Are Fenced-In, Off-Leash Dog Parks Safe?
Most of the time no. Dog parks have pros and cons but the negatives far outweigh the positives. Most dog parks are dangerous for your dog’s health. Here are some reasons why. Learn what to be cautious of and why you shouldn’t bring your dog to an off-leash dog park.
If you go to a dog park, here are some etiquette guidelines for pet parents and their dogs.
Dog behavior is too broad a topic to cover in this post. So instead, I will focus on typical dog behaviors that you and your pet will likely encounter in a dog park.
Dog’s Wearing Punitive Equipment
Equipment that is designed to inflict pain and discomfort such as choke chains, pronged collars, and vibration/shock collars should never be used because they cause extreme emotional, medical, and psychological damage to a dog, amongst many other things.
These are just some of the reasons a certified dog behaviorist would never recommend using them. Just as we don’t use corporal punishment to “teach” children in schools. To learn why, and what to use instead, please read my shock collar article.
You will likely encounter, dogs wearing punitive equipment in the dog park. Besides the aforementioned detrimental health issues, aversive dog “training” equipment and techniques cause dogs to shut down, become unpredictable and confused and therefore unstable. You do not want to expose your dog or yourself to a dog like that.
If you encounter a dog wearing a black box around their neck or attached to their collar or a parent holding a remote control or wearing one around their neck that looks like a walkie-talkie, this is most likely a shock collar. This confused parent needs dog training help.
Instead focus on interacting with knowledgeable pet parents who have taken the time, effort, and care to research the correct way to train a dog and understand learning theory. Set up individual play dates with one-on-one play sessions with friendly dogs and knowledgeable parents.
Inappropriate Dog Behavior
While in the dog park, how often do you watch your pup playing and having a great time when the chronic dog humper comes along and starts hip-thrusting your dog? It may be funny for a brief second, but the reality is that if your dog is sitting down or walking away, they do not wish to engage in the humping behavior and this is not a welcome, or mutually agreed upon relationship.
If one dog is forcing themselves upon other dogs in the park, it is the responsibility of the pet parent whose dog is the humper, to either put their dog on a leash and/or walk them out of the park.
It’s not OK for a parent to allow their dog to disrupt, annoy or offend any of the other dogs in the park. It’s “natural” is not an excuse or intelligent.
Dog Resource Guarding
Resources guarding, bullying, dog aggression, or marauding dogs that steal other dog’s toys are not acceptable activities in any social setting. Dogs may resource guard a mate, pet parent, or an area of the dog park.
No one likes a thief or a bully so have your pup learn some dog training and obedience manners before entering a public dog park. Remember, a dog park is meant more for socialization and civility like a coffee shop rather than a rowdy gymnasium.
Lack Of Proper Exercise And Dog Training
While many people use off-leash dog parks as an excuse to not walk their dog or provide them with the necessary enrichment, adequate exercise and/or dog training necessary to maintain a happy, healthy, and fulfilled dog. It is not OK to take an overly hyper-active dog into the park to go “crazy” and out of control.
Even though dogs are not pack animals, a hyperactive, out-of-control dog, brings unbalanced energy into the park, negatively affects the entire stability of the dog park and creates an unstable and dangerous environment.
Think of the dog park as a coffee shop or a restaurant where dogs gather for fun and socialization and not as a race track or gym where they get their frustrations out. You should only be taking your dog to the park after they get a nice long training dog walk, exercise and some formal dog obedience training so that your dog can meet other dogs, socialize and play in a calm, civilized manner that is healthy and safe for all the pets in the dog park.
Most dogs and parents should be practicing relaxation and deference protocols. A dog park or dog daycare free-for-all does just the opposite. It overstimulates most dogs, puts them in an unhealthy state of arousal, and promotes poor behavior and ignoring the parent. All things we don’t want our dog to practice doing.
Pet Parent Awareness
How many times have you been in a dog park or a dog beach, and you glance around and pet parents are engaged in a conversation completely ignoring their dog’s whereabouts, or they are reading a book utterly oblivious to what is going on?
Perhaps they are on their phone engaging in a riveting texting “conversation” or are jibber jabbing on the telephone ignoring their pup humping another dog or pooping in the corner?
Even worse, maybe they stroll into the park without exercising their dog beforehand or casually leave the dog park gate door open after they absent-mindedly stroll in allowing other dogs to escape out of the gate. I see this happen all the time!
All of these irresponsible, careless acts can be prevented and shouldn’t happen, but they do. What can you do to make sure you are not one of those people? Be proactive, and treat your dog like family and practice dog training throughout your dog’s life, and also engage, and communicate with your dog. Or simply do not go to the dog park.
If you do decide to go to the dog park, do not ignore your dog, let them cause trouble or make everyone else’s experience horrid. Your responsibilities do not end as a parent and a citizen once you enter the park, that is when a parent must be more vigilant.
Out Of Control Ill-Mannered Dogs That Bum Rush And Mug Other Dogs
No one likes a bully. Dogs are dyadic (play best in twos) and it’s worth repeating that dogs are not pack animals. So throwing them in a group of dogs in the park, boarding or daycare, is not only unnatural but unhealthy and detrimental to their physical, emotional, and mental health. At best, a fenced-in dog park is overstimulating.
For obvious reasons, inappropriate growling or bullying is not permitted in dog parks or dog beaches. The entire balance and ambiance of the park are offset if there is a dogfight, bullying, unaltered, or an aggressive dog in the park.
If your dog is not all people and dog friendly, by no means should they be in a park or anywhere with other dogs off-leash or people around. You should immediately seek professional help from a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, (CDBC) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) to help you and your dog before exposing him to a dog park and the potential dangers inherent within. Do not risk your dog biting someone, a lawsuit and/or causing the entire balance of the dog park to be disturbed.
No one’s life or health should be at risk in the dog park, and it is your responsibility to keep it that way.
If you see your dog forming a group (more than two) or hanging out with a group of other dogs that are chasing after and bothering/picking on/ganging up on every dog that enters the dog park, stop your dog immediately. Ganging up on others is unfriendly, inappropriate and should be stopped as soon as it occurs.
Don’t allow your dog to be a bully. Some dogs naturally form groups and small social gatherings in the park and bully other dogs and cause trouble when they are together.
If a parent is not vigilant in watching their dog (and all others), then bullying could occur and go unnoticed. The last thing you want to happen is for a dogfight to breakout and your beloved pet, or someone else to get injured. Also, it’s rude and unacceptable to allow your dog to bum rush other dogs or gang-up and pick on another dog.
Unaltered Male And Female Dogs
Also, unaltered dogs in off-leash dog parks may perform marking behavior, humping/mounting, or cause havoc to other dogs socializing and playing via their emitted sexual hormones.
If your dog is marking every bench, chair, tree, shrub, and blade of grass, it may be time to get your dog neutered and not use fenced-in dog parks. Instead, speak to a certified behaviorist. Marking is not polite behavior; it is a territorial, controlling, unfriendly and potentially dog dominance display.
Your dog is communicating to all the other dogs, in an impolite way, by marking his scent and advertising that he is unaltered and ready for action, taking over, and that it’s his territory.
Again, this disturbs the equilibrium and balance of a dog park. Often this triggers dogs of both genders to act more aggressively towards your unaltered dog and may cause many hormonal changes within the dog park.
If your dog is unaltered, or can’t stop marking, remove them from the off-leash dog park and put them on a leash where you have some control over their behavior and out of harm’s way. Not only is it inappropriate and irresponsible to bring an unaltered dog into a fenced-in dog park, but depending on your dog’s breed, spaying and neutering may extend your dog’s life, or reduce it by almost two years! If your dog breed is not negatively affected by spay and neutering, consider getting your dog spayed/neutered. Shelters kill millions of adoptable dogs and cats each year, do we really need any more breeders?
Medical Health Dangers Of Dog Parks
There are innumerable medical health issues that could easily affect your dog when they go to a dog park. From bordetella to parvovirus, bacteria, pathogens, skin issues, giardia flees, and ticks to name a few.
Below are some other seriously dangerous health issues that a dog may experience when going to a dog park.
Lawn Chemicals Kill Dogs
A dog sweats through their paws and absorbs what they step on. Dogs also eat grass and dirt. If you want to keep your dog’s paws and body safe and clean, don’t bring your dog to the dog park.
Additionally, I would call my mayor, commissioners, and the parks department and demand that they ban lawn chemicals from being used in our public parks. Lawn chemicals have long been linked to cancer in dogs.
Pica and Coprophagia
Off-leash dogs, can and will eat whatever is interesting to them. It may be coprophagia (eating of dog feces) pica, (eating of any inedible non-nutritious object), or eating anything dangerous and unhealthy.
Dogs explore the world through their mouths and much of the park’s substrate and organic material is filled with bacteria, pathogens, and chemicals that could injure or kill your dog.
Dog Poop Removal
Entering a park does not give you a license to let your dog poop everywhere without cleaning it up. Cleaning up after your dog is the law and healthy for everyone. If a dog poops in the park or anywhere, it is the responsibility of pet parents to clean up after their dog, and in most municipalities, it is the law.
Not being prepared or not having poop bags happens but it is not an excuse. If you run out of dog bags, improvise, or come back and pick it up after you can retrieve a bag to dispose of your dog’s waste.
Always bring multiple poop bags. A good rule of thumb I use is to bring triple the amount of poop bags I think I might need. So if I see another parent without a bag, I can be a good neighbor and offer them one of mine. Having extra poop bags also helps in a pinch if it starts raining to store your phone or electronic keys or to MacGyver a water bowl for your dog.
If you happen to miss exactly where your dog did their business and cannot find where your dog pooped, pay it forward and pick up someone else’s dog poop or some other garbage along the way. Good karma!
Pro Tip: A dog should always be in close enough proximity so you can see them. Remember, you and your dog won’t want to step in another dogs’ poop, and your neighbors don’t want to step in your dog’s poop either.
It is also dangerous to your dog’s health for them to step in other dogs’ poop and get excrement on their paws and/or on their fur. Disease is spread this way, and this contaminates our water supply and compromises the entire ecosystem and community’s health! Also, be careful about touching dirt and then touching your face as this seemingly benign act can make you sick.
It is damaging to our water supply and toxic for our families and us when poop and parasites runoff into our water supply. According to the EPA:
Pets, particularly dogs, are significant contributors to source water contamination. Probably the greatest health concern associated with animal wastes is pathogens. Many pathogens found in animal waste can infect humans if ingested. Organisms such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, and Salmonella can induce symptoms ranging from skin sores to chest pain. E. coli, which causes diarrhea and abdominal gas, has been the source of disease outbreaks in several States. Particularly virulent strains of E. coli can cause serious illness and fatalities. Cryptosporidium is of particular concern because it is highly resistant to disinfection with chlorine. This protozoan causes gastrointestinal illness lasting two to ten days in healthy individuals but can be fatal in people with weakened immune systems. Dog and cat droppings often contain roundworms and other parasitic nematodes. Infection by just a few roundworms usually causes no problems, but more severe infections may cause fevers, bronchitis, asthma, or vision problems. Cat feces may contain toxoplasmosis, a parasite that infects humans and other animals. Cats are the only animals known to excrete toxoplasmosis oocysts, which are resistant to most disinfectants. Toxoplasmosis is a serious health concern for pregnant women and immuno-compromised individuals.
The easiest way to prevent these health hazards is to clean up after your dog and to use biodegradable poop bags. How many bags go into the garbage mindlessly every day? All of that plastic ends up in another garbage bag, in some landfill and in our earth and someone’s backyard. Help the earth, improve your experiences, your health and your family by being friendly to the planet and our natural resources. (And please consider going vegan, if not for the animals, for the planet)
Only buy biodegradable products from responsible companies products that do not make one-use plastics or produce products that are dangerous to any animal or the earth. You can learn more about that from William Mcdonough’s book Cradle to Cradle or from his Ted Talk below. Strive to be a responsible pet parent and citizen.
Keep Children And Adolescents Out Of The Dog Park
A toddler, child or adolescent should never be allowed to enter a dog park – period.
Younger people do not know how to behave, speak or handle themselves around dogs and most of the time will be the reason a dog bites. Children and young people need to be taught and to practice how to interact with dogs. An uncontrolled off-leash dog park with unknown dogs, ontogenies and people is the absolute worst place to practice this.
Instead, practice in a calm, controlled, supervised environment with a well-trained, friendly dog while being taught by a certified professional dog trainer.
A parent can not possibly be present and focused on their dog, – that they need to be doing – if they must be focused on their child at the same time.
Mixing a child with unknown off-leash dogs is a recipe for a disaster. Don’t do it!
No Supervision From A Dog Behavior Professional
With no enforcement or supervision from professional certified trainers and behaviorists, how can a parent detect or remove dogs and parents with inappropriate, disruptive behaviors? Just as a lifeguard maintains the safety of the swimmers and beachgoers so does an expert behaviorist to maintain the safety of all at the dog park.
A fear-free behavior professional with proper independent certification such as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer earned from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) earned from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) would be a huge bonus to have around to answer all questions relating to dog behavior and to be a dog lifeguard of sorts.
The central theme of a dog park and dog beach is parent responsibility. Responsibility is the hallmark of the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) and others like it and should be required for any pet parent entering a dog park. Being a pet parent is not a right but a great privilege.
Alternatives To A Dog Park
My suggestion would be to exchange phone numbers with a few of your dog’s best friends and rotate play dates off-leash on an open ball field, beach, golf course, or any backyard near you. This is a MUCH safer and healthy alternative to a fenced-in dog park. A fenced-in dog park, dog kennel, or dog daycare environment with multiple dogs and all of the other risks present are far too dangerous and not worth the risks.
Just remember, if you don’t trust your dog to come back to you or you have not trained with your dog sufficiently, be very careful about letting them off-leash.
First, build your confidence and trust through training recalls with your dog and basic obedience training daily.
A simple way to build your confidence about your dog’s recall safely is with a long line to give your dog a simulated off-leash experience. Simply buy a 15′, 30′, or much longer leash, tie a small weight or kettlebell around the handle and go to the beach. If your dogs a runner they will very quickly be slowed down by dragging a 10 lbs kettlebell through the sand or over the grass.
The point of this exercise is to give you the parent the confidence to train with your dog in a safe simulated off-leash experience before really allowing your dog off-leash.
Caveat – Make sure no one is around when practicing with a long line. You could injure a dog, or person this way.
Pro Tip – Make sure to never attach a leash to a dog’s collar. A collar is strictly for holding dog tags and identification. Like a necklace that we would wear. Instead, attach the long line to the rear part of your dog’s harness, by your dog’s withers so that they can have a full range of motion and not be tripped up by the front attaching harness for this exercise.
As your confidence grows you may move from a 15-foot leash to a 30-foot leash and so on…