Dog Parks: Should You Go?

August 20th, 2023

By: H. K. Krueger, Ph.D.

We love our dogs and want to meet their needs as best we can. Besides providing shelter, good food and lots of love we know dogs need a chance to get outside, to get some exercise, to play and we think they need a chance to socialize with other dogs. We also have busy lives and it can be challenging to meet all those needs so we may turn to dog parks. The dogs get to run and play. They get to socialize with other dogs. We get to socialize with other humans. All good right? Maybe. 

Considerations before you go:

First, all dogs do NOT want to socialize with other dogs. Just like people, dogs are unique individuals. While some are quite social and enjoy other dogs, some dogs are quite selective and enjoy the company of one or two dogs they are familiar with. And some dogs would rather be left alone. They don’t want to make friends. My English Cocker Bea was like that. She was a happy and confident dog but had zero need to meet and greet or worse yet play with other dogs. If a dog came near she’d raise her lip and if that didn’t deter them she made it abundantly clear they should go away. Why would she want to be in a dog park? There are also dogs who are not confident, who are uncertain or fearful and the idea of many dogs running up to them is their idea of hell. And there are dogs that are reactive for whatever underlying reason and they should never be in a dog park both for their comfort and the safety of other dogs and people. Also, a dog park should never be used for puppy or new dog socialization. Never. There are too many dogs and too many variables you can’t control. Socialization should be done in a controlled environment where you make sure all dogs are comfortable and safe.

Second, dog parks can be overwhelming even for dogs that are pretty comfortable with other dogs. Think of the chaos that can ensue when a new dog is entering the park at a busy time. Lots of dogs run up to check it out and the arousal level of all involved goes up leading to potential problems. Imagine what it’s like for the dog trying to come in. How would it feel for you if you tried to come into a party already in full swing and as you entered you were rushed and bumped and circled and called to by many people.  Overwhelming? You bet. Same for dogs. When arousal levels go up for them, the risk of something bad happening increases. Meanwhile, their people are often distracted talking to others or looking at their phone and don’t notice when the arousal level is getting too high and a scuffle is about to happen.

Third, dog parks can spread disease. A relatively small area with multiple dogs sharing water bowls and pools can lead to a pathogen party. Dogs can get Giardia from a contaminated water source or even sniffing a contaminated area. Roundworms, hookworms, parvovirus and kennel cough are also spread in areas like dog parks. Even if they’ve been vaccinated, vaccines do not offer 100% protection from all pathogens.Then there is the problem of marijuana. Because of the increased availability of pot there has been a significant increase in the reports of dogs suffering from marijuana toxicity. No, they’re not hanging out smoking a joint but they will scoop up dropped marijuana or edibles. Although rarely fatal it can cause serious problems resulting in a trip to the emergency vet. 

If you decide to go to a dog park here are some precautions to help make the trip successful:

Don’t use a treat bag in the park. Once you’re identified as a person carrying liver bits you will be surrounded by dogs wanting a treat. Then the arousal level goes up and scuffles become more likely. Toys shouldn’t be used in a dog park either. If you want to throw a ball for your dog, do it somewhere else because in a park it can lead to resource guarding. 

If you have a small dog, only use dog parks with a small dog section. Even if they encounter very friendly large dogs they can still be hurt by play just because they’re little.

This may seem counter intuitive but try to take the edge off your dog with a little exercise before you go in to the park. Dogs that are totally keyed up and raring to go are highly aroused and you’ve heard me say it before, high arousal increases the risk of problems. 

Don’t stay too long.  For some dogs, twenty or thirty minutes is plenty. Dogs are more likely to get grumpy when they’re tired, beready to go if anything doesn’t feel right. If you see a dog that is playing too aggressively or if your dog looks tired or anxious just leave.

Alternatives to dog parks:

Play Dates: Find one or two dogs that your dog is comfortable with and plan play-dates in your yard.

Hiking with a buddy provides exercise for both you and your dog. Be a good trail steward and consider how busy the trail will be, pick up after your dog, and keep your dog on leash if they don’t have a solid recall, You don’t want your dog running up on other hikers, horses, or dogs. 

SniffSpot is another good option. It’s like an AirB&B for dog sniffy spaces. You reserve online and pay a fee per dog to go and have the space to yourself. The spaces vary in size from a small yard to multiple acres. Check it out: 

Snifari: Take your dog for a “snifari” on a long line. Put them on a line that is 16-20 feet in length (not a retractable leash) and take them to parks, open green areas, or other places where they can roam and sniff without needing to worry about you. You follow them around and gently redirect only when needed. 

Most important, have fun with your dog and be safe.