Features June 2001 Issue

Dog Parks Help Socialize and Exercise Dogs in a Safe Environment

Do your dogs a favor; start a dog park movement in your community.

Summer is upon us, and with it comes an irresistible urge to enjoy the great outdoors with our best canine friends. It’s good for them, fun for us, and besides, trainers and behavior counselors are forever reminding us that a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.

But where can we go to take our dogs out for a high-energy, off-leash run? Regular walks on leash don’t even come close to addressing the exercise needs of most dogs. The result is an exacerbation of canine behavior problems including aggression due to lack of socialization, to destructive behavior, hyperactivity, and separation anxiety.

The best solution to the “place to run” dilemma is the dog park. More and more, savvy community leaders are building fenced areas where dogs and their owners are encouraged to run, play, and socialize together. The concept has caught on and is spreading.

Remind your community’s leaders that dog
parks are really for the benefit of PEOPLE,
who will enjoy the parks with their dogs.

If you are fortunate enough to live in one of the communities that boasts a dog park you may have already availed yourself of its benefits and discovered the joys that such parks have to offer. If you just haven’t checked out the park yet, or don’t go very often due to problems you’ve had with your dog there in the past, see "A Walk in the (Dog) Park."

But if your town lacks a dog park, read on! You could be an integral part of a movement that improves the quality of life for all your city’s dogs – and their neighbors!

Many benefits
Twenty years ago dog parks were a rarity, but today there are hundreds of safe, dog-centered places for recreation, and that’s a good thing! Here are just a few of the ways that a well-designed dog park can benefit the people in a given community:

• Time spent in a dog park helps socialize and exercise dogs in a safe environment, resulting in well-adjusted companion dogs with fewer behavior problems. This can thereby reduce the number of “nuisance dog” complaints sparked by bored, restless dogs who bark, as well as reduce the number of dogs surrendered by their owners to local animal shelters (with a corresponding reduction in euthanasia numbers).

• The availability of a safe, pleasant dog park attracts dog owners to that site, reducing the presence of dogs in multiple-use areas, and preventing off-leash dogs from infringing on the rights of other community residents and park users, such as joggers, small children, and those who may be fearful of dogs.

• Dog parks can provide an accessible place for elderly and disabled owners to exercise and enjoy their canine companions.

• Use of dog parks promotes responsible pet ownership by giving people the opportunity to allow their dogs to run off-leash legally.

• Informal meetings between people with shared interests – dogs! – are ideal for educating owners about responsible dog care and training.

Dog park detractors
But it’s a fact of life in America that no good idea goes uncritiqued. While dog park supporters seem to be outnumbering their detractors, many criticisms (some valid, some ridiculous) have been used to try to torpedo dog park projects in some communities. These include:

• Dog parks can mean dogfights, resulting in injury to dogs or people

• A dog park will result in accumulations of dog waste and human litter

• Loose dogs are a threat to wildlife living in the park area

Fortunately, the majority of these concerns (and most others you can think of) can be alleviated if a dog park is carefully planned and executed. The very fact that dog parks have been in operation for years in so many communities can help proponents of new projects.

While the dog park pioneers had to figure out what works and what doesn’t by (costly) trial and error, there is now very good information about the best ways to design, build, and manage facilities. If organizers in your town draw on the best examples of successful parks, they can build a new park that will minimize any negative impact on the community and maximize the safety and enjoyment of all who use it.

Overcoming objections
Today, many successful public dog parks are maintained under the auspices of a “user group” – dog owners who frequent the park regularly, educate new users, and help enforce park rules. These user groups can be a valuable resource for educating both the park visitors as well as civic leaders who may have concerns.

Dog parks can be a boon to anyone who
doesn’t feel like walking an active dog, espe-
cially one who pulls on leash.

For example, the presence of an active user group significantly reduces the risk of one concern expressed by many: dogfights. User group members will step in and encourage (or demand) leashes on or the removal of aggressive or out-of-control dogs. They also help novice dog owners learn how to read their dogs’ body language and intervene appropriately when a conflict seems imminent. (While it can be difficult to “sell” a balky city council on the added expense, it is very helpful to plan the park with two or three separate enclosures. Conflict between large and small and/or bold and timid dogs can be vastly reduced if at least one area is designated specifically for the little and/or shy guys.)

A user group can also ensure that the “accumulations of waste” issue never piles up. Peer pressure is the best insurance against waste disposal problems. If the culture of the park users is such that they consistently clean up their own dogs’ waste (and the occasional unclaimed pile), it will become obvious that they don’t tolerate irresponsible owners who don’t scoop poop.

In fact, the dog park culture can serve an important educational function and public service by teaching unaware dog owners about the importance of cleaning up after their dogs everywhere, not just at the park. Park users can also be instrumental in educating newcomers about disease and parasite prevention and control.

Members of the user group can also help determine what rules will guide the behavior of park visitors, human and canine. Well-run dog parks have clear rules prominently posted at all park entrances.

Rewarding activism
Don’t panic if all of this sounds like a daunting task; you will be amazed at how many like-minded dog lovers there are in your community who would be more than happy to help get a local park built. You won’t have to sell dog owners on the park’s benefits!

However, when dealing with people who have little experience with dogs, be prepared to explain, over and over, how such a park will benefit the humans who happen to own dogs – as well as their neighbors! City leaders may never enjoy the vision of well-socialized dogs playing and running off-leash the way we do, but they should be able to appreciate how much quieter the evenings are, as the tired, happy dogs of your community snore peacefully through the night!


Also With This Article
Click here to view "From Bored Walks to Bark Place."


-By Pat Miller

Pat Miller is a freelance author and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. For information about her training classes, see Resources.

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