As you consider ways to socialize and exercise your dog, one option that may come to mind is the local dog park. For many, dog parks are wonderful opportunities to provide exercise and enjoyment for dogs; for others, dog parks are disasters waiting to happen. Before you make a decision either way, consider the possibilities carefully.
The advantages of dog parks are fairly obvious: your dog gets exercise and socialization experience in ways that simply aren’t possible when he or she is leashed to a human – and let’s not forget that dogs are, fundamentally, social creatures -- and you get the opportunity to interact with other dog lovers, maybe arrange some doggy “play-dates,” and perhaps make new friends. And all of this happens – if your dog park is properly constructed and maintained – in a secure environment that usually provides water, shade, toys or fun “obstacles” for the dogs and seating for the humans.
At the same time, dog parks are never risk-free environments. Even when all the play is entirely friendly – and “friendly” dog play can, to inexperienced humans, look disturbingly fierce – there is a chance for injury, especially when the activities are high energy and the dogs involved are of unequal size and strength. For this reason many people refuse to take still-growing dogs to a dog park. Keep in mind, though, that many dog parks have separate areas, or separate hours, for smaller dogs. It is also the case that some owners are, unfortunately, irresponsible and/or oblivious to the reality of their dog’s character. While the vast majority of dog parks ban dogs not spayed or neutered, sometimes people break the rules, and even dogs that have been fixed can still show aggression, dominance, or other potentially dangerous behaviors, and those behaviors can lead to dogs or people getting injured. (Those behaviors have occasionally been known to lead to lawsuits as well.) Some dogs may not be current on vaccinations, so the possibility of your dog getting parasites, while not astronomically high, is certainly real. While most dog park regulars are good about knowing their dogs and closely monitoring their behavior, there’s always the chance there could be a dog in the dog park who simply shouldn’t be there. There’s also a lot of variety in the “chemistry” of dog interactions; the lab mix that plays so wonderfully with your dog may turn into a harassing monster when that husky shows up. We shouldn’t expect all dogs to get along any more than we should expect that of all people.
If you decide to pursue the dog park option, consider paying a visit without your dog to get a feel for your local park, its culture and how it operates. (While many dog parks require memberships, they often allow a “freebie” visit or two to potential members; some municipal dog parks may be free, though often only for city residents.) Talk to some of the dog-park “regulars” there, and talk to your vet and trainer and perhaps breeder. You’ll get a lot of different viewpoints – dog people can have very strong opinions when it comes to their canine companions – and you’ll have to juggle lots of facts and opinions before arriving at a decision with which you’re comfortable. And don’t forget to pay extra attention to the most important opinion in this decision: your dog’s. Simply put, not all dogs love dog parks. If your dog consistently shows signs of discomfort at the dog park, don’t force the issue. There’s a world of options when it comes to having fun with and providing stimulation for your dog.