her to a boarding/training facility that has day care/play days. She had to be vetted to be allowed and is put with dogs they know will play similarly and there is constant supervision. She adores it and I know she's safe and having a ball...idiotic owners not allowed.

Posted by: Patricia | October 9, 2012 3:52 PM    Report this comment

When I first got my dog, I thought that going to the dog park was the perfect place to go. She liked other dogs after all. But I noticed a lot of the same problems. I never witnessed a fight, but I sure saw a lot of bullying dogs (one who kept after my dog until she was forced to snap at him) and a lot of people who weren't paying any attention. Poop was only picked up if it were out in the middle where the dogs were (and not always then). If it were on the outskirts in the only grassy areas, people ignored it. Despite the fact that the park provided trash bins and poop bags!

But more than that, I finally decided my dog just wasn't dog park material. She's a control freak who tries to stop all play. She used to just stop ROUGH play and she was brilliant at it (one dog trainer said they always needed a dog like her at the park as she diffused a lot of tension). But then she got more controlling about things and would break up any sort of play that wasn't chasing and running around. I decided it was just too much for HER mental state and so we stopped going.

Instead, we meet up with a small group of folks and their dogs and let them play together in a field or go for off leash walks together. The dogs all know each other and so Dahlia is far more comfortable with them and doesn't always feel the need to control their movements. And the people pick up poop and pay attention to the dogs, taking them out of the play for a bit to calm down if they need to. It's SO much better!

Posted by: MICHELLE O | October 9, 2012 2:48 PM    Report this comment

I was elated to see the article on dog parks. We have a very large park in our city which is divided into small dogs and large dogs. I started taking my lab when my auzzie died. She had no interest in other dogs but loved walking the park. I stopped taking her after all of the problems mentioned in the article and seeing people bring their dogs to the park and leaving them there while they went off somewhere else. I also was concerned with the small dogs in the large dog area and tried to warn owners about the safety issue. It wasn't until a cute small dog was attacked and killed that owners stopped bringing their small dogs into the large dog area. Other issues developed that eventually caused me to stopped taking my dog to the park were illnesses such as parvo, (unvaccinated dogs) dogs not spayed or neutered, and of course the aggressive dog. Never did like walking out of the park and finding poop on my shoes or my dogs paws.
So now I find a better way to exercise my dog. She goes to the doggie daycare three times a week and loves going there and I know she is safe.

Posted by: Suzanne B | October 9, 2012 1:58 PM    Report this comment

I do take my dogs to a local dog park. I happen to be one of the volunteer dog park monitors. We do have our share of stoopid people at the park. But I find as a monitor if I and the other monitors keep correcting the bad owners, they finally just stop coming to the park. Our biggest problem is the owners who don't pick up poop. And I will use my whistle to get the attention of everyone nearby to point out a dog pooping. I pretty much shame people into picking up. Of course I cannot be there constantly so the not picking up activity is ongoing. But this is really my only option for off leash dog activity. My dogs do enjoy their trips to the park. I am constantly moving along the walking path and that provides me with exercise and keeps my dogs moving as well. I make the best of the a not so perfect situation.

Posted by: NOLAhounds | October 9, 2012 1:37 PM    Report this comment

I do take my dogs to a local dog park. I happen to be one of the volunteer dog park monitors. We do have our share of stoopid people at the park. But I find as a monitor if I and the other monitors keep correcting the bad owners, they finally just stop coming to the park. Our biggest problem is the owners who don't pick up poop. And I will use my whistle to get the attention of everyone nearby to point out a dog pooping. I pretty much shame people into picking up. Of course I cannot be there constantly so the not picking up activity is ongoing. But this is really my only option for off leash dog activity. My dogs do enjoy their trips to the park. I am constantly moving along the walking path and that provides me with exercise and keeps my dogs moving as well. I make the best of the a not so perfect situation.

Posted by: NOLAhounds | October 9, 2012 1:37 PM    Report this comment

I have an Australian Cattle Dog and I feel like I can't take him to dog parks. Where I live people believe that you should never work on training while at the dog park--that your dog should be a quiet dog filled with ennui before coming to a dog park. Any barking, play growling, wrestling or herding behavior is viewed as "aggressive" by the cluster of chatting dog owners sitting on the picnic tables. Consequently people with high energy, young, outgoing and/or herding dogs avoid the dog parks. We find each other on wooded city trails and arrange play dates in backyards that allow us to interrupt play to help dogs break their hyper focus, work on redirecting herding behaviors etc. I sometimes feel like a 1920's criminal, slinking around with my dog arranging clandestine socialization opportunities with other like minded folks OUTSIDE of the dog park.

Posted by: Archi D | October 9, 2012 1:22 PM    Report this comment

We have a large rural property where our two dogs get plenty of exercise chasing squirrels and playing with each other, so we don't need to go to the dog park for exercise. We have frequent visitors with dogs, though, so our two are well socialized to other dogs. We also take them to a leash-free beach from time to time, and get to observe their behavior with dogs who are strangers to them. They are both curious and friendly to other dogs, but when it comes to play, they always choose to play with each other and ignore the other dogs. We have tried inviting neighbor dogs over for "play dates," and typically they all sniff each other and then all flop down near us instead of playing!

The best "dog park" experience I know of is the leash-free beach at Carmel, California. The locals who take their dogs there daily must have a good self-policing policy going, because I never see the typical dog park problems of aggressive dogs (and owners), people are good at picking up after their dogs, and it is what we wish all dog parks could be like--a happy place to walk with your dogs while they get to meet and greet lots of other dogs and people. We go there a few times a year, but if it was in the neighborhood, we would go daily.

Posted by: KATHLEEN D | October 9, 2012 12:56 PM    Report this comment

I rarely take my dogs to the dog park for all of the reasons highlighted in the article. What kind of bond do you build with your dog if you stand gabbing, drinking coffee and ignoring your dog? And how can you oick up dog poo if you are not watching your dog? On the few occassions I have gone to the dog park I know I am seen as a "snob" because I do not stand and gab. I also feel sorry for anyone living near a dog park when owners do not stop out of control barking.

Posted by: Kerry Q | October 9, 2012 12:48 PM    Report this comment

I would never, under any circumstances, take my dog to a dog park. I bought a 30' leash and my dog gets his freedom that way on a playground or park. If another dog approaches that I feel may be aggressive I call my dog to me so that I can stop any issue before it starts. Regrettably, I have found that most "dog owners" out there have no control over their dogs and just don't care.

Posted by: Gail Ann K | October 9, 2012 12:41 PM    Report this comment

I have been taking my beagle to our local dog park for over 4 years now. While the park is quite nice I agree they do have their draw backs. On almost all of my trips to the dog park I make sure I grab extra poop bags. I walk the park and pick up any poop that I find including my own dog's. Then I walk the park and pick up the cigarette butts that those idiot smokers throw on the ground. Now I am a smoker (bad habit I know) but I always make sure that I put my butts either in the smokers recepticle or in the trash can. Then you have the people who bring food into the park and throw their wrappers on the ground. I end up picking up whatever I find. My dog is always nearby so we get a lot of excercise before the other dogs show up. Our park separates the large dogs (over 25lbs) and the small dogs. My beagle goes 30lbs and I ignore the weight limit for the small dogs. She is very gentle and allows the puppys (young dogs)to use her as a wrestling mat. She has many older dogs as her friends and they chase each other too. I think the dog park is a wonderful idea, now we just have to train the owners to do their part.

Posted by: Gerry12358 | October 9, 2012 11:56 AM    Report this comment

I have limited dog park experience, but from what I've seen would not take my current dog to our local park. It's large and the only one available in a fairly large city so many dogs are there. I agree with Nancy that few people seem to stay with their dogs and the dogs are at many different levels of size and play style. Mine is 55lbs,very strong and full of energy. He's never been aggressive, but can easily wear out most dogs and subsequently their owners (assuming they're paying attention!). My obedience instructor worked an event at the park and was appalled at the chaos and lack of control. I've heard from other owners that going at an "off" time is the key.

Posted by: Judy P | October 9, 2012 11:37 AM    Report this comment

Amen to this column! See the same thing at our dog parks here in town. The most successful park is 100% fenced in, has two separate parks (large & small dog) and has the 'human' benches staged well into the park. But even then, I consistently find the most out of control dogs are the one's that have an inattentive or disinterested owner. And the aggressive dogs are accompanied by aggressive owners. Funny how consistent that is. Even still, our dog loves the park, and we enjoy walking the entire park with him - although sometimes we can end up on the opposite side of the park due to his enthusiasm for staying with the pack!

Posted by: Robert C | October 9, 2012 11:34 AM    Report this comment

I hope this wasn't Point Isabel, which I still have fond memories of from my years of living in the East Bay. But I have been away from that area except for occasional visits for over ten years now.

Posted by: BARBARA LAWSON | October 9, 2012 11:22 AM    Report this comment

I rarely take my dog to a dog park. When I do, I am careful to monitor the goings-on. I watch the body language of my dog as well as the others. It seems that, even with dogs that play nicely, you can tell when one dog too many has entered the park and the fun atmosphere turns potentially dangerous---simply from too many in an enclosed area.

I also found out the hard way that thieves will hang out near the parks because they know that owners rarely take their valuables with them.

Posted by: Ann G | October 9, 2012 11:04 AM    Report this comment

After two of my three dogs had passed away several years ago and I was left with only one dog for the first time in many years, I thought she would enjoy the experience of socializing with other dogs in a dog park, which was a new idea at the time. I joined a meet-up group for my small breed, and we reserved a portion of an area dog park for our dogs' use. I brought my dog into the fenced in area along with other dog owners and their dogs. To my surprise, my dog wanted nothing to do with these "strangers" although she had been a show dog originally and had been well-socialized as a puppy and was used to being around other dogs at the shows and with her handler. She just sat at my feet the whole time and would only venture out if I walked around with her. She didn't shy away from the other dogs, many of whom were having a great time, ripping and tearing around. Several even tried to engage her in play to no avail. I realized that expecting her to be playful and active in a strange place with dogs she didn't know was not working for her. Nothing negative happened, fortunately, but I decided she just wasn't the dog park type, so we never went back. Since then, I've watched dogs at public dog parks and for many of the same reasons that Nancy gave, I was glad that my dog's disinterest caused us to give up on dog parks. After witnessing the lack of good judgement and control by many dog park dog owners, I won't ever use dog parks. Instead, doggie daycare facilities are by far better places to give dogs opportunities to be around other dogs for exercise and socialization, in a safe environment with competent staff and well-screened canine participants.

Posted by: Diana S | October 7, 2012 12:19 PM    Report this comment

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