Should You Take Your Dog to Dog Parks and Dog Runs?

Are off-leash dog parks and dog runs good for your dog? Learn how to pick a dog park and use it safely.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #70

Everybody loves a dog park. Your dog gets to run off leash and socialize with other dogs. It’s important for dogs to spend time with other dogs. Right?  Actually, many trainers never bring their dogs to dog parks and advise their clients not to do so either. I’m a little less radical than that. This week, the pros and cons of dog parks, and of your dog as a visitor to them.

Should You Take Your Dog to Dog Runs?

A big drawback of public dog parks is that not all the dogs will be socially skilled and friendly. Some pick fights; some are a bit timid about other dogs and snap when a bouncy puppy comes too close; some have learned that it can be fun to bowl over small dogs and make them squeal. Not all dogs’ play styles mesh well. Some dogs do well meeting other dogs one on one in an open area but get touchy in a confined space with a bunch of strangers.

Wait, there’s more! Many humans are fairly oblivious to dogs’ body language. They see that solo dog being chased by two others, they see the solo dog’s tail tucked between his legs, they see that when the pursuers catch up, the solo dog drops on his back and presents his groin, but they don’t add that information together to conclude that the solo dog is being bullied and having a crummy time. On the other hand, people often mistake normal dog play for fighting, and they reprimand adult dogs for appropriate social corrections delivered to puppies and other pests.

Territory Problems in Dog Parks

Primates often cluster in small groups to pick through one another’s fur for lice. Humans in dog parks often cluster in small groups to gossip and drink lattes. Same difference. When the humans hang around in one place, the dogs tend to follow suit. Soon the dogs of the latte drinkers have staked out a territory around their humans. They greet new arrivals with a challenging charge--not fun for the entering dog. Crowding also arises if benches and water sources are placed right near the park entrance. It takes a cool dog customer indeed to walk into a bunch of unfamiliar dogs without anxiety. Watch dog park entrances for a while and you’ll see how many arriving dogs either posture tensely or offer exaggerated deference as they come in.

You can’t control other people’s behavior, of course, but avoid contributing to the stationary, territorial crowd. Walk with your dog or play games well away from the entrance.

Don’t Socialize Your Puppy at Dog Parks

Not all the dogs at the dog park will be friendly and have good social skills.

What this spells for puppy socialization is, in general, steer clear. Yes, friendly adult dogs can help teach puppies to communicate appropriately, play appropriately, and otherwise interact appropriately. But remember that fears are learned quickly. One traumatic encounter with a serious bully can damage your puppy’s social skills for a long time to come. A puppy who’s not the most confident in the world can be swamped and scared by the eager attentions of a passel of strangers bigger than she, even if none of them means any harm.

When Should You Take a Puppy to a Dog Run?

I’d consider taking a puppy to a dog park or dog run only under certain circumstances. For instance, I’d like the space to be enormous so that crowding doesn’t ratchet up social tensions. I’d go during off hours. Before I went in, I’d spend a few minutes checking out the body language and play styles of the dogs already present. Better yet, I’d go at a completely dead time with a small mixed group of sociable, friendly adults and puppies and hold a hopefully private party for a little while.

If this sounds as if I think the ideal is a private play group of carefully selected dogs--well, I do! Skip the dog park and use any available fenced area, such as a big backyard. Or look for a training facility that offers supervised puppy playtime. These options are safer for your puppy’s behavioral health.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).