Source: Psychology Today (Extract)
Posted: July 27, 2023

Should I take my dog to a dog park? This is a common but complicated question, and a good number of people have strongly held opinions.

The simplest answer is, “If your dog enjoys going to the dog park and meeting new dogs, take them and watch them and other dogs and their humans very carefully. But if your dog does not enjoy going to the dog park or meeting new dogs, don’t go.” This is much easier said than done for a variety of reasons. Discussing this question and dog park guidelines that are supported by research, citizen science, and common sense has been a valuable exercise for both of us, and we hope readers will gain an informed understanding of some of the risks of taking their canine companion to a dog park and feel confident in their decision.

Some rules of thumb

  • Be careful about sweeping generalizations such as this park is “good” and that park is “bad.” There aren’t many formal studies of what happens at dog parks, and regardless of the robustness of data collected on specific dogs and specific dog parks, there are few facts that can be applied to other locations with other dogs. Dog parks vary greatly, ranging from small dog runs barren of enrichment that are basically “dog relief areas” to larger well-designed dog-centric spaces to acres of natural parkland with multiple trails. Additionally, passing judgment on a specific dog park can be problematic because the same park can deliver a very different experience depending on the time of day, day of the week, and the dogs and humans present.

  • Only go to a dog park if your dog enjoys meeting new dogs and being at the dog park. This may seem obvious, but misconceptions persist, including the idea that dog parks are suitable for all dogs. For example, some people make the mistake of believing that a dog park is a good place to “rehabilitate” a dog that is very fearful of other dogs, but this can easily increase the dog’s fear and the odds of the dog aggressing.

  • Be attentive and become fluent in “dog” so you can better read your dog and the other dogs present. Pay close attention to body language and behaviors that may indicate that a dog is stressed (e.g., anxious, over-stimulated, “shut down,” or in pain). As well, learn to differentiate between aggressive and friendly encounters and have a good understanding of when, for example, rough-and-tumble play fighting is likely to escalate into serious fighting. A dog park study done in 2014 looked at play bouts to learn if there are behaviors that could reliably signal if a play bout would likely end in play or play-induced aggression. Data showed that “Growl, bite-at, squirm, belly exposed, fleeing, and a tucked tail were significantly more likely to be exhibited by the initiator of aggression, indicating that the majority of play-induced aggression is ‘defensive.’

  • Ensure your dog has enough space to avoid conflicts. Crowded conditions can increase the chances of a dog fight occurring, especially in areas of high excitement such as the entrance area. If the main entrance has dogs hanging around it, choose an alternate entrance. When you are in the park, don’t let your dog loiter near the entrance; move farther into the park to help keep the entrance area clear.

  • Pay attention to the behaviors of the humans, too, because their attentiveness and responses to what is happening in the environment can greatly influence the behaviors of the dogs present. Keep your distance or avoid the park if dog guardians are distracted (e.g., focused on their smartphone), or their dogs are too far away for any meaningful supervision, or if they refuse to remove their dog despite the obvious signs that the dog is not enjoying the experience.