Regular readers know that I just love taking my Boxers, Janice and Leroy, to the dog park. We have so many friends there, both human and canine. Some of our friends, we only see at the dog park, while others are people that we socialize with in other settings. We keep each other up to date on what’s going on in our lives, and we enjoy the time that we spend together. Sometimes, we collaborate on projects, like stringing lights around the dog park fencing at Christmas time for passers-by to enjoy. And sometimes, we just offer our love – like when Al lost his Saint Bernard, Hannah. We all rallied around him to offer condolences and support.
I think of my dog park friends as family. We’re all bonded together by the love that we have for our dogs. I think we have the perfect dog park, populated by the very best people, and the most wonderful dogs.
Others don’t have it as good. I got an email a few days ago from a friend in Montreal, Canada. The City of Montreal is currently in a battle with the SPCA over breed-specific legislation (BSL). The city passed a bylaw banning pit bulls and “pit bull types” (whatever the heck a “pit bull type” is). The SPCA is against the ban, and has gone to court over it. A judge has temporarily overturned the ban, pending further argument. If you’re wondering where I stand on pit bulls and BSL, check out The Real Truth About Pit Bulls.
Anyway, my Canadian friend, Danielle, has an American Staffordshire Terrier, one of the dogs that’s slated to be banned if the City of Montreal has its way. Reggie is the sweetest boy. I’ve known him since he was a little, blue-eyed puppy, and he’s every bit as adorable now as he was then. He’s great with other animals, fine with Danielle’s two cats, and he’s never met a person he didn’t like.
So, what’s got Danielle upset? At this point, it’s not even the potential ban, since it looks as though Montreal may, if the ban goes through, still “grandfather” in existing pit bulls. Danielle is heartbroken over what happened at her dog park.
Danielle and Reggie have been going to the same park for years now, and Reggie has always had a blast playing with his canine friends. Danielle enjoys the social time with other dog owners. Kind of sounds like my dog park, right?
Well, no. On her last visit, Danielle took Reggie into the park as she usually does, took him off his leash as she usually does, and then turned to talk to her friends, as she usually does. Then everything changed.
One of Danielle’s friends pointed over to the admissions area, where two women, each with a small dog, were whispering nervously to the park attendant and glancing back at Danielle. The attendant, who was new and didn’t know either Danielle or Reggie, then wandered over. “I’m sorry,” she said to Danielle, “But I have to ask you to leave.”
Danielle wanted to know why, and the attendant told her that it was because the two whispering women were concerned for the safety of their dogs.
Now, if that had been me, my response would have been a loud and heartfelt “Screw you, and everyone who looks like you, and your little dogs as well,” But Danielle is a bit more submissive than I am, and she simply left the park in tears. She also left to the accompaniment of a condescending lecture offered by one of the two women, to the effect that “I’m sorry, but you can’t expect me to take chances with my dog’s safety, and besides, you should know better than to bring a vicious breed to the park.”
At that point, if it had been me, saying “Screw you” would have been the kindest thing I did. The next thing might have required a ride in the back of a patrol car, and me calling friends for bail money.
Danielle and Reggie actually got booted from their regular dog park over nothing! How do you think that would have played out if Reggie were a human? People would be screaming about racial profiling, and rightly so!
Bad Dog Park! Bad!
So, there you have an example of a bad dog park. Or at the very least, a dog park where staff wasn’t properly equipped to deal withinsufferable idiots sensitive issues. And I guess I’ve also used this example to state my position against BSL again – well, it’s my blog and I can do what I want!
This got me thinking about how happy I am to have access to a dog park where all breeds are welcome – we have my Boxers playing with Cocker Spaniels and Beagles, Rottweilers playing with mixed breeds both small and large, Shih Tzus romping with dogs of their own size and bigger ones as well, and humans of all races and backgrounds bonding over their shared love of dogs. It’s an awesome dog park!
Of course there are other things that can make a difference between a good dog park and a bad one. So, when you’re choosing a dog park, what should you look for? Let’s talk about it.
First, A Little Background
Dog parks are becoming more and more popular all of the time. In fact, where I live, one of the biggest issues that came up at the last town council meeting was the need for more dog parks, specifically off-leash parks like the one Janice and Leroy and I frequent. And this isn’t just happening in my town – more and more municipalities are responding to the need for dog-friendly areas, including not just dog-specific parks, but beaches, boardwalks and other recreational locations. I think we’re coming to learn that responsible dog owners need places where they can go to socialize their dogs, and give them a happy, healthy life.
Happiness and good health doesn’t just mean lots of love and a proper diet. It also means exercise, and play with other dogs. Often, a visit to the dog park can provide a dog with the workout he needs, without the owner having to walk for miles at the end of a leash. We have busy lives, most of us, and at the end of the day we might simply be exhausted. I know that when I take Janice and Leroy to the dog park, I love being able to just take off the leash and sit on a bench, chatting with my friends. Janice and Leroy get the exercise and socialization that they need, and I get some “unwind time.”
I can do this, because I know that my dog park is a safe environment. I don’t have to go looking for another park. But if I did, here are the 3 key things I’d look for.
1. Lots of Space
Realistically, not every town or city can allocate a lot of space for a dog park. Some will go with a big park, while others will choose to have several small parks. It’s great if your city has a whole lot of land that can be devoted to a dog park, but it’s not always practical. Big or small, though, what you want is a park that offers enough space for dogs to move around in comfort. The last thing you want is to have dogs jammed in together and tripping over one another – that’s just going to lead to over-excitement, and the potential for fighting.
Keep in mind too, that dogs are very much like people in that they’re not all going to get along. Just as an example, I like most of the people at the park, but Joanne rubs me the wrong way, with her little blinged-up purse dog. Fortunately, my dog park is big enough that on the rare occasions when Joanne chooses to honor us with her presence, I can go to the other end of the park and stay out of her way.
My dog park is also big enough that if a dog becomes over-stimulated, his or her person usually has plenty of space (and time) to bring him under control before trouble starts. It’s very important that there’s enough room to remove a dog from a problem situation before it becomes a conflict that could result in injuries to dogs or people. In a good-sized park, the dogs get space and a bit of breathing time, and then once they’re calm, they can be re-introduced into the mix.
No, I’m just talking about poo. Poo is a fact of life in a dog park. Dogs are going to poo. People are going to step in poo. People are going to have to go home after their visit to the dog park and wash the poo off their shoes. If you’re looking for a poo-free environment, then please, just don’t go to a dog park.
Now, having said that – there are limits. Ideally, someone should clean up the dog park on at least a semi-regular basis. It kind of depends on the structure – at my park, we all clean up after our dogs. There are also managed parks, though, where attendants clean up every few hours or at the end of the day.
If you’re going to a dog park where, when you leave, you’re saying to yourself, “I’ve never seen so much poo in my life,” then you should probably find another park. This isn’t just because it’s nasty to find dog poo on your shoes – it also has to do with controlling disease. The thing is, dog poo can contain any number of harmful substances. Worms for one thing, but there are worse problems. Parvo virus, for example, can be transmitted in feces, and if you take it home on your shoes, it can live for as long as two years. I would hope that anyone who takes their dog to a dog park would have their dog vaccinated against parvo, but there’s no guarantee.
I might also point out that even in the very best dog parks, unless dog owners are required to provide proof of vaccination, there is no guarantee against infectious diseases. So make sure that your dog’s immunizations are all up to date before you take him to the park. For that matter, make sure they’re up to date even if you’re not taking him out and about – many terrible canine illnesses (distemper is one) are airborne, and can travel for miles.
You also want to make sure that there is clean water available at the dog park. Drinking from ponds and other sources of still water can transmit harmful bacteria to your dog. If you’re at all in doubt as to the cleanliness of the water in the park, then bring along a dish and some bottled water.
3. Responsible Dog Owners
This is probably the most important thing to consider when choosing a dog park – the other people who are bringing dogs to the park. You want to make sure that other dog people know the disposition of their dog, and won’t do anything to put other dogs in danger.
You’ll know the responsible owners when you see them – they’re the ones that carefully evaluate the situation before allowing their dogs to be off leash, and who keep a constant eye on their dogs even when they’re socializing with their human friends. They’re the ones who want to make sure that everything goes smoothly, and who work to make sure that it does.
They know their dog’s’ energy level, what their dog likes, what he doesn’t like, and when their dog’s mood is likely to change. They know how to identify the early warning signs. They introduce their dogs to others calmly and without pressure. They leash when necessary, and if they’re in doubt as to whether leashing might be necessary, they do it as a preventative measure. They watch their dogs carefully around children, because they know that even if their dog is totally gentle, children sometimes aren’t, and a twist to the ear or a poke to the eye could provoke a reaction. And if it’s their first visit, they pay special attention because they know that this is a new experience for the dog, and new experiences can sometimes be scary and provoke an out-of-character reaction. They know that when a dog is frightened, the “fight or flight” response is more likely to be “fight,” so they are vigilant.
Identifying Responsible Dog Owners
So, now you know the 3 keys to finding the right dog park. But you’re not done yet – you reasonably expect other dog owners to behave responsibly, but how do you know who will and who won’t? It’s not all that difficult. Think about the last time you were with kids in a park with kids. When did trouble occur? It was probably when Mom or Dad went off for a smoke break, or got involved in a conversation with another parent, and stopped watching their kid. They weren’t paying attention to behavior that might have to be dealt with.
Then, there are those parents who seem to be constantly on alert – the ones who practically have eyes in the back of their heads, and who can tell their kids, without even breaking conversation with another adult, ‘Don’t do that,” “Put that down,” or “Use your words and not your fist, you little s***!” They’re the parents who aren’t glued to their smartphones, and then just look up cluelessly once pandemonium has broken out.
Dog parents really aren’t cut from much the same cloth as human parents – the good ones are alert, know their dog’s personality, and keep an eye on things at all times. If you want a good experience at the dog park, these are the “dog parents” that you’ll hang out with. Even so, remember that there are never going to be any guarantees, and you’ll still have to keep a close eye on your dog, as well as other people’s.
A good dog park is a wonderful place. If you find the right park, you’ll have a place where your dog can exercise and become socialized in a safe, caring environment. But there are no guarantees. A good dog park can go sour, as Danielle found out, and you can end up having to look for another place to take your dog. So what you’ll have to do is keep an eye out for any potential problems, and if those problems seem to be insurmountable, find another park.
I am so very fortunate in that everyone I know at my dog park is friends with everyone else, and if issues should arise, I’m confident that we’d be able to deal with them. I’m lucky, too, in that I live in an area where the population is pretty stable, and people don’t move around much. In some places, people (and their dogs) tend to come and go, and that makes it hard to find a stable environment for exercising and socializing your dog.
I guess the final word is that if you find the right dog park, you’re very fortunate. If you don’t find it right away, keep on looking. There are good people, and good dogs out there just waiting to be friends with you. I wish you many happy days in your dog park with your human and canine friends.