Knowing what I know now about dog socialization, the dog park is a place I avoid entirely, unless I’m sticking to the outside to work on training.
The purpose of dog parks is to create what is meant to be a safe space for dog owners to take their dogs to play and get some exercise.
Because most city parks and urban trails have leash laws, dog parks are one place where dogs can have some off leash time in a (usually) fenced area without breaking the rules.
I don’t find them to be safe spaces, however.
On the contrary, I find them to be the opposite of safe and think they generate an inaccurate idea of what it means to socialize, exercise, and bond with our dogs.
I explain why I am not a fan of the dog park below and the unwanted behaviors it can teach both dogs and dog owners.
9 Poor Behaviors the Dog Park Teaches Dogs and their Owners
Thanks to the creation of dog parks, it teaches owners that this is the safest way to socialize and exercise their dogs, when they can actually be quite the opposite.
The result is a lot of imbalanced dogs who are essentially put into a sparring ring with little training and no escape.
In my experience, I think that many of the owners are taking their dogs to the park due to lack of time, training, and understanding of what is ideal for their dog.
This can lead to a number of undesirable behaviors in both dogs and owners, dog fights, and unconfident dogs, as listed out below.
Owners Don’t Have to Communicate with Each Other
At the dog park, owners enter with their very excited dogs and then let them loose among a group of strange dogs.
There is no communication among the dog owners about whether the other dogs like to be approached in certain ways, if at all.
Granted, the assumption is that if you are at a dog park, your dog is friendly with other dogs, but I don’t find that this is always the case.
This develops a habit that extends to trails and other public spaces that just because two people have dogs, they can approach to say hello without permission.
Making this assumption causes stress to other dog owners and can create dangerous situations.
Owners Don’t Have to Teach Their Dog Recall
Because the fenced dog park is perceived as a safe space, and your dog can’t go out of bounds easily, this creates a scenario where there is no reason to have to teach your dog recall.
Again, this transfers to the trail where owners choose to let their dogs off-leash before they have earned the privilege.
This can cause conflict between users on the trail because dogs without recall are more likely to rush an oncoming dog.
Not only is allowing a dog to approach another dog poor trail etiquette, it can be dangerous if the oncoming dog does not appreciate other dogs in their space.
Owners Don’t Have to Pay Attention to Their Dog
If you’ve ever visited a dog park or watched from the outside, you’ll probably see a group of dog owners standing around watching dogs play.
Maybe they’re chatting with one another or petting someone else’s dog.
What you don’t often see is dog owners managing their dogs. They’re paying attention to other things or just “letting their dogs be dogs.”
Once again, this translates to the trail.
A dog owner who regularly practices not paying attention to their dog means they’re not paying attention to the sound of other users ahead, to their dog chasing wildlife, to their dog pooping, to their dog running around off the trail.
This leads to environmental damage and conflict between users.
Dogs Learn That They Can Approach Dogs Whenever They Want
The structure of a dog park is so that dogs can just rush up to one another without permission or structure.
Outside of the dog park, this can translate to leash reactivity because the dog has practiced greeting every dog they see.
This behavior creates a negative feedback loop where the dog throws a tantrum and the owner gives in to stop the tantrum by allowing the dog to say hello. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
Dog’s Develop Rude Socialization Skills
Dog parks teach dogs to greet one another in a rude manner–by rushing up to other dogs, greeting face to face in a highly excited state. The new dog may not feel comfortable, especially if there are a lot of dogs that rush them at once.
The new dog cannot escape the group or has little space to create distance because of the fence, which can lead to dog fights.
Owners Don’t Learn How to Read Dog Body Language
Learning to read dog body language is one of the most important skills a dog owner can provide for their dog. Dogs are great communicators, and unfortunately, their human owners often fail to read their subtle cues, leading to discomfort, reactivity, and dog fights.
It’s unfair that we expect them to learn our language, but we don’t return the courtesy and learn theirs.
Since dog owners are not always paying attention to their dogs in the dog park, they miss those telltale signs of discomfort or aggression.
This teaches the dog that they need to fight their own battles, since their owner fails to step in and advocate for them. Again, this can lead to reactivity in dogs.
Dog Owners Don’t Know How to Break Up Dog Fights
When a dog fight does occur, more often than not, the dog owners will yell, maybe use their legs to kick or separate the dogs, or reach in to grab collars with their hands.
This is not the way to break up a dog fight.
If you are taking your dog to a space where there will be other strange dogs, then knowing how to break up a dog fight is something you need to know how to do.
There are two ways: you can use a break stick or you can use a leash to create a slip lead around the biting dog’s neck and essentially choke the dog. This forces them to choose between death and letting go.
The Dog Park Creates the Idea That Dogs Need Dog Friends
I so badly wanted Sora to be the kind of dog I could take to the dog park. I felt like a shitty dog owner because she was reactive and didn’t have any dog friends.
There’s this perception that dogs need dog friends in order to thrive and be happy. While it’s great for dogs to have dog friends, they are not a life necessity.
What’s more ideal are slow, neutral introductions where the dogs greet one another in a controlled setting, calmly, and courteously. This is especially important for owners of reactive dogs who need more time to adjust to other dogs.
Teaches Dogs that Other Dogs are More Important than their Owner
If you are having trouble getting your dog to engage with you on walks or around distractions, or you believe they “ignore” you when you call them, one likely reason is because you don’t matter to them.
Regular visits to the dog park teaches your dog that other dogs = fun. When you do finally pay attention to your dog, it’s because it’s time to leave, therefore owner = not fun.
This cycle leads back to the formation of reactivity when you see dogs out in the world and your dog believes they get to go meet them because that’s what you practice together.
This is why your dog isn’t paying attention to you around other dogs!