Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park

Why an essay called "The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually" misleads readers.

Posted Feb 08, 2020

Dogs parks aren't all bad, actually

"...we take issue of the tone and heavy-handedness of this article ["The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually."]—the main takeaway is that dog parks are teaming with dog fights, careless owners and rife with disease! That has not been our experience. In fact, despite at times the presence of an irresponsible owner and unruly dog, most off-leash areas we’ve frequented for three decades are relatively incident free."  Editors of Bark magazine

Yesterday afternoon I learned about a New York Times essay by Sassafras Lowrey called "The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually." The subtitle reads, "Dog parks may seem like great additions to the community, but they’re rife with problems—for you, and for your dog. Here’s what to know before you go." The moment I saw the eye-catching, hyped-up title, many warning flags started flying, and my own deep concerns were supported, and continue to be supported, by emails pouring into my inbox.

Ms. Lowrey's essay is available online, so here are some concerns about some of the myths that are offered. Having spent a good deal of time at many different dog parks that greatly differ, I wondered how many different dog parks Ms. Lowrey actually visited, how much time she spent at each of them, and what sorts of information she collected by watching dogs and talking with their humans.

Some of my and others' experiences and research are summarized in a piece called "Dog Parks Can Be Fun Places to Go, but the Dog Has to Agree" and in Canine ConfidentialNot surprisingly, opinions go all over the place, and it turns out that all dog parks actually aren't all bad. Some people love dog parks, and some hate them, and some dogs love dog parks, and some don't. But it's the dog's opinion that counts, so it's important to understand what each individual dog wants and needs and to listen to them very carefully. 

Some words of caution

First off, there is no "the" dog park. Dog parks vary greatly. Each dog park has a unique identity—its own personality, if you will—that reflects the culture and attitudes of the locals or regulars. Even within a small city like Boulder, there are differences among dog parks.

Marc Bekoff
Dogs having fun at a local dog park
Source: Marc Bekoff

Second, there is no "the" dog. Dogs clearly vary greatly in temperament and personality, and there's no universal, prototypical dog. Normative generalizations simply do not reflect the diversity of who dogs truly are. How boring it would be if they were all alike. 

In Ms. Lowrey's essay, we also read,

"Especially for urban dogs that don’t have backyards to exercise in, dog parks can sound like a great idea. There is nothing natural, however, about dogs that aren’t familiar with one another to be put in large groups and expected to play together. Many of us just accept the assumption that dog parks are good places to socialize a dog, but that may not be the case."

Because it's estimated that only around 15-25 percent of dogs in the world—estimated to be around 900 million—are "homed" individuals, it's rather natural for millions upon millions of dogs to decide with whom they'll interact, and they often play and get along very well with one another and with people.

There's also a discussion about socialization in a section called "The socialization myth." While there's some useful food for thought, it's loaded with over-generalizations and ignores individual differences among dogs, dog-human relationships, and what the process of socialization is all about. If a dog is to become "a card-carrying dog," it would be good for them to have many different sorts of interactions with males and females, dogs and humans, of all sizes, ages, and personalities. 

We also read about "playground bullies" and "injuries." Yes, some dogs can be bullies, and it's essential for their humans to control them and not allow them to push around other dogs and people. Along these lines, we're told, "From minor scuffles to serious incidents, injuries are common at dog parks."

While I know of no systematic studies centering on the claim that injuries are common at dog parks, it's essential to recognize that the rate at which rough-and-tumble play actually escalates into serious aggression is remarkably low, because many people misread frenetic play as bordering on or being real aggression.

For example, Melissa Shyan and her colleagues reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations on wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play. (See "When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness.") In one very detailed study of the social behavior of dogs at a dog park, serious aggression was never observed. (See also "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter.")

If you enjoy going to a dog park, allow the dog to tell you whether they also enjoy it

It's important not only to learn about dog-dog interactions but also dog-human and human-human interactions at dog parks. Many so-called dog problems really are people problems and problems of "dog parenting."

We really don’t know all that much about the dynamics of control and freedom at dog parks. At the conclusion of a thoughtful essay called "Situated Activities in a Dog Park: Identity and Conflict in Human-Animal Space," Sonoma State University professor Patrick Jackson writes, “This study suggests that dog parks not only provide insight into canine behavior but also into human-animal and human-human interaction. Thus, while dog parks may appear as urban playgrounds for dogs, the interactions that take place there have implications that extend far beyond the fence that defines their boundary.”2

Being a naturalist at a dog park and becoming "fluent in dog" can be a win-win for dogs and their humans

"On a good day, if the dog park you visit is large enough, it may physically tire out your dog. But the visit won’t actually provide your dog with the kind of enriching mental and emotional stimulation that dogs need. Dog parks, unfortunately, are often more about humans than they are about dogs." —Sassafras Lowrey

"Considering the high incidence of under-enriched and under-socialized frustrated dogs, scaring people away from parks instead of guiding them on how to use them wisely seems counter-productive." —Amanda Dwyer

"This sweeping condemnation of dog parks is inane and ill-informed." —Maria Santos

"[Your essay is] a needed correction to perspectives that may be and are limited to time, place, and strictly human interpretations." —Patrick Jackson

All in all, there's no inherent reason why dog parks always are "bad places" for dogs. The bottom line is a simple one, namely, if a dog enjoys going to meet his friends, other dogs, and perhaps other humans at a dog park, take them there. And if they don't, don't go unless you go on your own, which also can be a very pleasant experience.

I was thrilled when someone who "used to drag his dog to the dog park" came to realize that he could go on his own and have a great time without "putting his dog through hell." I also really like to see local trainers hanging out at dog parks and watching the dogs do what they do. Sometimes we have valuable discussions about different aspects of dog behavior when they're relatively free "to be dogs."

Why go to a dog park if it doesn’t benefit the dog? I couldn't disagree more with the claim, "The visit won’t actually provide your dog with the kind of enriching mental and emotional stimulation that dogs need."

While it might not for some dogs, the vast majority of the numerous dogs with whom I'm familiar get the enriching and emotional stimulation they want and need and much more. Just watch them as the car they're in gets close to their dog park and their gleeful reactions when they run to the gate. Their exuberance as they zoom here and there is contagious, and often, when they're told they have to leave, they do everything possible to avoid it, including engaging in more "zoomies" either alone or with others. 

Ms. Lowrey concludes, "There is no shame in not surrendering your dog to what has become the quintessential urban dog experience: running with dozens of strangers in a small, smelly pen as people stand by, looking at their phones or gossiping. Make the time you have with your dog meaningful and enriching; after all, your dog wants to spend time with you, too."

Numerous dog parks aren't small, smelly pens, and even if some are, we need to ask, smelly to whom? Let's not forget that dogs have radically different senses of smell, and what we find disgusting, they likely savor. (See "Dogs: An Exciting Journey Through Their Sensory Worlds.") A dog who's well-cared for can have it all—quality time with other dogs and quality time with many different people at dog parks and elsewhere.

I don't doubt Ms. Lowrey's good intentions. However, I encourage readers to beware of the over-arching generalizations she offers, because they don't take into account the enormous ways in which dog parks and dogs differ and the huge variations in dog-dog and dog-human relationships. Along these lines, keep in mind that two detailed studies conducted at different times at the same dog park in St. Johns, Newfoundland yielded different results.

"Also, suggesting that all or even most dog parks are "bad" is as ludicrous as saying that all dogs love to play—they don't—or that we shouldn't hug dogs—some like it, and some don'tand we need to respect each and every individual dog and honor what they like and don't like."

One way to make better decisions is to become fluent in dog—dog literate—and pay close attention to your dog as the individual they truly are. Dog parks can be wonderful places to conduct formal research and citizen science. They can be an ethologist's dream. (See, for example, "Social Behavior of Dogs at an Off-Leash Park in Newfoundland" and "Butts and Noses: Secrets and Lessons from Dog Parks.")

As in all interactions between humans and dogs, we must take into account the dog's point of viewwhat they want and need—and listen to them very carefully. Let your dog tell you what they want to do and what they're feeling. Let them have a say about the situation at hand. And let them be dogs and engage in dog-appropriate behaviors as much as possible. (See, "For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.")

Nothing is gained, and a lot is lost, when we selfishly impose our wishes and desires on our canine companions. When we allow them to state their opinions and accept what they're telling us, it's a win-win for all.

References

*For a strong endorsement of dog parks see Dog Parks Can Be Great Places for Off-Leash Activity by the editors of Bark Magazine.

Notes:

1) Here are some of the emails I've received.

"[Your essay is] a needed correction to perspectives that may be and are limited to time, place, and strictly human interpretations." —Patrick Jackson

"Just wanted to say I appreciate your response to the recent NY times article against dog parks at large. I live in a city that has very little park space dedicated to off leash areas and it's not helpful when respected media outlets make misleading and overly cautious cases against their existence. They really can provide wonderful and enriching experiences for a multitude of dogs. Sure, not every dog is park appropriate, and always watch your dog and intervene when needed and so on. Considering the high incidence of under-enriched and under-socialized frustrated dogs, scaring people away from parks instead of guiding them on how to use them wisely seems counter-productive." —Amanda Dwyer

 "Just like a playground where dozens of tiny humans and their associated grown ups hang out, dog parks can be places where things go wrong. But from my experience dog parks, and playgrounds for that matter, are positive and fun places to be. If there are prickly dogs (or people) at the dog park, I sometimes leave. Likewise, if my dog isn't enjoying herself anymore, we also leave. However, I always go back because my dogs enjoy it more often than not and so do I and so do most of the other dogs. Watching dogs have fun with one another at the dog park is, in fact, one of my great joys." —Heather McWilliams Mierzejewski

"Imagine if every human who has ever had a normal but negative human interaction in a public space (like throwing my hands up when someone passed me and then slowed down yesterday) was told they could never go out in public again because it’s too dangerous or upsetting. It’s surreal! Sequestering a social carnivore because people find species-normal play and conflict resolution to be worrisome is…I am just out of words." —Kristi Benson 

"Thousands of dogs have fun interactions in dog parks daily. But the flash of teeth or the sound of a growl even without injury to either dog is enough to send many people scurrying for home. We clearly have more work to do educating pet owners about normal dog-dog behavior." —Tim Steele

"This sweeping condemnation of dog parks is inane and ill-informed." —Maria Santos

"This rampant dog park bashing is totally uninformed." —Martin Blackman

2) Dr. Jackson followed up in an email, "I was impressed with the high level of the disconnect that may or does exist between the humans and the nonhumans in dog parks I’ve been to...what I notice (and I’m thinking you would agree to some extent) is that people often have no idea what their dogs are 'really' up to. But the fact that that exists—that humans in the dog park create interpretations and act on them (regardless of their 'objective' accuracy or relevancy to the dogs in the way the humans intend)—can have huge implications for the dogs and their inter- and intra-species interactions in that context."

References

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018. (Many essays on different aspects of dog behavior and dog-human interactions can be seen here.)

_____. "Why Do People Make Up Myths and Other Stuff About Dogs?"

_____. Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care.

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019.