Dog Parks, Good Or Bad?

By Kathy Santo | Updated: April 26 2019

The subject of dog parks can spark heated debates amongst dog owners. Some believe all dogs should be allowed to run free in the parks, and that they’ll naturally “sort out their differences” on their own, without need for human intervention. Others (and the majority of this group probably consists of dog trainers and behaviorists) believe that with the correct combination of dog personalities and owner management, dog parks can generally be a safe place for educated owners to let specific types of dogs exercise and play. I’ve had many students who went to dog parks and had the experience end traumatically for them and their dogs.Conversely, I’ve also had some students who are regulars there, and say it’s one of the best things they do with their dogs.The success stories all have the advantage of having been training with me before going to the dog parks, while the first group came to training me afterwards. Here’s the advice that I give everyone so that they can make an educated decision on whether or not a dog park is right for them and their dog:

You Know That Party Where Everyone Drinks Too Much…?

Well, that can happen (in a canine sense) at the dog park. It could be lots of fun and laughs, or it could be a disaster. These are my tried and true suggestions on the best ways to keep yourself and your dog safe while you’re having fun:

The Dog Who Should Never Go There
This is a hard fact for some owners to swallow, but some dogs aren’t dog park material. If you have a defensive dog, a dog who resource guards, or a shy or fearful dog, then you should steer clear of the parks. That’s not to say that you can’t find a few like-minded dogs and have your own playgroup in someone’s fenced yard, but do realize that a dog park is not right for every dog.

The Owner Who Should Never Go There (with their dog)

Do you need to answer some texts or emails? Do you want to catch up with your friend that you haven’t seen in years? Do you just want to drink a latte and gaze at cloud formations? Then you definitely should go to your local coffee house, and do any or all of those things
without your dog. Owners who take their dogs to dog parks and are engrossed in everything but their dog’s interactions are putting their (and other’s) dog at risk. Behavior and intent can change in seconds, and if you don’t see the signs, you’ll miss the opportunity to redirect their attention away from a potential fight. When I’m running a dog play group at my school, I tell owners that they should be watching the dogs the same way a lifeguard watches a pool with kids in it: Intently.

The Other Owner Who Should Never Go There (with a dog)
Do you think that whenever a dog’s tail is wagging that it’s happy? Do you think that a dog whose body is quiet and still is having a good time? Would you know when to interrupt two dogs who were sniffing each other to prevent a fight? If you don’t know these answers, then find a dog trainer (or club) that presents seminars on how to correctly interpret canine body language. After all, it is the native language of dogs, and not understanding it is akin to living with someone who speaks a language that you don’t.

What The Owner Who Should Go, MUST Know Before Going There…

So you and your dog are going to make a trip to the dog park. You’ve read the above and have decided that you’re fluent in dog body language and behavior, and your dog is a good candidate for the experience. Great! Here’s a few more tips to remember before you go:

  1. Keep your phone with you, but don’t take any calls. Focus on your dog and give the experience your undivided attention.
  2. In case of an emergency – have a small air horn ready. If a fight occurs this is one way to break it up that doesn’t involve putting your hands on the dogs.
  3. After allowing your dog to play for 6 seconds, call him to “Come”. Did he?  Great! Let him play and do it again after 15 seconds. Then 30, then a minute, then 3 minutes. If he’s coming to you every time, then he earns a longer play session. Sprinkle commands to him throughout the entire time so that you know that he’s still listening back to you. A dog who ‘hangs up the phone’ and isn’t focused on his owner is unlikely to respond to an important command like Come or Stay that would potentially keep him out of trouble.
  4. Stop the party early. Overtired dogs are like overtired kids. They get cranky, and that’s when fuses get short. Better to leave the park when your dog is still responsive to you and wanting more, than when he’s over it and getting snarky with the others.
  5. Never allow a high-speed game of chase to begin. Although it looks like fun, games of chase can go really wrong, really quickly. The problem occurs because when other dogs join the chase, what started as a game can turn into a predatory attack due to overly high arousal levels.
  6. Make sure that what you’re watching is actually play. Sometimes owners mistake defensive, deflective responses for play. Not sure? Call your dog to you and then release him back to his game. If he was truly playing, he’ll re-engage the dog. If not, he was probably not having as good a time as you thought he was.

Although I personally would never take my dogs to a dog park (I have access to large fenced areas, and so many dog friends that I can create my own playgroup!), I understand that for some dog owners, it’s a legitimate source of exercise and play for a certain type of dog.

By utilizing common sense and being vigilant about your dog’s safety, the result can be a good experience for all involved.

Kathy Santo has spent her entire career as a dog trainer and handler, training dogs and winning over 500 obedience, agility and Canine Good Citizenship titles. Working with her own dogs, she has achieved every competitive obedience title the American Kennel Club (AKC) has offered and earned the prestigious AKC “Obedience Trial Champion” title (OTCh) multiple times.

In Waldwick, Kathy teaches classes, private lessons, and oversees the training of her student’s dogs using her extensive knowledge, experience and intuition to handle problems from the benign to the serious. Her engaging personality has won her the respect and friendship of her many students, who now consider themselves part of her extended family.


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