At their core public dog parks are a godsent for people that live within the city and have a yard the size of their driveway. They're conveniently located throughout the city, they're free, they're fenced in (well, most are) and they don't have any restrictions....seems amazing! But is it really? I'll take a look at these parks and examine professionals' opinions and even look at scientific studies to evaluate the worth of these parks.
In an ideal world everyone taking their dogs to an off-leash dog park would make sure their dogs are friendly (to people and other dogs), have a reliable recall and are up to date on their vaccinations. The Canadian Dog Walkers Association outlines off-leash dog park etiquette for everyone's safety (read about it here). They outline that:
The person with the dog is responsible for the dog
To watch for signs such as changes in your dog's behavior, newcomers coming in, etc.
Monitor your dog and how they're playing
Stay close to your dog
Don't let your dog get aggressive with another dog
Stay off your phone and pay attention to your dog
Bringing young children into a dog park is just not safe
If everyone adhered to these guidelines dog parks would be fantastic places to take your dog and let them enjoy playtime and exploration. Unfortunately this is not the case, there are people that use dog parks as a way to get a break from their dog, these are the people you see on the phone, talking with other and generally not paying attention to their dog.
What I've seen
Most of the time people stand around while the dogs run around, very few owners interact with their dog during this time and those that do are usually throwing a ball. Now this is a recipe for disaster! While your dog may be friendly and willing to share, you can't be sure that all dog are like yours, some have resource guarding issues. This can lead to a squabble or a fight that results in someone driving to the vet's office.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers even lists a slew of reasons why a dog park may not be the best option for your canine companion such as but not limited to defensive aggression, learned disobedience and problematic play styles to name a few. I won't dive into those topics since their article is beautifully written and explain things perfectly. You can read it here.
Now that is a very strong statement against dog parks but there is wisdom in this quote. Taking a happy psychologically balanced dog to a dog park exposes them to a multitude of potentially negative situations (dogs fight, bullying, people kicking your dog to name a few). This can leave your dog with long-term consequences, such as fear of dogs or people.
Dog parks are only as safe as the least trained dog, the least vaccinated dog and the owner paying the least attention to their dog(s). This means that it takes one person to bring their diseased dog to the park to infect others; I see it frequently on the Facebook group page for a local dog park, there are outbreaks of canine infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough) and leptospirosis. Both of these can be deadly depending on the situation, so why take the risk?
There are dogs that are not social, some that are aggressive, and others that have next to no recall. This is dangerous in numerous ways. Dogs that are not social and/or aggressive are a no brainers, they are loose canons that can go off, but what about lack of recall? Some parks are not fully fenced-in which means a dog can get onto a roadway (cringe!) and even if the park is fully fenced they can escape when another person comes into the park. What if your dog starts eating something he shouldn't be? You'll have a hard time stopping him since he'll most likely keep running from you.
Whenever someone gets a puppy they usually do a slew of research to make sure they give their puppy the best possible start in life, which is fantastic! And usually one advice they will come across is that puppies need to be socialized early to avoid behavioral problems later in life. The American Kennel Association (AKC) states that first three month of a puppy's life "will permanently shape his future personality and how he will react to his environment as an adult dog" (Donovan, 2019). Most people would assume that dog park are full of socialization opportunities that will positively shape the puppy's way of being. But that is big gamble since you don't know the dogs that are there, and what their issues are.
The best approach is to socialize your puppy in puppy classes under the supervision of a competent trainer, he/she will know what is safe and acceptable behavior and will also know when and how to intervene. If that is not an option to you, then find your puppy a puppy friend to play with.
I've been to numerous dog parks in many cities and most have the same vibe of uneasy tension. A local park is Conroy Pit in Ottawa, Ontario which is an off-leash park that is partly fenced-in. It's fairly large at 1.1 km² and takes about an hours to walk the perimeter. Sounds great, right? Not quite, I've lost track of the amount of times I've witness dog fights where one needs to be taken to the vet for stitches, people yelling (at each other or other dogs) and fighting each other, and people searching for their lost dogs. There are frequent outbreaks of kennel cough and leptospirosis where some dogs need to be put to sleep because of the severity. It should be noted that I do not frequent this part often, which makes the amount of those events even more concerning. I've decided to find alternatives to dog parks and since utilizing those my dog has never been more calm, happy and confident.
The scientific side
Numerous studies have been conducted around dog behavior and hormone levels regarding dog parks. One that I found very interesting looked at the cortisol levels in the saliva of dogs that have been to an off-leash dog park versus dogs walked on leash. Side note: Cortisol is the body's stress hormone, it is activated when the system is under stress or fear. WebMD breaks down the role of cortisol and the long term effects of this hormone within the body; read about it here. Back to the study: they found that the dogs that frequented dog parks had significantly higher levels of cortisol in their saliva compared to dogs that were walked on leash. This indicates that the dogs taken to off-leash parks were more stressed than the ones walked on leash. (Carrier et al., 2013, p. 100).
This to me is a strong indicator that dog parks may not be the best option for dogs since this in not a human interpretation of a dog's behavior but a medically evaluated level that is not left to interpretation. Taking the stressor away, in this care the off-leash park, leaves the owner with a calmer dog.
Now, if you've had nothing but positive experiences at off-leash dog parks than you are lucky, that's not always the case. If you're like me and want to keep your dog safe, happy and fulfilled than avoid off-leash dog parks. There are plenty of other ways to socialize and exercise your dog. Find some friends in the neighborhood to walk with, now I understand this is harder during Covid times but it's not impossible. There are private dog parks where you pay for an amount of time and the whole space is yours, book in with some friends and your dog gets a private play date. And never underestimate the importance of sniffing walks where your dog gets to stop every step you take to smell something new...yes, it sucks during the winter when it's below -20°C but it's great for your dog's mentality! There are also dog walking services that utilize private lands to take your dog with a group of dogs that do not change, this build relationships between the dogs and lets them play and explore safely.
I wish everyone took dog parks with a minimal level of seriousness and made sure they had the right dog to take there and then paid attention to their dog once there but that is not always the reality. Maybe it is where you live and for that I am jealous of your dog park!
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. (2017). Dog Parks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Apdt. https://apdt.com/resource-center/dog-parks-good-bad-ugly/
Britton, E. (2019, June 23). Leash-Free Park Etiquette. Canadian Dog Walker Association. https://cdwa.ca/leash-free-park-etiquette/
Carrier, L. O., Cyr, A., Anderson, R. E., & Walsh, C. J. (2013). Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs. Elsevier, 146(1–4), 96–106. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159113000981
Donovan, L. (2019, October 31). Puppy Socialization: Why, When, and How to Do It Right. AKC. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/puppy-socialization/
WebMD. (2021). What is Cortisol? https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1