In preparation for one of my presentations at Groom Expo in September, I have been visiting dog parks to watch dogs as they interact. I could do this for hours. It’s so much fun to watch dogs play! I’ve also met some very nice, dog-loving people. For the most part, it’s been a good experience. However, I’ve witnessed a few disturbing incidences that made me wonder – are dog parks a good option for dogs?

Dog parks are the place to go to give your dog off-leash exercise because the world we now live in requires that dogs be leashed at all times in public. And not all people have fenced in yards. Dogs need to have that freedom as much as possible, especially sporting and working breeds. But another benefit of dog parks is supposed to be socialization with other dogs, also very important for young dogs.

As I watched, I saw a huge variety of breeds and sizes.  I was relieved to see that the larger dogs were gentle with the smaller dogs. And the dogs that have the stereotype of being “aggressive” were actually scary-cats!  The little dogs seemed to be the most confident, for which I was grateful because the difference in size can spell problems. A large dog can hurt a smaller dog – not always intentionally but just because they are bigger and stronger.

It only takes one dog, or one irresponsible owner, to create havoc at a dog park – and to potentially ruin a dog for life. One morning, I observed a group of five dogs – an Italian Spinone, a Shih Tzu, a Bichon, a Lab and a German Shepherd. They were getting along great! The Shep was young and a little tentative. The other dogs respected her and didn’t push her to play with them. Then along came an American Bulldog. He was young and very, very energetic. His owner simply let him off of the leash and allowed him to bowl over the other dogs. He systematically tried to bully each one. If a dog engaged in play with him, he chased it until the other dog was no longer interested in constantly being the one chased. (Optimal dog play is balanced where the roles reverse: one chases, then the other chases, etc.)  The owner simply stood at the entrance and watched. She made no efforts to stop her dog’s persistent chasing.

Then the trouble really started. The Bulldog spotted the young Shep and began to jump on top of her. The Shep cried out and desperately tried to get away but the Bulldog grew more and more agitated. To the trained eye (mine!), I could see that the Bulldog’s adrenaline was quickly climbing and he needed a time out. Thankfully, the owner did come over and grabbed him by the collar – a prong collar – and dragged him away from the Shep. But she allowed him to come back for more. He barreled over the Shep and pinned her on the ground. She was terrified. The Bulldog’s owner again grabbed the dog as the Shep’s owner also was able to rescue her. It was a miracle that no one was bitten, and that the dogs were okay.

I watched as the Bulldog’s owner dragged the dog out of the park, yelled at him and smacked him on the face.  Trust me, I wanted to have a talk with her to say that her behavior to this dog was inappropriate. She just made his issues much worse, and he will continue to aggress at other dogs. His dog-to-dog skills were bad and bound to get to the point where he will hurt another dog.

Then there’s the poor Shep. She was tentative around other dogs to begin with. Now after the confrontation with the Bulldog, she is probably scarred for life. It only takes one incident to make a dog afraid of other dogs, and she could become highly reactive to other dogs as a result.

What’s the conclusion on dog parks? If you frequent them or are planning on taking your dog to one, be vigilant. Watch the other dogs’ behaviors, engage with the other owners to be sure that they are watching their dogs, stand with your dog and pay close attention and maybe even take an air horn with you to break up a fight.  Dog parks can be wonderful but they also have the potential to be dangerous and detrimental to your dog.

A better option: planned and organized play groups. Many doggie daycares, boarding facilities and even some pet stores are offering this option. I’ll talk about play groups in a future post.