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Dog Parks: Love ’Em or Hate ’Em?

Forget the dog fights, it’s the people to watch out for
By Julia Lane, June 2010, Updated June 2021

I love the idea of dog parks in theory. Who wouldn't want to see their dogs bounding across fields of grass with new canine buddies? Years ago, when we lived in New Orleans, we took our dogs to a model airplane field that was surrounded by woods and required something akin to a secret password to find. Consequently, very few people went there and we all became a tight-knit group. Everyone looked out for each other's dogs and made sure their dogs played nicely with others. It was wonderful and I looked forward to it nearly every night after work.

Fast forward a few years and our relocation to the Chicago suburbs. The closest dog park I could find required a $150 annual permit since we lived out of the county. It cost $25 for each additional dog after that. Down South, our dog park romps were free! But the shock of the sticker price was nothing compared to the behavior I witnessed on behalf of both dogs and their owners.

Early on, I was warned to keep an eye out for the woman who had two Belgian Sheepdogs who had a tendency to nip at the heels of other dogs, and that had caused some dog fights when the nippees didn’t appreciate being herded. I asked why she was still allowed to bring her dogs to the park and all I got were shrugs and a description of her vehicle make and color so I knew not to enter the park if she was there.

Another time, I took my 10-year-old Catahoula to that same dog park and he was having a great time trotting along the trails with a pack of other dogs. At one point, a large mixed breed started chest bumping him in an attempt to play. Desoto wasn’t in the mood, so I asked the mix’s owner to call her dog away from him. She was so busy blabbering to other people that I had to ask four times before she actually heard me. Her response? “Oh, he’s only playing!” Yeah, and my dog doesn’t want to play! So when does a solicitation to play become bullying? I finally left the park in a huff because the lady didn’t seem to care about the other dogs there, only her own.


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The last straw was when one of my Dalmatians, Jolie, was standing--not running, not chasing, not moving--in a field when a big Chow raced up to her and bit her on the leg. As the Chow ran away and my poor girl yipped and ran to me, the Chow’s owners merely said, “Huh, that’s weird. They’ve been fine together before.” No apology, no inquiry as to whether she was okay, and certainly no offer to pay for her trip to the vet to get stitches and meds. Plus, I had to scratch her from two agility shows, losing nearly $150 in entry fees. The worst part of it was her behavior when she saw other dogs running toward her. She barked loudly and growled. Jolie had always been friendly with all dogs; now this bite incident had traumatized her and I would have to work hard to build up her trust in other dogs again.
Professional dog trainers, such as Eric Goebelbecker in his recent blog post, often warn their clients about dog parks. There were times when I just wanted to scream at people to keep a closer eye on their dogs or recognize that their dog was not appropriate for the park environment.  For some folks, they were more interested in socializing with the people than supervising their dog’s interactions. That left the more responsible dog owners policing all the dogs and being put in the awkward position of disciplining dogs who were not their own, which led to more people fights than dog fights.

In talking with other dog training professionals, I am not alone in my concern over dog park safety. But I dislike telling my clients not to take their dogs to them period.

What are your thoughts on dog parks? Do you and your dog enjoy going to them? Why or why not?

Photo: Julia Lane

Julia Lane owns Spot On K9 Sports, a training facility in the Chicago area, and offers online dog-sport coaching. She is the author of several travel books, and her byline has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers and elsewhere.