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Pet parents’ guide to dog parks

tow dogs playing at the dog park

No matter the weather, one place you can always rely on for a crowd is the town dog park. The Trust for Public Lands announced in 2015 that dog parks lead the pack as the fastest-growing type of park in America’s cities, with a staggering 20% increase over five years. For many pet owners living in a city, the dog park is an essential resource for keeping a dog exercised, stimulated, and social. Despite the benefit of designated dog-friendly space in the concrete jungle, the dog park isn’t always the right fit for every pet. 

Table of contents 

What to know before you go to the dog park 

If you have a new dog or you’ve both recently relocated to a new area and don’t know your local park, owners should check it out ahead of time without their dog to get a sense of the layout. Find out: 

  • How large is the park?  
  • Is it empty or are there structures or trees?  
  • Is it solidly fenced along the entire perimeter? 
  • Are there multiple entryways?  
  • Is there any screening or can dogs see each other approaching?  
  • Is there a water source on-site? 

Some parks also have separate zones for larger and smaller dogs.  

Once you’ve got a sense for how well-designed the park is, get a little closer and observe the owners and pets at play. While this is just a snapshot in time, scouting trips will give a sense of when the park is busiest and if any over-assertive regulars could pose a problem. 

Before you go, assess your own dog’s personality and how it might react in a shared play space. Are they nervous? Do they respond aggressively when fearful? Do they enjoy socializing with unknown dogs? Are they obedient enough to come when called? If you have adopted a dog and are unaware of how they act in large, unleashed groups, suddenly throwing them into a new situation could prove traumatic. Try visiting early or late in the day when things are quieter to ease your pup into familiarity.  

Is the dog park right for my pet? 

One of the benefits of a dog park is the opportunity to play and socialize with other dogs. For an easygoing social butterfly, the park can be full of positive interactions and exercise. However, like humans dogs are individuals. If your dog gets overwhelmed by group situations, becomes easily anxious, or tends to act possessively around its owner, the dog park may cause more harm than good. After all, while dogs are social animals, parks can be an intense and artificial environment. Unlike doggy daycare, there is no impartial canine professional present to separate and discipline those in attendance. Over-aroused and boisterous behavior can provoke aggressive interactions, which have a ripple effect on the collective. Tensions can be exacerbated by the action–or inaction–of owners who are unable or unwilling to keep their dogs under control. 

“Some dogs should not go to dog parks. They can be too shy, too bold, too defensive, or have tendencies to guard toys and balls,” advises the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). “Dog play styles can be radically different, and sometimes they are not compatible with each other. This can cause misunderstandings or even fights, and it can also exacerbate certain play styles.” 

Body language 

If you’re testing out the dog park on a young or newly adopted dog, approach on-leash and check if the entry zone is accessible. This is where dogs tend to converge, so it’s worth waiting for things to clear out. Body language can tell you if your dog is having a good time or not. Signs of fear and anxiety include: 

  • Stiff posture 
  • Erect tail 
  • Lip licking 
  • Yawning 
  • Panting (when not hot) 
  • Frenzied barking 

Dog parks: Benefits 

  • A potentially excellent resource for canine social interactions  
  • An opportunity for positive human-dog and human-human interactions that can strengthen bonds and communities 
  • An excellent way for dogs to get mental and physical exercise off-leash and burn energy, reducing the chances for destructive behaviors outside of the park 
  • An opportunity for owners to observe and learn more about their dog 
  • Often the only off-leash space in large cities 
  • Deters owners from letting their dogs off-leash in regular parks 
  • No risk from vehicles, skateboards, cyclists, etc.  

Dog parks: Disadvantages 

  • Exposure to disobedient, boisterous, or aggressive dogs can result in negative interactions and even injuries and fights – for both human and dog! 
  • Shared space for small and large dogs is not always appropriate 
  • Risk of exposure to parasites (such as fleas) and communicable disease among dogs 
  • Rogue dogs can influence and inspire bad behavior among other dogs, especially younger dogs 
  • Poorly maintained parks and poor hygiene practices can impact the environment, including noise pollution from excessive barking 
  • The intermingling of intact dogs can lead to unwanted outcomes 
  • Interpersonal conflicts between dog owners 

Can puppies go to the dog park? 

Meeting and interacting with other dogs and humans during the puppy socialization phase ( between 3-12 weeks) is a formative stage in a dog’s life. Studies from Purdue University establish this primary socialization period as “the most influential stage in a puppy’s life relative to social behavior patterns and learning.” While the dog park might seem like a natural hub for social interaction, most experts warn against visiting until your dog is as old as 6-12 months. 

During their first months, puppies are at their most vulnerable. Since most aren’t fully vaccinated until at least 16 weeks old, mass socialization anytime before would put a puppy at risk of disease. Yet even when fully vaccinated, the unpredictable nature of dog parks presents an undue risk to physical and emotional well-being when a puppy is at its most sensitive and impressionable. An unpleasant interaction with a boisterous or aggressive playmate at the park can cause a puppy to retain the wariness of other dogs into adulthood. On the topic of dog parks, the APDT says, “a traumatic experience can make an impact on a young dog that cannot be fully understood nor erased.” 

Dog park etiquette 

Each dog park has rules and regulations established by the town or municipality. You can typically find them online or posted at the park gate. Make sure you adhere to the local rules, otherwise you could face a fine. Other dog park etiquette comes down to common sense and courtesy: 

  • Make sure your dog is healthy and up-to-date on all vaccinations 
  • If your dog is intact, ensure females in heat are kept away from the dog park until the cycle is finished 
  • Always pick up after your dog 
  • Don’t bring food into the park 
  • Leave small children at home 
  • Bring a leash  
  • Only bring toys and balls if your dog can share nicely 
  • Observe your dog at all times and discourage fighting, mounting, slamming other dogs, excessive barking, or jumping up at other humans 

What to bring to the dog park 

  • A leash 
  • Poop bags 
  • Water and a water bowl 
  • ID tags and collar 
  • Treats (for before/after) 

Dog park alternatives 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for keeping pets fulfilled. If your pup isn’t suited to the hubbub of the dog park, there are other ways to keep them physically and mentally stimulated. Arrange a playdate or walk with a familiar doggie pal. You can even find an empty tennis or basketball court and drop the leash for a while; take them with you for a jog to burn energy; and commit to traveling to a beach or trail network where they can roam at length.