A common question that comes up with clients is about the dog park and whether it is safe for their pets. Many people have concerns regarding dog aggression, sickness or their dog picking up bad habits. You will often get veterinary professionals and trainers advising that dog parks are not safe and lead to aggressive behaviour and dog fights and are best to be avoided.
As someone who has been working professionally with dogs for ten years I decided I should address this common and controversial question. I will address some of the more common concerns and go over the pros and cons of an off leash dog park.
Cons: Dog Fights
Dog fights are awful and scary and something I do my best to always prevent. Anytime dogs are with each other, there is a potential for fights. As with children, dogs sometimes have disagreements and thus a fight can break out. In my experience, the likelihood of a dog fight occurring increases for a variety of reasons:
- Possessive behaviour: One of my rules when out with my pack is that we never play with balls or sticks. I have learned throughout the years that when dogs are playing with balls, toys anything they can claim as their own it can be a recipe for a fight. I have also learned which of my own dogs specifically are triggered in this situation and thus I am extra cautious if anyone in the park has a ball or stick. Prevention is key.
- Neutered vs Non Neutered: I definitely do not think this is a top cause of dog fights as I have encountered many unneutered males who have no issues at the park and I do believe a lot of it has to do with the dogs personality more so than whether he is neutered. That said, non neutered unfamiliar dogs can pose a higher risk of a dog fight between other males and being aware of this and avoiding altercations is always important. I always try to be one step ahead.
- Human Distraction: How can a person being distracted cause dog fights? Well, it can’t cause a dog fight but it sure can be the effect. Unfortunately, at dog parks you will often find people (owners and professionals) who are very lax in terms of their monitoring of the dogs in their care. When we as humans don’t keep an eye on our dogs, the likelihood of us missing a sign that would prevent an altercation is greatly increased. Dogs give off many signals PRIOR to an attack and its our jobs to detect those signals and prevent the fight from occurring. Human responsibility plays an important role.
Dog parks CAN lead to dog fights but do I think they should be avoided because of this? Absolutely not. Dogs are social creatures and sometimes the dog park is the best and only way for them to get proper dog on dog socialization. As long as we are able to learn our dogs’ behaviour and learn to be preventative and watchful at all times I do believe dog parks can be a very positive place for our dogs. When I am at the dog park I make sure my pack sticks close to me unless with dogs they know until I can rest assured the other dogs and their people are reliable and safe for my dogs.
Cons: Dogs getting sick
The main concern arising from a dog park sickness would be of dogs catching Kennel Cough. Kennel Cough can be transmitted anywhere that dogs are in close quarters amongst other dogs swapping spit, playing and drinking from the same bowls. This can be dog daycare, boarding facilities and yes, the dog park. Just like with daycare for kids, this can’t always be prevented but steps can be taken to lessen the possibility. Ensuring dogs are vaccinated is one important step but not fool proof as not every strain of the virus is covered. The most important thing is ensuring you never bring a dog who has been exhibiting signs (the most obvious being a hacking cough) to the dog park or around any dogs. As with dog fights, prevention is key.
Letting dogs be dogs and just PLAY is a great thing to watch but more importantly it is so very important to a dog well being. Anyone who has been around dogs knows that they are social. I have met many under socialized dogs throughout the years who have slowly but surely come out of their shells when taken out with a pack of dogs. It helps to build their confidence to be able to be around their canine counterparts. An under socialized dog is often nervous and likely to exhibit fear aggression when around other dogs. Frequent socialization is vital to a dog well being and is best started when they are pups. Dogs are incredible at teaching other young dogs the ropes on how to behave and be good canine citizens.
Pros: Tons of Exercise which leads to a happy and relaxed dog
A simple leash walk can provide adequate exercise, but in my opinion the exercise a dog gets when able to run off leash can’t be compared to a leash walk. Off leash a dog can really run and release energy. In a dog park he can do that while having a pack of buddies to play with while learning proper doggy manners. That is a very beneficial thing.
Dog parks can be a place where things go wrong, but as with anything in life, we can prevent many things by simply being aware and responsible in how we supervise our dogs. Understanding the behaviour of our dogs goes a long way in decreasing the odds of dangerous situations arising and in lessening our own anxiety (which our dogs then absorb and react to). If we learn the signs that lead to a dog fight, we are better equipped to prevent it and let our dogs enjoy being dogs.