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About Dog Parks

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz, September 28, 2021

A dog park is a fenced area where dogs are allowed to be off leash. The first public dog park was created in 1983 (Richards, 2008) and their popularity continues to increase with both public and private options for dog owners to explore (Lee et al., 2009; Jackson, 2012). Dog parks give urban dogs the opportunity to exercise and play off leash and to meet new dogs and people. It also allows dog owners to interact with people within their community that have similar interests (Batch et al., 2001). While dog parks can be an excellent place to allow your dog to have fun, they are not without risks. By understanding your dog’s personality and improving your understanding of dog behavior, you can ensure that your visit to the dog park is a safe and positive experience.

Should I Take My Dog To The Dog Park?

Before taking your dog to the dog park, there are a few things you should consider. Before any dog enters a dog park they should:

  1. Be up to date on all of their vaccines
  2. Be at least 14 weeks old
  3. Be spayed or neutered
  4. Should have basic obedience training
  5. Should understand appropriate play with other dogs
  6. Ensure there are entering with dogs of similar size

Large groups of unfamiliar dogs can be exciting or frightening depending on your dog’s personality and social history. Almost all dogs will display some stress-related behaviors in a dog park due to the arousing nature of the environment. These behaviors could include licking their snout or lifting a paw (Carrier et al., 2013). Dogs, just like people, can have introverted or extroverted personality types. On average, dogs within a park will spend about 17% of their time interacting with other dogs (Iotchev et al., 2019), with extroverted dogs spending more time interacting on average (Carrier et al., 2013). As dogs age, they typically prefer to spend less time interacting with other dogs (Iotchev et al., 2019). Dogs with less outgoing personality types may display signs of fear or discomfort such as showing a lowered posture. For the welfare of these particular dogs, alternatives to dog parks should be considered, as the park will likely cause unnecessary stress (Carrier et al., 2003). If you own a dog that copes well with the active environment at the dog park, they likely benefit from the exercise and social interactions they get to experience (Carrier et al., 2003).

Should I Take My Puppy To The Dog Park?

There is a wealth of information on the importance of socializing your young puppy to ensure they grow up to be well rounded adults. However, the dog park is not an ideal location for socialization and could expose your puppy to illness or put them at risk of injury. Most puppies won’t receive all of their vaccines until 14 weeks of age. Before this period they are at risk of catching a potentially life-threatening illness through interacting with other dogs. Furthermore, when socializing a puppy, the quality of the interactions is incredibly important. Dog parks can sometimes be unpredictable environments and could result in long-term damaging effects on your puppy if they have a negative experience. Instead, puppy owners should look for play dates with dogs that they know are good natured and relaxed to give their puppy positive social interactions to help set them up for success in life.

Does My Dog Enjoy The Dog Park?

By observing your dog at the dog park, you can determine whether your dog enjoys themselves in that environment. If your dog appears happy and energetic and seeks out social interaction with other dogs, then they are most likely enjoying the dog park. Watch for signs of stress that could indicate your dog would rather not be placed in that situation. Signs of stress or discomfort include a tucked tail, hunched or lowered posture, lifting a front paw, licking their snout, yawning, running away from other dogs, or pulling away from attempted human contact (Horowitz, 2009). Whether your dog enjoys the dog park will depend on your dog’s personality, but it could also be affected by the other dogs at the park. Your dog may love interacting with certain individuals but may not enjoy themselves when a particular bully is around.

Can I Take My Dog To The Park Every Day?

For even the most social and outgoing dogs, a daily trip to the dog park can be too much. Dogs that go to the dog park frequently may risk becoming over-aroused around other dogs. Dogs that always get to run off leash and engage in fast-paced play may become frustrated when they encounter dogs on a leash. This could lead to reactivity and aggression issues. A well socialized dog should be able to play appropriately at the park on occasion and should be able to remain calm on a leash around other dogs. While there is no hard-and-fast rule as to how often your dog should visit the dog park, it is typically recommended that they don’t go more than once a week.

How To Tell When My Dog Is Ready To Leave The Dog Park

Keep an eye on your pup when playing at the dog park and look for behavioral cues that your dog is getting tired and is ready for a break. Stress signs such as snout licking, yawning, or panting when not hot are good indicators that your dog is ready to go home. They may also try to avoid interactions with other dogs and may be more likely to display signs of agonism when they have had enough play time. This could include growling, baring their teeth, snapping, biting, lunging, or chasing away another dog (Horowitz, 2009; Scott and Fuller, 1965). It is always a good idea to pay close attention to your dog’s behavior. That way you can remove them from the park and take them home when they are ready and prevent any potential escalated aggressive interactions.

What Are Signs That A Dog Is Enjoying Play With Another Dog?

On the flip side, there are many signs that your dog is enjoying their play time with other dogs. Dogs use play signals to initiate play with others and to show that they are non-threatening (Bekoff, 1995). These include behaviors such as exaggerated loose or bouncy movements, play bowing, leaping, nosing or bumping into other dogs, soft biting, or pawing (Horowitz, 2009).

How To Intervene When Impolite Play Occurs At The Dog Park

One thing you need to be prepared for at the dog park is the potential for impolite play. Impolite play could include one-sided play, bullying, a large dog overpowering a small dog, mounting, or aggressive behavior. When at the dog park, you should always remain vigilant of your dog to make sure they are engaging in appropriate play, and to help get them out of situations that make them uncomfortable. Thankfully, aggression or other inappropriate behaviors are rare occurrences in dog parks (Shyan et al., 2003; Howse et al., 2018), but if they do occur you should be prepared to intervene. If you notice your dog is becoming overstimulated and is becoming pushy with other dogs, leash them and remove them from the park for a while to allow them to calm down. It is a good idea to keep dogs away from the entrance of the park as this can help prevent dogs from ganging up on newcomers. Although typically rare, some dogs may attempt to mount other dogs at the park, if the other dog or owner is uncomfortable by this, you should intervene and prevent this behavior from occurring (Walsh et al., 2011). Finally, you should familiarize yourself with how to safely break up a dog fight in the chance that one does occur. This often involves grabbing the dogs rear legs, lifting them up, and pulling them up and away from one another.

What Are Alternatives To Dog Parks?

If you happen to have a dog that does not enjoy dog parks do not worry! There are plenty of other options for socialization and exercise that are more controlled and safer for your pet. Setting up play dates with a familiar dog is a great way for dogs to socialize in a lower stress environment. If you do not have a fenced in yard there may be options near you to rent one. Some dog parks offer private fenced areas for dogs to have play dates with familiar friends, or if you have a reactive or aggressive dog that needs off leash time without any other dogs around. There is even a platform called “Sniffspot” that allows individuals to rent their fenced yard to others in the community. It’s sort of like Airbnb but for dog-safe fenced areas. Finally, dog training classes offer great environments for dogs to get exercise and social interaction in a less chaotic environment. This is an excellent way for puppies to learn how to interact with other dogs and is a great way to meet potentially life-long friends.

Conclusion

In summary, dog parks can be a valuable place for your dog to get exercise and play time with other dogs and people. They also serve as great community locations for locals with similar interests to get to know one another and to get outside and exercise. Being able to read your dog’s body language and behavior can help ensure that they are feeling comfortable and having fun at the dog park. By remaining vigilant, you can ensure that your dog avoids any unsafe interactions and gets the opportunity to leave when they had enough play time. For some dogs, the dog park may be too much for them. Consider private fenced areas or more controlled environments for these individuals to meet their social needs.

Works Cited

Batch, Eric, Matt Hale, and Ellen Palevsky. "The case for space: Expanding recreational opportunities for dog owners and their pets." (2001).

Bekoff, Marc. "Play signals as punctuation: The structure of social play in canids." Behaviour 132, no. 5-6 (1995): 419-429.

Carrier, Lydia Ottenheimer, Amanda Cyr, Rita E. Anderson, and Carolyn J. Walsh. "Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 146, no. 1-4 (2013): 96-106.

Horowitz, Alexandra. "Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play." Animal Cognition 12, no. 1 (2009): 107-118.

Howse, Melissa S., Rita E. Anderson, and Carolyn J. Walsh. "Social behaviour of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) in a public off-leash dog park." Behavioural processes 157 (2018): 691-701.

Iotchev, Ivaylo Borislavov, Anna Egerer, Serena Grafe, András Adorján, and Enikő Kubinyi. "Encounters between pairs of unfamiliar dogs in a dog park." Biologia Futura 70, no. 2 (2019): 156-165.

Jackson, Patrick. "Situated activities in a dog park: Identity and conflict in human-animal space." Society & Animals 20, no. 3 (2012): 254-272.

Lee, Hyung-Sook, Mardelle Shepley, and Chang-Shan Huang. "Evaluation of off-leash dog parks in Texas and Florida: A study of use patterns, user satisfaction, and perception." Landscape and urban planning 92, no. 3-4 (2009): 314-324.

Richards, D. “Fighting for a dog park.” In I. E. Newkirk (Ed.), One can make a difference (2008): 187-190. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

Scott, John Paul, and John L. Fuller. Dog behavior. University of Chicago press, 1974.

Shyan, Melissa R., Kristina A. Fortune, and Christine King. "Bark Parks"-A Study on Interdog Aggression in a Limited-Control Environment." Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 6, no. 1 (2003): 25-32.

Walsh, Carolyn J., Melissa Howse, Charlotte Green, Lesley Butler, and Rita E. Anderson. "“Stop that!”: people interrupting dog behaviors in a dog park setting." Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 1, no. 6 (2011): 77.