A well-managed dog park that includes fenced-in areas for large and small dogs is an outstanding place to exercise and socialize your dog. Going to the dog park does require risk management, because they CAN be dangerous, especially for small dogs.
I love the dog parks we have in Cary and Apex, North Carolina. My pet sitting business unfolded in the dog park and after 20,000 hours of shenanigans, I still love it and go every day.
Membership dog parks are generally safer than those open to the general public or unenclosed dog parks. Membership parks require proof of vaccination and an annual fee so you are MORE LIKELY to encounter responsible and conscientious dog owners.
Keep in mind, dust-ups are going to happen. Even if you follow all the rules and are the best owner in the world, dogs will vie for dominance over nearly anything (like a wood chip or a hole they haven’t even dug yet). The remainder of this chronicle illustrates the most common pitfalls in dog parks.
The leashed dog in the park: This owner is indulging poor judgment to use a public space to “test the waters” to see how it goes for an unsocialized dog. I’ll tell you how it’s going to go: badly. When I see this, I recall my dog(s) and unhasp the nearest first aid kit. Socializing and rehabilitating a dog is a wonderfully noble thing to do, but I wish folks wouldn’t impose this sort of suboptimal surprise party on unsuspecting dog park parishioners.
Children under the age of 12, or anyone really, who choose to run and scream through the park may be at risk. Dogs, whether they like this behavior or not, will engage and either push, nip, or jump on the target.
Dogs love balls! Sometimes, however, they can be a little on the possessive side, and will fight for their toy. Folks manage this in a variety of ways, like going to the park during off-peak hours, or bringing “decoy” balls to keep other dogs distracted.
Speaking of balls, intact dogs are usually more likely to get in a scrap in the park. Dogs still carrying their suitcase are not mean, horrible beasts, but other males tend to obsessively dominate dogs with those coveted cobblers.
Dogs jumping on folks is also a common risk. Ideally, owners have corrected this, but particularly at the park where everyone is new and the party is nonstop, jumping is going to happen. Inattentive attendees are especially at risk, and Murphy’s Law dictates they will hit you in a sensitive spot. Stay alert!
Speaking of awareness, nothing will send you ass over tea kettle faster than a pack of dogs with the zoomies. Use trees, benches, or your spouse to shield you from these scampering scoundrels. They truly seem to WANT to run into you. It is the same natural law that ensures campfire smoke streams into your face no matter where you sit.
Breaking up a fight is a natural thing to do. You don’t want Fluffy and Tuffy to tussle too long. This is tricky. Hopefully both owners are paying attention and are able to grab their own dog right away. My go-to move is to grab the collar and rear leg(s). It is easier said than done, especially when this sort of whirlwind involves more than two dogs. I’ve seen folks knocked over and stampeded by a brouhaha that’s gotten out of control. Prevention is the best medicine here. Stay engaged with your dog. Distract or correct as you go, and be mindful of overcrowding.
Now, this isn’t a blog on anger management, but I have seen owners escalate to fisticuffs in the dog park. Nine times out of ten it is for the same reason: somebody doesn’t understand the spectrum of dog interaction. Dogs are going to hump, jump, scratch, nip, chase, get vocal, and, you know, be dogs. Obviously, if a dog is behaving obsessively in an unacceptable manner, their owner should correct the problem. If they don’t, I recommend yelling at them and berating them because this always works (I’m being facetious). Seriously though, I would attempt one polite exchange. If the owner insists on being a beslubbering, ill-nurtured pignut, the best thing to do is just leave.
This is a good time to mention that with membership-only dog parks, you may report unacceptable behavior to parks and recreation management.
Territorial dogs (most dogs) may sometimes develop what I call “gate envy.” That’s when they become extremely barky, growly, and very snappy-faced when a new dog approaches the entrance gate (humans behave in a similar fashion when separated by a computer screen on social media sites). The best thing to do here is simply open the gate and come in. By removing the barrier, you douse the flame war and everyone is in the same boat again. The WORST thing to do is stand there, not open the gate, and wait.
We Live in a World
Birds of prey do seem to check out our small park. I’ve never seen them dive or grab a small dog, because they are clocking varmints or smaller birds in the adjacent woods. Even so, I like to remind folks to keep an eye out for these regal and ravenous raptors.
Dog parks are going to have snakes, deer, toads, turtles, and other wildlife ambling through. You’d think they would be afraid of dogs, but, no, they’re not.
As far as the people that just won’t pick up their poo: It’s annoying and frustrating, but all I can say is politely point out a violation when you are able. Sometimes, poo just happens, and it isn’t always willful neglect. Dogs poop fast, and piles are difficult to find in leaves or after sundown.
There are a few people that just won’t pay attention to their dog. They are in love with their phone, their own voice, or the puppy of the day. Again, I stick to the one-reminder rule, but sometimes the more you stir a turd, the worse it stinks. I recommend patience. Be gracious, but stay cognizant of the disposition of those ignored dogs.
With regards to that owner walking their dog on a leash in the off-leash park. This may also be a beginner who is afraid to let their dog loose. These folks are low risk and should be encouraged to let their pup run free.
Talk to these and other owners. Help people out. Some of the benefits you will experience with a good dog park include learning about playstyles, joining the local pet network, and making new friends.
Featured photo – Azure and Remy attempting to determine just who is the boss around here (Godbold Dog Park, Cary, North Carolina, 2014).