In Australia we are lucky to have many dog-friendly parks which allow us to socialise our dogs from puppyhood. Dogs otherwise confined to apartments or left alone all day can have a place to stretch their legs. Dog parks are great – but are all dog parks good for all dogs all of the time?
Dog trainer Karie Bride looks at the pros and cons of taking your dog to a dog park, and what you should consider:
The Pros of Dog Parks
Many Australians visit dog parks daily, and most reasons are obvious. Dog parks can provide:
- An opportunity for your dog to socialise with all manner of other dogs and people. This lets them learn about the big wide world.
- Even if you’re busy with work and life, it’s easy for most of us to unwind in a dog park after work, giving our dogs much needed exercise and mental stimulation.
- For those of us who aren’t as active as we once were, a dog park gives us a way for our dogs to be active while we don’t have to.
- Most dog parks are very safe for off-leash activities and running.
- Chasing. Playing. Barking. Your dog can expel all his nuisance behaviours at the park, which means he’s tired and quiet at home!
- You can socialise with fellow dog lovers, talk all things dog (or Netflix), while enjoying watching your dog and other dogs at play.
The Cons of Dog Parks
The risk of a dog (or person) being injured is a deterrent for most people. We only need to join a local Facebook community to know how often this happens. Some dogs can be very reactive, whereas others will happily roll around and play no matter how rough another dog is.
Some dogs get excited and go off on a tangent at the dog park, meaning the good manners they display at home are gone with the wind. How often have you heard “Oh, that’s so unusual for my dog to bark like that”?
Some owners encourage rough play with their dogs at home, which can turn them into a bit of a schoolyard bully at the dog park. Other dogs will lash out from insecurity, fear, or a feeling they must attack first (even if the other dog has no intention of fighting). Quite often we misread the signs that our dog is stressed, and sometimes there’s a hazy line between play fighting and real fighting.
Too much excessive play with other dogs at the park can lead to your dog favouring the company of other dogs to humans. Dogs who visit off-leash parks regularly can become “fixated” on the park, making them restless at home until they can drag you to the park. When dogs become fixated on the park, they often ignore commands and leave you frustratingly trying to catch them.
If that sounds like your dog, it may be worth limiting visits to the dog park, and instead opt for on-lead walks, interactive games, or training sessions which focus your dog’s attention on you.
What You Should Consider When Taking Your Dog to an Off-Lead Park
Before you take your puppy to an off-lead dog park, consider the following:
- Is your puppy fully vaccinated?
- Always take special care with a dog under 1 year.
- The personality of your dog – how do you expect him to react with other dogs and people?
- Your personality – if your dog gets into a fight with another dog, or jumps on other people, will you be able to deal with this?
- Not all dogs are suited to being off-lead in a park full of strange dogs.
- If your dog is aggressive then an off-lead park isn’t for you. You may feel in control of your dog, but there will be other dogs or people in the park who may approach recklessly. Especially children who are familiar with their own non-aggressive dog.
- If your dog has previously attacked a dog, especially if the attack left a puncture mark or wound, should not be taken to an off-lead dog park.
- If your dog is an ex-race dog (such as a Greyhound), be wary he may chase something he sees as a “lure”.
- Easily excitable dogs can quickly become aggressive. What may seem like “play” can instantly turn into a “fight”.
- Is your dog a bully dog? He may not seem that way to you, but some dogs bully submissive dogs.
- Is your dog territorial? If your dog is territorial in your front yard, this behaviour may also occur at a familiar dog park.
- Is your dog possessive over a toy or a ball? How will he react if another dog tries to take the toy? Many dog fights break out over toys and balls.
- If your bitch is in season do not take her to an off-lead park. The scent of a bitch in season can affect the interactions of all surrounding dogs.
- If your male dog is unneutered he may give chase to any female dogs, and more aggressive to other unneutered male dogs.
- If your dog has any signs of illness, such as Kennel Cough, do not take them to any park.
Although it is good for any dog to be socialised, if your dog is afraid of the dog park then you should consider this as being ok – dog parks are not essential to the happiness and wellbeing of your dog.
It can take only one negative experience at a dog park for your dog to become fearful, and this may lead to reactive behaviour, hinder their confidence, or cause them to learn to intimidate.
Always supervise your dog at an off-leash dog park.
Small Dogs in Dog Parks
Small dogs are more at risk at the dog park, mostly for obvious reasons. They’re more vulnerable and more easily injured or scared by boisterous bigger dogs.
Some dogs, such as ex-race dogs or breeds with hunting instincts, may see a smaller dog as prey. A Greyhound may see a small dog running as a lure, especially if they look like a rabbit.
It is common for smaller dogs to learn to be aggressive as a protection mechanism, particularly if you fail to supervise them in rough play with larger dogs.
Your small dog can still benefit greatly from socialisation and play at an off-lead dog park, but take added care and keep them near you as much as possible.
It is a common reaction for people with smaller dogs to pick them up when a larger dog approaches. This can cause an encounter which may have been harmless to escalate as the other dog becomes frustrated and tries to jump. Although this may be necessary with some encounters, being “over protective” may lead to difficulties.
Older Dogs in the Dog Park
If you own an older dog, or you see your young bouncy puppy playing with an older dog, take extra care.
Old dogs may suffer arthritis, poor vision, deafness, and other age-related illnesses which makes them more vulnerable.
Keeping Your Dog Safe at the Dog Park
It’s not all about your dog and how they act at the dog park. It’s also about you!
You must be “on the ball” at all times, considering the personality of your dog, and the potential risks and changing environment.
A motorcycle rider will constantly be on the alert as they’re not protected by metal and glass, and you must always be alert to protect your dog and other dogs and people he interacts with.
Avoid big groups of people and dogs when you arrive at the park. Your dog can be considered an “outsider” or “invader” when introduced to a large pack. It is better to start at a quieter area of the park and allow your dog to mingle gradually.
Before you let your dog go off and play, make them “sit” first. You can then reward them with the exciting treat of free space to run around and play!
Use treats (diced chicken is great) and periodically recall your dog. Recall is your most powerful tool to get your dog out of a potentially harmful or awkward situation.
If you pick up your dog (a common reaction with small dogs), do so without emotion, panic, or shouting. This can quickly worsen a situation and cause long-lasting behavioural issues, fear, and aggression in your dog.
related diseases should be protected from the rough play of younger dogs.
Your attitude and ability to ‘read’ dog play
Not all owners are suitable for off lead parks either!
Consider this checklist:
Are you fearful or anxious about what might happen to your dog? If you are your fears
will transfer to your dog. It may be better to introduce your dog to others in a more
controlled way such as a friend’s backyard with chosen playmates rather than risk
high anxiety levels at a park filled with unknown dogs.
Are you able to read ‘Dog Play’ (see inset)? When does play spill over from happy rough
and tumble to inappropriate intimidation? Some people create problems by mistaking
genuine play for aggression and reprimanding their dog unnecessarily. Others fail to
recognise when play becomes too rough and should be interrupted. Learning to
interpret dog play is an important function of a good puppy class where owners as
well as puppies are able to learn about appropriate play.
Are you able to call your dog? A fence may keep your dog from running on the road,
but is not a substitute for effective training. There will be many times when you will
need to call your dog to you for his safety and/or the safety of other dogs and
Are you willing to accept responsibility for the safety of your dog and the safety of others
rather than let the dogs “work it out” ?
Are you willing to supervise your dog at all times? Dog parks are not babysitting areas
for dogs. Reading the paper on the park bench or worse still dropping your dog off
while you go shopping is unacceptable.
Do you want your dog to play with other dogs? Not everyone does. Your dog can learn
to be polite and friendly to other dogs without being allowed off lead play. Many
classes now teach a “say hello and let’s go exercise”. This exercise involves
teaching on-lead dogs to greet others with a quick sniff ‘hello’ and move on. The
idea is that other dogs are no big deal – not scary and yet not the ultimate ecstasy.
While off lead play with other dogs provides easy mental and physical stimulation for
many dogs, if you are willing to provide it in other ways such as long walks, runs or
regular training there is nothing wrong with that.
The Design of the Dog Park
Dog Parks vary greatly in size, shape, safety features and offered activities – such as
swimming spots or picnic areas. Unfortunately many councils still allocate tiny strips of
unfenced land between a nice oval and a busy road for off lead dog runs. Typically these
areas receive little usage as dogs who need them most – young adolescent dogs – would
be at greatest risk of running onto the road and injuring themselves and others. Luckily
things are slowly improving with more areas becoming fenced and in some cases
specifically designed. Many dogs may be sociable and friendly in one park but less so in
another and the reason will often reflect the dog park’s design.
Generally better parks will :
• be larger. The greater the area the less likelihood of dog fights and the less wear
and tear on surfaces and facilities.
• have an irregular shape with meandering paths that encourage owners to keep
walking rather than stand still. Many older dogs are really not that interested in
playing with other dogs but DO love to run and explore. Paths that encourage
owners and dogs to keep walking together are best for enhancing the dog/owner
relationship and preventing dog to dog conflicts.
• hills, trees, shelters and other structures are not only aesthetic but provide visual
breaks and safety barriers reducing territoriality.
• have two or three entrances ideally with double safety gates. Entrance ways
should be kept clear of benches, tables and water taps to discourage people and
dogs from congregating there. Crowded, narrow passages can be a source of
• be securely fenced.
Ok, you’ve decided you and your dog are suitable candidates for a dog park. Your dog loves to
play and is eager for a romp. You have a basic understanding of dog body language and can
cope with watching dogs play, chase and gently chew at one another. You’re prepared to keep an
eye on your dog and to interrupt when and if play gets out of hand whether your dog is the
victim or the instigator and have the ability to call him to you.
Before you go:
• Choose a suitable dog park for YOUR dog. Does your dog primarily want to play with
other dogs or to run free and explore? For dogs who are less interested in play, a
larger park with fewer dogs at a low usage time is the best answer. For a young dog
searching for a playmate try a busy park on a weekend.
• What times are busiest or quietest at your local the park? Does your dog have a group
of friends who tend to come at the same time each day? Is there a time when a ‘wilder’
crowd runs that may intimidate your dog? Choosing wisely can sometimes make all the
difference between an enjoyable outing and an upsetting incident.
• Ensure your dog is wearing a collar with name, phone number and address just in case
he somehow gets lost.
• Ensure your dog is not wearing a choke chain or anything else that could get caught on
another dog, shrub or piece of equipment.
• Take a container of fresh water and plenty of poo bags.
Keeping your dog safe
• When you arrive, take a quick mental note of the dogs already in the park. All dogs
have different play styles. For example, Labradors tend to approach dogs with gusto
and be very accepting of rough play. A typical herding dog by comparison is very
conscious of personal space (bred to control and move stock by constantly adjusting
distance) and may object to an over the top greeting. Be aware of these different play
styles and how they may relate to your dog.
• Arrival at the park and first introductions are a times of high excitement for your dog
and others. Avoid entering the park near a large group of dogs as your dog will be the
‘outsider’ – better to introduce your dog in a more spacious area.
• Ask your dog to sit before releasing him to play. Free play is such a great reward – why
give it away for nothing. During your visit, regularly call your dog to you and reward
him for ‘checking-in’ with a small treat and permission to ‘go play’ again.
• Be aware of new dogs entering the park and watch for any signs of intense attention or
interest toward your dog .
• Don’t allow your dog to bowl over new arrivals. Some dogs take over friendly greetings
as an assault and may retaliate.
• Be aware and avoid any dogs who appear to be particularly obsessed with their toys or
constantly circling their owners. They may be prepared to fight for them.
• Pick up your small dog if necessary, to keep him safe however do so in a nonchalant
way with no obvious signs of emotion. Do NOT be tempted to mollycoddle your dog
nor to act aggressively to the other dogs present. This could inadvertently teach your
dog to be fearful and/or aggressive. An unemotional pick up – until the risk has passed
- is simply a way of preventing a bad experience and helps to keep your dog safe and
Dog Parks are NOT Compulsory
For some owners attending the local dog park provides so much pleasure that it is a high priority
when choosing and training a dog. For others it is a task they dread rather than desire. It is
possible to have a happy, well adjusted dog without allowing it to run free with other dogs.
While some dogs do crave and benefit greatly from free play, there may be an equal number who
are either unsuitable or who have a limited desire to do so. Dogs who are overly aroused by
play, have poor bite inhibition, are very timid, who find adolescent dogs annoying rather than fun
or who simply prefer the company of people may not want to go to a busy off lead park.
Walking a bush track or even hitting the pavement around the neighbourhood might be a much
happier alternative for these and other dogs. Ultimately the thing that matters most is not where
you go but the time you spend together.
Reading Dog Play
Dogs communicate primarily through body language and scent. Though we will never be fluent
in ‘dog talk’ here are a few important points to look for:
• Starts with polite greetings – dogs stand side-to–side, nose to tail .
• Soft fluid movements such as swishy tails, soft backs and bent elbows
• Play bows – the doggy equivalent of ‘do you want to dance/play?’ The Play bow
suggests everything that follows is all in good fun.
• Role reversals – both dogs take turns being on ‘top’ and ‘being on the bottom’ and
being the ‘chaser’ and the ‘chased’.
• Both dogs appear to be having fun, soft ‘smiling’ mouths when play interrupts.
• After a short break are both dogs keen to play again or is one saying “whew thank
goodness that’s over?” Some dogs will tire of play much quicker than others. Like kids
quit before they get cranky.
Poor Play – intervention required
• Starts with intimidating greetings – one dog trying to lean their head over the other
dogs shoulders (particularly if male to male).
• Stiff rigid, slower movements, hard stares,
• Attempts to push one dog to the ground and keep it there
• No role reversal – one dog always on the bottom, always being chased.
• One dog far more boisterous/active than the other.
• What is the reaction of the second dog – is it fearful? Signs of fear include a tail tucked
tightly, hiding behind legs, perhaps even snapping or teeth baring with weight shifted
back away from the other dog.
If intervention is required stay cool and calm, simply separate the dogs, add more distance and
give them time to settle.