Open, green spaces are an incredibly important part of urban cities and one type of these spaces is a dog park! Dog parks are great places for dogs and their owners to spend time outside, socialize, and release some pent-up energy. Relatively speaking, these parks are pretty new and there are still a lot of rules, common practices, and etiquette being decided. Every park will be different but there are some general ground rules that those going to a dog park should follow.
History of Dog Parks
While cities have been around for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the last few centuries that the global population shifted to a more urban residence. Because of the Industrial Revolution and growing urbanization, more and more people have been living in urban and suburban areas than ever before. In fact, roughly 55% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2018, compared to just 30% in 1950. Plus, the largest percentage of urban living is North America, with 82% of the population in cities. And as people have moved into urban areas, dogs have too!
Cities and suburban areas are great places for people and dogs alike but these areas offer a drastically different lifestyle compared to what most dogs were originally bred to do. Policies and regulations around domestic animals, including dogs, have shifted and drastically changed over the last couple of centuries and leash laws in the United States started to pop up in the early to mid 20th century. With these new laws (and others), places for people to take their dogs to run free began to diminish. But in 1979, the first dog park was established in Berkeley, California (although, this park wasn’t officially sanctioned by the city until 1983!).
In the decades since that first dog park in Berkeley, there are now an estimated 1,200 dog parks around the United States. As of 2015, Portland, OR had the greatest number of dog parks in the US, with a total of 33 parks in the city (5.7 for every 100,000 residents). Those with political power, disposable income, and extra time are a big driving force behind where dog parks end up nowadays and the creation of new parks are not without controversy. Chicago’s South Side, for example, only got an official dog park in the last few years while the predominately white North Side has 22 official dog parks.
Creating a dog park isn’t as simple as just finding some land and saying it’s a dog park now. Nowadays, there’s a lot that goes into deciding where dog parks should go and what features should be included. Where a dog park ends up is also incredibly important, as land use conflicts may arise and not everyone is a fan of dog parks. People living next to or around a dog park, for example, might complain to the city (or other local government) about noise levels or dog poop left behind. The environmental impact of dog parks also needs to be considered, as there are many ways in which dogs negatively affect local ecosystems, habitats, and wild animal populations.
However, it is possible for dog parks to be built and visited in a way that works with all involved. In the early 1990s, Seattle was hit by the dog park craze but complaints about the areas only grew and the city government took a hard approach by hiring more animal control officers and issuing citations. Dog owners formed the group Citizens for Off-Leash Areas and worked with the city council and Department of Parks and Rec to create a 15-month pilot program at eight new dog parks in 1996. The program ended up being a success and taught those involved how to identify selection criteria that would lead to a successful park. And Seattle is just one of many cities that has been able to create space for owners and their dogs.
Rules and Regulations
Every town and county will have its own rules and regulations for the dog parks in its area. Rules for the parks will vary but common ones include:
- Owners are responsible for their animals at all times; this includes cleaning up your dog’s waste and making sure your dog is well behaved. Dogs need to be socialised, relatively well trained, and nonaggressive towards strangers and other dogs.
- Make sure your dog is up to date on all relevant vaccinations and parasite control. Do not bring a dog that is sick with a contagious illness/parasite, like kennel cough or roundworm.
- No one should bring:
- A reactive, aggressive, or dangerous dog. Without proper training, guidance, and a lot of work, taking a reactive dog to the dog park could very easily result in a bad situation and could make the dog’s fear/anxiety even worse. If you do have a reactive or aggressive dog (which there’s nothing inherently wrong with that), talk to your vet about the issue and find a great dog trainer or behaviorist to work with.
- A female dog in heat. Leave any and all female dogs in heat at home, as their presence in the park can create fights or distractions for other dogs.
- A puppy. Until they are full vaccinated and a bit bigger, puppies do not belong at a dog park!
- A hyper, generally under exercised dog. If you do have an overly excited dog with a lot of pent up energy, do some sort of activity before going to a park to release some of that energy! This can include going for a walk or jog, doing scent work, and/or working on obedience training. Dog parks can be a great way for your dog to socialize and exercise but it should by no means be the only outlet your dog has.
- Too many dogs. Trouble could break out if you’re not able to keep a close eye on all the dogs you are responsible for.
- Do not leave your dog unattended. This goes back to the first point. Dog parks are not doggy day cares and remember, if something happens to your dog or your dog causes a problem, you are still responsible, whether or not you are present! By being present, you can keep an eye on how your dog is feeling and potentially prevent a conflict by removing your dog when you start seeing signs that they are getting overwhelmed or tired.
- Avoid bringing little kids, as infants and toddlers can easily be knocked over by accident by boisterous dogs or unintentionally cross a strange dog’s boundary and get hurt. Your dog and child might be incredibly comfortable with each other but that isn’t a universal experience and some dogs just aren’t good with children. The point of dog parks is to provide space for dogs to run free and that is hard to do if there are also young kids around. Older children should also be respectful of human and canine boundaries.
- Be Attentive! Being at a dog park is a great way to be present and enjoy the great outdoors while also bonding with your dog. By putting away your phone or other distractions, you can better pay attention to how your dog is feeling (and if you need to scoop some poop!).
- Keep your dog on a leash unless you are in a designated off leash area. Playing while on a leash could result in entanglements or injury and generally, it’s better for dogs to meet and play off leash.
- Be mindful of gates and entryways by always making sure they are closed behind you. A vast majority of dog parks in the United States are likely to have a holding pen entry that has two gates and allows for people to take a leash off their dogs before entering the park. These entrances also allow for people and their dogs to smoothly enter and exit without risking other dogs escaping. When approaching this type of entrance, be sure to wait until it is clear of people and dogs before going in!
Etiquette at Dog Parks
While the rules and regulations will differ slightly between dog parks, there is still a lot to be mindful of that either can’t be or just aren’t covered by official rules or legal regulations. For example, try to avoid repetitive activities in dog parks that could result in high arousal levels, resource guarding, or anxiety in your dog. This also means that you should not bring your dog’s favorite toys, as they could get aggressive trying to protect them. Fetch, for example, can be a great way for dogs to run but it can actually go from a healthy activity to an exhaustive obsession/compulsion for some dogs. If your dog does get obsessive around playing fetch, it might be best to avoid that activity or avoid some of the busier times at your local park.
High arousal levels in a dog can be dangerous in a public setting, as dogs might accidentally start an incident that snowballs out of control. Dog trainer Adrienne Farricelli explains that with a high level of arousal, “the dog is unable to contain himself and this interferes with his ability to think clearly and cognitively function”. Basically, high arousal levels can result in a dog (or even a person) having such a surplus in energy that it infers with judgment and causes bad behavior. Certain breeds do have more energy than others and without the right routines (exercise, training, etc), some overstimulating environments can end badly for some dogs.
A big part of being polite at a dog park is understanding canine body language and signals. Even if your dog loves every person and other living creature they’ve ever met, it’s still important to know canine body language and understand just how dogs interact. Every dog will play differently but generally, play behavior and positive signals in dogs include play bows, relaxed ears, happy tails, mouthing/play biting, exaggerated growling or barking, and role reversals. However, no matter your best efforts, there’s always the possibility of a fight breaking out between two dogs. Signs of dog aggression include raised heckles, stiffness, snapping, lunging, an intense stare and a squared-off/quiet stance, a stiff or straight tail, and ears that are completely pinned back or standing straight up.
Dog parks are just one of many fun things you and your dog(s) can do together but it shouldn’t be the primary way your dog spends time outside. It should be one of many things you do with your dog every week and can even be just one activity of many during a day. Even if your dog is having a great time, be mindful of how long you’re at a park during a single visit and how often you go during a given period of time. Obviously, you shouldn’t abruptly interrupt your pup while they’re playing but plan to spend 30-60 minutes at most during every visit. You’ll be the judge of when your dog seems ready to leave but some blanatly evident signs that your dog wants to go includes waiting by the gate or staying by your side instead of playing.
All of these etiquette tips and rules are, naturally, completely dependent on whether or not your dog would even like being at the dog park. Unfortunately, not every dog is going to be very social or could get overwhelmed/afraid in large crowds. There are, unfortunately, many dogs that are reactive towards other dogs for many different reasons and would not do well in dog parks. So while it’s always good to know the basic rules and etiquette of dog parks, the first and most important thing to know is whether or not your dog should go to a dog park. If you decide that the answer is no, there are still plenty of ways you and your dog can have fun. The most important aspect of bonding and exercising with your dog is that everyone involved is happy and safe.
In the grand scheme of things, dog parks are still relatively new! But with thoughtful consideration, careful planning, and clear rules, these spaces can often be a fun spot for dogs and their owners! They can be a great way for dogs to socialize and play with a variety of dogs that are all different breeds, sizes, and play types. As with any part of dog ownership, it’s important and necessary for you as the owner to know what the laws/rules are regarding dog parks, if your dog would even be a good fit for these areas, and how to best read your dog’s body language. These areas aren’t for everyone but they can also be fun spaces for dogs to have new experiences and interact with humans and other dogs.
Do you and your dog go to dog parks? Let me know in the comments!