Dogs playing at dog park
Dog parks are a staple in America’s canine culture and serve as the go-to destination for many canines and their human companions. The doggie-designated zones, which are usually enclosed, have many benefits for well-balanced pups, including the freedom to run and explore as well as play, socialize and interact with other dogs and people.

But though many dogs thrive at dog parks, not all canines are ideal candidates for off-leash playgrounds. Some dogs become stressed, conflicted, fearful or out of control with excitement. As a result, negative interactions, including dog fights, may occur. Not only do such situations present the potential for physical harm to those involved, but a dog may be damaged emotionally and behaviorally by the experience.

In this first installment of a multipart series on dog parks, trainer Mikkel Becker looks at how to tell whether a dog park is right for your dog and discusses consequences to consider when playtime turns ugly.

Not All Dogs Want to Play

As an animal trainer, I’ve encountered numerous pet parents who are frustrated and upset with their dog’s behavior at the dog park. Some dogs may be reluctant to play and interact and only tolerate the experience, which can frustrate people who want their dogs to be social. Others have concerns over behavior from their dogs such as fear-based reactions, overly aroused pushiness or unpredictable interactions that sometimes end in aggressive encounters.

However, just because a dog isn’t right for the dog park doesn’t mean the dog is a bad dog. It simply means the dog would fare better in other situations more fitting for him. For instance, some dogs are social only with select playmates, and playdates with known friends may be best. Or, for dogs who are fearful or avoidant of other canines or escalate into aggression, activities with people only, such as training sessions or scent work, is preferable.

Unrealistic Expectations

Not every dog is savvy with social situations, especially one as varied and unpredictable as the dog park. The expectation for all dogs to love the park is like the expectation of a parent that his son or daughter will enjoy the same sports or activities that he did. But being pushed into something that’s not the right fit for that individual’s personality and desires can cause tremendous stress to the individual.

Just like people, dogs have personalities and motivations that make them either good fits for dog parks or not. Just as joining a fraternity or sorority is a good match for many people, it’s an equally poor match for others (as it was for me). And those differences are OK.   

Making Behavior Worse

Many pet parents live with the unspoken rule that "good dogs go to dog parks" and "good people take their dogs to dog parks." The negative connotation of their dogs not being good fits for a dog park often causes guilt and shame. For that reason, despite a dog’s hesitance or involvement in negative incidents, upset dogs are frequently taken to the park in hopes of making the canine more social. With most dogs, when a park is used to “fix” social issues, the behavior only becomes worse.

One of the bigger concerns I have as a trainer is seeing dogs who are pushed into a situation, like a dog park, where they are overwhelmed and overloaded — and set up for failure.

Compatibility for the park also changes for dogs as they age. Energetic dogs in adolescence, from about 6 months into early adulthood at 2 to 4 years, are the prime park candidates. After reaching social maturity, energy levels and the desire for play often begin to decrease. Those factors also work in combination with greater selectivity in playmates. So though early adolescence and adulthood are prime times for park-going, a dog may show less social behavior and compatibility at the park as he ages.

Potential Consequences

Another aspect that’s important to weigh in deciding whether to take a dog to the bark park is the high cost that may be incurred if a negative situation escalates. 

Robin Foster, Ph.D., is an expert on behavior at dog parks. According to Foster, dog parks are public property governed under state and county law. Thus, if a dog bites another dog or person and the bite is reported, the incident goes on the dog’s record. In some counties, all it takes is one bite for an animal to be labeled a dangerous dog. In other counties, the dog’s record is labeled with the one-bite warning that’s given just before the dangerous dog designation that would happen on bite two.

The bad news for a dog is that even if a bite happens in self-defense, such as when protecting himself against a bullying dog, the one who bites is responsible. The same holds true if a person is bitten. The person may even have put himself in harm’s way, such as by attempting to break up a fight between dogs. But if he is bitten, even inadvertently, the biting dog is held accountable.

Repercussions for the Owner

Repercussions that may occur for the owner of a dog who has bitten include responsibility for legal and medical bills, being dropped from insurance or an increase in rates, lawsuits and monetary settlements, and the possibility of ordered euthanasia. The cost of a bite is high, making it all the more important to discern whether a dog is ready for the heightened risks and stimulation that come with a dog park — and the limited ability to quickly remove the dog from the off-leash setting if he gets into an altercation.

Even though dog parks are the icon of a dog’s ultimate day out and provide a great outlet for many canines, they must be approached with caution, as not every pooch is right for a park. If there is any doubt about a dog’s comfort level at the park or ambiguity in his behavior, it’s best to seek professional help from a veterinary behaviorist or veterinarian working in combination with a positive reinforcement trainer to ensure that your experience at the dog park will be a positive one.