Dog Parks Can Be Great Places for Off-Leash Activity

An essential resource for dogs
By The Bark Editors, February 2020, Updated October 2020
Point Isabel Regional Shoreline

Point Isabel Regional Shoreline - Photo by Ellen Soohoo

We originally ran this article back in February—pre-covid days—when the New York Times published a dog park article that grabbed our attention. Now that we are nearing the election, some of us might be confronting candidates tainted by positions presenting in this article. This has nothing to do with national politics, but is more a local or regional issue. We’ve found that single individuals or organizations can drive anti-dog legislation with singular, and often successful, focus. This is why dog lovers need to be aware of how the minority can affect opinions and views of policy makers.

First, it was that clickbait title—“Actually, Dog Parks Aren’t All That Great”—that grabbed our attention. Then, it was the article’s startling subheads: The Socialization Myth, Playground Bullies, Injuries and Diseases. According to its author, Sassafras Lowrey (who, full disclosure, has also written for The Bark), dog parks are dangerous places indeed.

Unfortunately, the article appeared in that newspaper’s  “Smart Living” section. While it carries a valuable message (dog parks should have a good deal more self-monitoring than most do), its main complaints dominate like the unruly dogs cited in the author’s commentary.

When it came out, the article was highlighted on the Times' home page with an even worse title: “The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually.” While it includes a valuable message—a good deal more self-monitoring should go on in dog parks than currently does—its main complaints dominate like the unruly dogs cited in the author’s commentary.

As longtime policy advocates of dog parks we understand the vital role they can play in communities. Certainly, we’ve witnessed firsthand the need for more oversight and the monitoring of dogs who interact and play in these parks. And, yes, the dog community has no shortage of ill-informed, sometimes, clueless people (including not wearing protective masks these covid-days) who spend too much time focused on their phones or on other people instead of responsibly paying attention to their dogs. This behavior neglect does happen at the dog park, but it can also be found at other places where people congregate—neighborhood tot playgrounds or in line at the local market, for example.

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But we take issue with both the tone and heavy-handedness of this article and its main takeaway: that dog parks are teeming with dog fights and careless owners, and rife with disease! As longtime advocates of dog parks, we have not found that to be true. In fact, despite the occasional presence of an irresponsible owner or an unruly dog, most off-leash areas  (OLAs) we’ve frequented for three decades are have been relatively incident free.

Those who utilize dog parks and OLAs have unique opportunities to exercise effective outreach, including classes, demonstrations, signage and basic awareness-building. In fact, a few of the more active dog-park volunteer groups have started programs to improve the experience of park goers, both human and canine. We wholeheartedly support this approach. But, while articles like this one can play a part in education, we are concerned that this piece seems to demonize dog parks, dogs and their guardians. I can hear it now at the next Berkeley, Calif., city council meeting: “Dog parks are bad! It says so in The New York Times!”

Across the country, we dog lovers face a common problem. Municipalities and competing community groups are not likely fighting to banish children’s playgrounds, sports fields and wildlife open spaces, but many are lobbying against off-leash areas. There is a shortage of open space or communal park land in most urban areas, and groups from the Sierra Club and youth soccer clubs to your average picnic-goer are all vying for a precious green space they can call their own. Sadly, this can lead to an exclusion of dogs.

We feel that this is an issue that calls for nuance. Not all dog parks are bad. Not all dog-park goers are clueless. Many people with dogs live in urban areas where yards and access to open space do not exist. For them neighborhood dog parks are a godsend. And where else do dogs have the opportunity to play or interact with other dogs in a neutral setting? Dog parks and OLAs can and should provide a safe haven for these needs. All the better if people have space and motivation for training, special play activities and human-canine engagement. But many people are dead tired after a day at the office, picking up and dropping off kids, running errands, and, oh yeah, the dog needs to go to the park is a common reality. So, while training and activities classes do provide an option (as Ms. Lowrey advocated), many people can neither afford the time or money to pursue them.

Treat time at Pt. Isabel, Richmond, Calif. - Photo by Ellen Soohoo 

There are a great variety of dog parks and the author seems to ignore that as an important factor in assessing them. There are neighborhood parks that average from 1 to 5 acres, there are much smaller dog runs such as those in New York that oftentimes measure in feet and not acreage (akin to Ohlone Park in Berkeley that is cited in this article) and then there are much larger-sized off-leash areas (OLAs)—often serving as regional parks such as in Shawnee, KS (53 acres); Marymoor Park, near Seattle, WA (40 acres) and Point Isabel, one of the most highly visited parks in the country, Richmond, CA (30 acres). All these parks differ in size and design and should not be lumped together.

Off-leash spaces are diverse in description and vary from open wilderness areas to multi-acre parklands with trails and bodies of water. Though OLAs are less common than your average fenced-in dog run, they are vital for providing recreation and exercise for dogs for their people as well. New York City dog people can take advantage of Central Park and Prospect Park in the early hours or late evenings for such recreational opportunities. And while the Times article may be focused narrowly on fenced dog parks or small “dog runs” the message that their article spreads is that ALL DOG PARKS ARE BAD. We know that is simply not true.

In Defense of Dog Parks

When the Times piece was originally published, commenting on it was not available to their readers. That was an unfortunate omission because when publishing such a polarizing piece, it’s helpful to readers to be able to read the comments of other viewpoints. Barring that opportunity, we would like to present our own here.

Size and Design Matter

The larger the park and the more varied the landscape features, the less likely it is that there will be conflicts. A fenced-in, rectangular flat piece of land, with no any other landscape features—say, small hillocks with a variety of sight lines—can be constrictive for both humans and dogs. The number of canines matters too; each park should have a posted “carrying capacity” and that number should be respected and not exceeded. Smaller parks, especially those with muddy areas and shared drinking stations, can also be vectors for contagious diseases, and caution needs to be paid before visiting dog parks or OLAs that aren’t well maintained or that are overcrowded.

Exercise Is Important

A well-exercised dog is a much healthier and better-adjusted dog not to mention less likely to be destructive or stressed in and around the home. The level of exercise that a dog needs is the easiest achieved through either dog-dog play or walking or playing with a human. As Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a vet behaviorist, has told us, “Walking dogs on a leash is not sufficient exercise. It’s not that they die if they walk on a leash…. It’s just that it is not optimal for their physiological and psychological well-being. Exercise is good for us and it is good for a dog.”

Dog Play Has Value

While “socialization” is a term used by animal behaviorists and refers to the first few weeks of a pup’s life, it does not mean that dogs don’t need to socialize with other dog pals throughout their lives. Much like us, dogs are social animals, and a well-“adjusted” dog is one who is comfortable in a variety of settings and in the presence of other dogs and people.

Dogs are Individuals

Much like humans, dogs are individuals. As some people are gregarious and others are shy, some dogs are more socially adept than others. So, yes, while it’s true that not all dogs like other dogs, it cannot be stressed enough: if there’s friction around this activity, it occurs more often in smaller dog parks. Most dogs do like meeting and interacting with other dogs in neutral territories, with the caveat that because there’s a potential for behavioral conflicts, they must be observed at all times by their guardians.

Community Building

In “Dogs Will Fix Our Broken Democracy,” NYT op-ed columnist Frank Bruni writes about the time he spends with his dog in Central Park, and how it allows him to hobnob with all sorts of people from different walks of life who connect via their devotion to their dogs. As Bruni notes, “Dogs yank us outside of our narrowest selves. They force us to engage.” So, yes, while some dog parks and some users might need more training, what dog parks provide is so special and immeasurable that the social engagement aspect should not be ignored.

At their best, millions of times daily across the country, dogs parks serve as vital gathering places for dogs and people. Like many public facilities, most dog parks can be improved. But we are old enough to remember when dog parks did not exist, and dogs and their people congregated in empty lots or schoolyards, desperate for a bit of unused land where their dogs could sniff and play. Thank goodness things have improved. Dog parks are a great resource, and like all valuable resources, they are what people make of them. It is unfortunate that The New York Times published such a narrow and parochial article that serves more as a document of fear and loathing than the educational piece it could have been.