The Dangers of Dog Parks
Sometimes, they seem like the best thing since sliced bread. Most of us have at least considered a trip to the dog park with the expectation that our dog is going to have a blast. They get to release their energy, play with other dogs, and enjoy the weather – all in a safely fenced environment. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
My dog loves to play with other dogs, and for so long, trips to the park were scattered throughout my weekly schedule. Sometimes my dog and I went once a week, and other weeks, we made multiple visits. I figured my dog was having fun playing with other dogs and I got to save myself a few bucks from not enrolling her into a doggy daycare. In retrospect, I mostly think I was very fortunate that we never had severe issues.
Spending the last 6 years studying dog body language intensively, I have come to realize that a lot of the dogs aren’t really having as much fun as I originally thought. Many dogs are more frantic and stressed than relaxed and playful. Many humans seem not to be having a good time either, checking out on their phones or sitting on a bench, disengaged, while their dog ignores them in favor of zooming like an overstimulated kindergartener on a sugar high. After an hour or so, they leave exhausted, but unfulfilled.
A common problem that I see is owners doing is bringing their over-aroused dog into the park on a tight leash. Dogs already in the park swarm the newcomer, who is handicapped by the leash and unable to move away if they’re uncomfortable being descended on like the new kid on the playground. Then, when the dog is under a high level of stress, the owner removes the leash and the dog explodes, running to get away from the uncomfortable social situation. This is read by the owner to be indicative of how much energy they have to burn. This may actually indicate that the dog is feeling stressed- and has just felt a huge amount of relief from running away from the owner that from their point of view failed to protect them. This isn’t great for your dog’s relationship with you!
It is up to us to be aware of our surroundings and watch what our dog is doing. It’s up to us to protect our dogs- both from bad experiences and potentially bad consequences. Not all dogs enjoy the park and even some who do enjoy it make it unenjoyable- or unsafe- for others.
Furthermore, dog parks can have both positive and negative effects on our dogs, not all of them positive. Exercise is great for our dogs, but dog parks are by far not the only way to get it. Medically, dog parks can be an extremely high-risk vector for internal parasites and diseases, especially in Houston and Austin’s warm climate. In my years of being in the industry, I have never heard a vet endorse dog parks as a great idea, and I have heard many express reservations about them.
Behaviorally, even if your dog is having a good time, they can still be engaging in dangerous or undesirable behaviors. Some dogs have incompatible playstyles and what seems like a typical play for a bully-breed dog can escalate into bullying of a less physically intense dog. For dogs that aren’t having a good time, they are what’s called being “flooded”. Think of the concept of flooding as taking something you’re scared of – snakes, spiders, the dark, etc.-- and tossing you in the middle of it. This is stressful in both short and long term for your dog, and it can damage your relationship if your dog associates you with the repeated application of a stimulus he finds terrifying. For smaller dogs, dog parks can literally be life or death- there have been numerous cases over the past decade of medium-sized or smaller dogs being killed by larger dogs engaging in predatory rather than playful behavior.
Despite the risks, I still visit dog parks occasionally with my dog. She finds them enjoyable, and I feel that there are ways to make the risks low enough to be acceptable for us. Having a safely fenced area to let your dog run off-leash is incredibly valuable as a dog owner. But there are ways to mitigate the risks and alternatives to traditional dog parks that may be a better choice for some individual dogs. When we do choose to visit a dog park I’m extremely careful to keep my eyes on my own dog, and keep a general feel for the overall ‘energy’ of the dogs in the park. We avoid times when the dog park is highly populated (such as weekend days with extremely nice weather) in favor of quieter times. I’m vigilant about keeping my dog up to date on preventative medication for parasites, and vigilant about the symptoms of contagious diseases in dogs that can be spread at dog parks. And I’m proactive about standing up for my own dog’s safety- if she is uncomfortable with another dog’s playstyle, we’ll move to another part of the park or leave if the offending dog continues to stress her. I’m also aware of other people’s dogs- if my dog is the stressor, we also leave! Familiarize yourself with dog body language by books, info-graphics, or videos, and listen to what your dog is trying to tell you.
Venture Dog Training would love to help you figure out the safest and most enjoyable ways to exercise and entertain your dog, whether they are a social butterfly or a lone wolf.