Bring up the subject of dog parks to a group of dog trainers and watch their heads explode. You’ll get a slew of opinions, most unfavorable. While I confess I have occasionally rolled my eyes at the topic, I don’t hate dog parks. They can be a good place for some dogs to run off steam and make friends with other dogs. The challenge is that the planets must align perfectly for that to be the case. And many pet parents don’t know how to navigate the dog park environment safely and effectively.
Arm yourself with knowledge so you can make the most of your dog park experience. At best, you’ll come home with a happy, tired dog. At worst, you could end up with a dog who develops fear and aggression toward other dogs, or one who gets seriously injured. Here are five warning signs it’s time to leave.
1. You Have a Young Puppy
If your puppy is in the critical socialization period, up to 12 weeks of age, you should never take him to a dog park. You may be thinking, “I need to socialize my dog, so what better place than the dog park?” The opposite is true. Proper socialization means you expose your puppy to a variety of people, animals, and environments, all the while ensuring he has a wonderful time each time. He’s making opinions during this socialization period that will last him a lifetime.
You can’t control anything in a dog park. People often bring dogs that have no business being there. If your puppy has a bad experience, then he’s learning that other dogs are scary and dangerous. Please, do not ever take a young puppy to a dog park. Wait until he has been properly socialized and has already proven to enjoy the company of other dogs.
2. Your Dog Doesn’t Want to Be There
I’ve worked with many dogs who were forced to go to dog parks when they didn’t want to be there. Every pet parent thought their dog loved it.
If you have a dog who actively engages with other dogs, happily plays with them, and seeks out their company, then that’s a good dog park candidate. The dog who spends his time just sniffing around the park, ignoring the other dogs, or only seeks out people, is telling you he probably doesn’t like other dog company. That’s okay! Not every dog wants other dog friends. Making him go to a dog park is not good for him and can develop into behavioral issues later.
3. People Aren’t Following the Rules
Rules are there to protect park attendees and their pets. If you encounter folks who are blatantly ignoring the rules, just leave.
4. People Are Not Monitoring Their Dogs
The best dog park people actively watch their dogs and make sure they are behaving properly. Others will be power walking, oblivious to their dog’s actions. Some will be glued to their phones. Others will be engrossed in conversation. This means their dogs could be bullying other dogs or getting bullied. Responsible dog parents keep an eye on their own dogs.
5. You Feel Unsafe Around Another Dog
People bring dogs who are uncomfortable around unfamiliar dogs or people to dog parks. They’re either in denial about their dog’s behavior or they don’t care, but not every dog in the park is safe to be around. Always be vigilant. Appropriate dog play is give and take. All dogs should look like they’re having fun. If you find a pack of dogs targeting your dog, or one dog seems to be “locked and loaded” on your dog and won’t leave him alone, be safe and leave.
If you are responsible, vigilant, and careful, and if your dog loves playing with other dogs, then a dog park may be okay for you. If the risk is too great, consider finding a couple of canine playmates for your dog and arranging private play dates. This way, you’ll know all the dogs involved and can better relax and let everyone have a good time.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Teoti Anderson, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, is the vice president of A Dog’s Best Friend, located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A professional dog trainer for more than 23 years, she is the author of The Dog Behavior Problem Solver, Dog Fancy Ultimate Guide to Dog Training, Animal Planet Dogs 101 Dog Training, Puppy Care and Training, The Super Simple Guide to Housetraining, Quick & Easy Crate Training, and Your Outta Control Puppy. A popular conference speaker, she has given presentations to pet owners, humane organizations, and fellow trainers across the United States and internationally.
Published August 16, 2021