Dog parks sound like a great idea for apartment dwellers in big cities. A place to let your dog run and get exercise and socialize. But this isn't the correct way to socialize a dog. And the exercise isn't going to cover your vet bills. Here's why you should never bring your dog to a dog park. Even in "off" hours. Even when you know the other people and dogs there.
I rarely train other people's dogs anymore. And I still get 4-5 emails a week from 10-15 year old posts about issues at dog parks. "There are a few people at my dog park with aggressive dogs who bully my dog and..." "My dog had to get stitches today because..." "My dog didn't even try to defend himself when he was attacked, is there something wrong with him?"
No, there's nothing wrong with the "aggressive" dogs, or the dog who didn't fight back. There's something wrong with expecting strange dogs to get along. Dogs are social animals. That doesn't mean that they make friends with strangers. Quite the contrary, they fight and chase strangers away. Strangers are competition for food, mates, and a danger to pups they're not related to. As we've domesticated dogs to water down drive and instinct, we can get away with a lot more than we could when it comes to putting dogs in uncomfortable situations than we could even 100 years ago. But that doesn't mean we should force them into uncomfortable situations.
It takes months for a dog to figure out where it fits in a family. But some people expect for a dog to be friendly, calm and comfortable figuring out where it fits in at a dog park with 20 dogs of different sizes and ages, 26 people, most of which can't get their dog to sit in their own kitchen with a ribeye for a treat, and 5 obnoxious dogs who keep jumping on every dog they see to assert dominance? You're asking too much of your dog.
Let's talk about territory. A good place to introduce dogs to other dogs, new people and new things is on neutral territory. So theoretically a dog park shouldn't be that bad. Unfortunately, theory doesn't always pan out. If I bring my dog to the dog park every day, and you just moved into the neighborhood. This is my dog's territory. Your dog is a newcomer, a stranger, and a potential threat to every dog who has been coming here for years.
When there are 3 or more dogs and no strong human leaders (most people who think they're strong leaders to their dog are not, unfortunately) the dogs will try to establish a pecking order themselves. That isn't a big deal until 2 dogs decide they deserve the same spot. When that happens, a fight happens. These people who thought they were a strong leader to a well-trained dog now show that they're not well educated on dogs as they proceed to fail to break up the dog fight and often get bitten in the process. Heaven forbid it was your dog who was defending himself who accidentally bit a human who had no idea how to break up a fight. Because now you have to worry about government agents coming to quarantine or put your dog down, vet bills, hospital bills, civil lawsuits for pain and suffering etc.
We are so used to having dogs around. Around us, children, our cats, livestock and so forth that we forget what dogs are. Dogs are apex predators. A little 30lb dog can shatter every bone in your hand without trying hard. They're perfectly adapted to locating, chasing, catching, holding and killing prey animals. If two dogs get into a real fight without holding back, teeth are broken, blood is spilled, eyes are often lost, bones are broken, and lives are lost. And this can happen in seconds. I promise you, whatever benefits you think come with going to the dog park aren't worth a $200 vet bill, much less losing your dog.
Maybe even worse than losing your dog is the trauma that dogs often suffer after being attacked. It only takes 1 attack for a dog to distrust you with its safety. If a dog cannot trust you to protect it from dog attacks, it often becomes dog aggressive. "My owner didn't help me, they can't help me. So I'll start an attack on every dog I see before it can attack me." Once again you risk a heightened chance of a dog fight, a heightened chance of your dog being taken away or put down etc. And worse than that, you've shown your dog that the trust he/she had in you was misplaced. It takes a tremendous amount of work to earn back that trust, and it still isn't guaranteed that the work will pay off.
The Unseen: there are also things most people never think about. Fleas, ticks, parasites of all sorts. Kennel Cough, parvo, distemper, leptospirosis. There are diehard dog park advocates who will say I'm exaggerating the health risks of disease. Fleas are extremely common. When dogs itch, they often bite at it with nature's comb ... their front teeth. Eating fleas is the most common way dogs get tapeworm. Want to take your 8 week old new pup to a dog park? He's vaccinated, right? A puppy isn't fully protected until their last vaccine, which most vets recommend are given at 16 weeks. These are very real concerns for all dogs and especially puppies.
Alternatives to dog parks: if you live in the city and don't have a yard, that's okay. You both can get plenty of exercise just going for walks. Once your dog is fully trained, you can go to regular, "human" parks to play a game of fetch and let your dog/s run. If you're worried about socialization, the idea that your dog should be friends with every dog it meets and should be exposed to meeting and greeting strange dogs is outdated. We've recently posted an article about how to socialize your dog properly without the risks involved of ever stepping into a dog park. It's a must read.
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