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Dog Parks, a Closer Look!

Everyone seems to get excited at the prospect of a new dog park arriving nearby. I get it! Our mind’s eye pictures the many dogs running, chasing and having a great time! We catch ourselves with a gleeful smile at the happiness this visit will bring for our own four-legged loved one.

Dog Park Perceptions vs. Reality

The first dog park was opened in 1979 in Berkeley California. Since then they have continued to pop up across the country with a call from dog lovers that these locations are important so that our dogs can have a place ” to just be a dog”! When asked, most humans agree that it is, or conceivably will be, when it arrives, the very best part of our dog’s day!

A dirty tennis ball in a park.
The reality is that the dog park can be challenging (Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash)
As a behavior consultant I can tell you that my colleagues and I discuss this very topic often. We have classes about dog parks at conferences! The reality is that though dogs are indeed social animals, the dog park can be challenging and not always the right version of “being social.”
Being thrown together in a fenced in area with strangers can sometimes not go as planned and is quite different than getting together and happily socializing with known friends for a walk or a hangout playdate.


If You Are Headed to the Dog Park

If you are headed to the dog park in your area or when visiting another, keep a few things in mind:
  • First scan the grounds, are the humans interacting as well with the dogs or scrolling through phones, using this time to catch up on social media? Things can change quickly in the park. You want to be able to intervene if necessary and you want others to be ready to do the same.
  • Be sure that your guy or gal is comfortable. Lip licking, yawning and a sideways head turn with big eyes can all be signs of stress in your dog. Also a low tail, with ears pinned back to the head are signals for the humans to look for.
  • Dog play involves stopping for breaks and taking turns with who is on top, role reversal. There is a lot of in and out, coming together and then space in between. Inhibited bites take place, they don’t have hands after all so a friendly grab is ok. Dog play can involve play growls, chasing, pinning, mounting and barking. Both should be enjoying the romp. If one dog seeks mom, dad or shelter, he may be telling you that he has had enough. If you aren’t sure, play should be stopped. Do they both willingly go back for more?
  • A dog jumping up to dad may be saying that he or she is not feeling comfortable. This dog should not be shoo’d off to go and play.
  • Small or timid dogs should be protected.
  • Notice what is going on. Smile and support but always be ready to step in if needed and to leave if that is the message you are receiving.
  • A bad experience at a dog park can stick with a dog and make him fearful outside of the park area. I do get many such calls. So if you are off to the dog park, try to go during off hours when it won’t be so overwhelming for your dog.

Remember too that they, like us, are all different. Some of us may do fine with an invitation to a party where we don’t know a soul, others of us may rather pass on that party.


About the Author
Debbie Sheridan is a proud Pet Professional Guild member, sitting on the Advocacy and the Inclusivity committees. She is a certified Family Dog Mediator, applied animal behavior consultant, an end of life doula for companion animals and has completed Michael Shikashio’s Aggression in Dogs Master Course. She works primarily with fearful and anxious dogs who need extra understanding. You can find her at her Debbie’s 4 Dogs website or Facebook page, where she promotes kindness always for the win.
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