Lexington is a fairly dog friendly town, and it it home to some of the most popular dog parks in Kentucky. Every time one of my clients tells me that they take their dog to one of these parks, my response is that they need to find another activity to do with their dog. Many of these clients are upset at this suggestion, but when I dig a bit deeper and listen to their dog park stories, I often find that they have experienced the very things that dog trainers are concerned about when it comes to the dog park environment. I have experienced these situations first hand when I got my first dog. I used to be a dog park regular.
My first dog, Zoe, was a bit of a mess when I got her. She was 4 months old and had never left the farm that she was born on. I wanted to make sure that she relieved plenty of socialization, and I was thrilled when I saw that they were building a dog park just down the road from my house. I am grateful to this day that the park was not operating when Zoe first came home (more on dog parks and puppies later). As soon as the park was built, I started to take Zoe a few times every week. It looked idyllic when I would drive up; dogs frolicking in a wide open field, little agility tunnels for the dogs to play on, and people relaxing at picnic tables while their dogs played.
Reality, however, was much different from my idealistic idea of the park. The first few times that I went, things went well. However, with each visit I started to notice more and more items of concern. It started with a dog that would not leave Zoe alone. By this point, Zoe had become quite social with other dogs, and played very appropriately with dogs at the park. This particular dog started playing with her, and it began as a mutually fun game. However, when Zoe decided she wanted to take a break, this dog kept harassing her. The owner of the dog was off chatting with his friends, completely oblivious to his dog's behavior. Not wanting to interfere with somebody else's dog, I allowed it to continue until the dog pushed Zoe to her breaking point, and she snapped at him. After that situation, I started being more of an advocate for Zoe, to make sure that the park was fun for her and she did not get overwhelmed.
My eyes also got opened to more issues. People started to get too comfortable in the dog park, and would bring all kinds of delightful things, including tennis balls, frisbees, dog treats, and squeaky toys. Resource guarding became a common occurrence, and one dog was banned from the park for attacking another dog over a ball. The aggression from some of the dogs was not just occurring in these situations. Some people were taking blatantly aggressive dogs to the park, hoping that some free play time would be the key to socializing Cujo. More dogs were banned, and I stopped taking Zoe to that dog park. I found a dog beach with lots of well adjusted dogs, and that became our new spot.
The incident that led me to never enter a dog park again happened when I was at the dog beach with Zoe. At this point I was trying to be more careful with her, scoping out all of the dogs and owners before I let her play. On this particular day, we had come to the beach and I recognized all of the dogs there as being well trained, social dogs who we regularly hung out with. I had been playing with Zoe for about 15 minutes, when a new dog walked onto the beach. As soon as this dog saw the others, he started to hackle up and key in on the most active of the dogs. I did not want to be anywhere near this dog with Zoe, and I called her back to me so that I could take her off the beach. Right before she got to me, the people let the new dog off the leash. He made a beeline for Zoe, and grabbed her by her back, refusing to let go of her. Fortunately I was close enough to her that I could pull the dog off, and a park ranger witnessed the entire thing. After making sure that Zoe and I were okay, he took control of the situation and made these people remove their dog from the beach.
I am extremely grateful that the situation was not worse than it was, and that Zoe escaped any serious harm during our dog park days. I pass by a dog park regularly when I am training client dogs downtown, and I often observe the dogs inside. So many of the things I see could rapidly turn into dangerous situations, and in the past few months alone I have seen two serious dog fights occur at the park. Some of the horror stories that I hear from clients describe even worse situations.
From a training and socialization perspective, the dog park environment does far more harm than good. Even if every dog in the park was a social butterfly, you are placing your dog into a totally uncontrolled environment. When you let your dog be totally free in an uncontrolled environment, bad habits often start to form. Your once picture perfect recall will fall apart if your dog realizes that these other dogs are way more fun than you are. You have no control over who brings their dog in, and what the dog's temperament will be like, so frequently there will be incompatible dogs that are thrown together without ever having a proper introduction. Socialization should occur in a controlled manner so that you can ensure that your dog has a positive experience, and that is not possible in a dog park.
Coming from a vet tech background, I have another huge concern with dog parks: disease. There is nothing more heartbreaking than when a puppy comes into the clinic with parvo. It's expensive, it's difficult to treat, and it is often fatal. More often than not, parvo puppies that I saw were regularly around unfamiliar dogs of unknown vaccine history, and many of them had visited the dog park several times before they contracted the disease. When you socialize your puppy at a reputable training facility, the vaccine history of the other dog's is verified, and the facility is regularly sanitized. At the dog park, you have no idea what a given dog is vaccinated for, what they might be carrying, and where they have been previously. Many park goers do not pick up after their dog, and the ground in there is a dangerous place for a puppy to be.
Another major concern with small dogs and puppies is risk of injury with uncontrolled play. Even though many parks have a small dog section, I see people bringing their small dogs into the large dog area. Dogs with high prey drive, such as sighthounds, herding breeds, and larger terriers, can see a small dog as a potential prey item. This can lead to dangerous situations, and the size difference means that the small dog is not coming out on top. Small dogs can also be victim of simple over exuberance, and more than a few puppies have broken legs by being trampled by larger dogs.
Some of the worst dog park stories that I've heard involve people being bitten or mauled. I cringe whenever I see people bringing small children into the dog park. Even if every dog in the park is friendly with children, the risk of being run over and knocked to the ground is high. And that is a pretty big if. Children are the number one victim of dog bites, and most of the dogs that you will encounter at a dog park do not have enough manners and obedience to respect your child's space. If a large, unfamiliar dog ran up to your child on the street, you would likely be very concerned, but the same concern does not seem to register with dog park visitors.
There are so many wonderful activities that you can do with your dog that are far safer than going to the dog park. Zoe spends her days playing frisbee, swimming in the pool, and playing with dogs that I know and am comfortable with her being around. Never again will I take a dog into a dog park, and I strongly recommend that you adopt the same policy with your dog. It only takes one incident to leave your dog seriously injured and afraid of other dogs. Let your dog get free running time on a long line or after teaching an off leash recall. Let him play with other dogs that you know and that match his personality type. Find fun games to play with him to burn both his physical and mental energy. The dog park is just not work the risk.
Sam is the owner and head trainer at Kentucky Dog Training LLC. She set up this blog to share success stories, training tips, the progression of dogs in our training programs, and other thoughts on dogs and training.