Off leash dog parks? That’s a hard no. 

Before you blow me off as a party pooper, think about it. Dog parks can be great fun for the humans. It’s a chance to socialise while the dogs basically exercise themselves. But herein lies the problem.

Off leash and out of control

All too often off leash dog parks attract the kind of owner who is more interested in chatting than in supervising their dog.

You’ve seen them.

The ones who are oblivious to whether their dog is pooping or bothering other dogs or jumping on strangers.

The ones who are caught up chasing after kids. Or who have their phone glued to their ear the whole time.

To make matters worse, social pressure makes it hard for diligent owners to call out irresponsible or inattentive ones.

As a result, what you see is a lot of checked out owners and a lot of dogs behaving badly.

Heck, at one off leash dog park in my neighbourhood owners even sit down and sip wine while their pets run amok.

A dog trainer’s perspective

Straight-talking dog trainer Chris Loverseed who runs Positive K9 Training in Melbourne, Australia and is accredited with the National Dog Trainers Federation (NDTF), says people have a misconception that their pets need to be friends with every dog they come across.

“By forcing your dog into social interactions that they might not be comfortable with, you place the dog under undue stress. This is where things can go pear shaped.

“Dog parks are the equivalent of putting a bunch of charged up children into a room with no supervision and hoping for the best.

“In theory dog parks can be a good place, but unfortunately in practice they’re badly managed with nobody appropriately advocating for their dog and putting their needs first.” 

Too many unknowns

Take a closer look at the colour and movement and you will see what’s really going on at off leash dog parks.

Dogs exhibiting fear behaviour, dogs displaying aggression, dogs harassing other dogs without being corrected, dogs being subjected to unwelcome approaches and some dogs getting continually dominated.

Many owners don’t know how to read these behaviours, let alone have the capacity to effectively intervene.

Do some dogs have fun and behave wholly appropriately? Absolutely. Might yours be one of them? Sure. But the moment you step inside an off leash dog park, you’ve forfeited control.

The ‘let the dogs sort it out’ approach might work some of the time. That there aren’t more dog attacks is testament to how cool dogs really are. But as a strategy, it’s risky.

The trouble is the unpredictability of the dog park 

By the way, the same goes for dog beaches. And don’t get me started on that utterly misguided facet of modern dog ownership, dog daycare.

But let’s focus on dog parks. 

You don’t know the dogs that are there. You don’t know what behaviour their owners consider acceptable. Certainly you don’t know how specific combinations of dogs are going to interact.

What’s more, you have no way of knowing whether there is a dog in the mix with aggressive tendencies, and what his triggers are.

The dog dynamics will vary with the day, producing different levels of calm or aggro.

Intact male dogs smell different, behave differently and will elicit different — often aggressive — reactions from intact male dogs. I have seen this happen with my own entire male.

Which brings me to dog fights.

The bottom line is this. If you frequent dog parks, sooner or later you will see a dog attack. Your dog may or may not be involved.

How to stop a dog from fighting

If a fight does break out, it’s likely to escalate because of the pack mentality that inevitably develops in groups of dogs. Ever seen two dogs from the same household interact with an unknown dog from a different household? If there’s aggression, one dog will set off another until it’s an all-in brawl.

Good luck stopping it without injured dogs and possibly people and maybe a lawsuit thrown in. Things get out of control fast and even the most alert owners can’t always see it coming.

The only way for a dog fight to end well is for it not to start in the first place. And the only way to ensure that is to avoid putting your dog in the situation.

But dogs need to socialise, don’t they?

Here’s another widely held misconception.

Contrary to what many owners assume, it is not natural for dogs from different packs to ‘socialise’ in the way that happens at dog parks.

In fact, when you mix dogs from different packs (the domestic dog’s pack being his household, his human family) the situation is ripe for conflict.

Some dogs can adapt to it and even thrive. Like I said, dogs are endlessly cool. But don’t kid yourself. The idea that dogs want or need to interact in this way is an entirely human overlay.

Don’t take it from me, listen to dog trainer Chris Loverseed.

How off leash dog parks will ruin your dog

“When it comes to socialisation, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind,” says Loverseed.

“Do you want a calm, neutral and friendly dog? If so, best to avoid dog parks and focus on calmer and more controlled exposure. I’m yet to see a calm and neutral dog in a dog park.

“At a dog park, dogs predominantly feel excitable, anxious, stressed and in a heightened state of arousal whilst in the presence of other dogs.

“The natural progression for a dog that has had its primary exposure to other dogs in this kind of setting is to associate other dogs with that heightened state of arousal.

“Now when these off leash dog park dogs are walked on lead, and they see another dog, they mentally switch to this mindset and often become reactive out of frustration or fear.

“We see this time and time again.”

Alternatives to off leash dog parks

None of this means your dog has to live a cloistered life.

If you’d like your dog to interact with other dogs, far better to do it with one other known dog that your pup likes and interacts well with, in a place where you can control the environment and won’t be accosted by other unfamiliar dogs. Or as close to this situation as you can manage.

But dog parks? Give them a wide berth.

I realize dissing dog parks goes against the grain. They are an unquestioned part of city life with a dog. Every neighbourhood has one and they make entertaining spectating for non-dog owners. It’s a shame things can’t be simple and carefree.

Even if you think dog aggression is the exception to the rule, there is the broader issue of the general dog behaviour brought out by dog parks. And this is something that begins way back in that other popular yet poorly executed aspect of modern city dog life: puppy preschool.

You get your new puppy, you take him to the vet for his shots, you want to do everything you can to set him up for a good life and so you book him in for puppy class. Socialisation, they say. And they’re vets, so they know what they’re talking about, right?

Puppy training near me? Only if you can find a good puppy class

Puppy school can be done well. But it also can be done in a way that conditions dogs to associate other dogs with huge excitement and crazy, out-of-control behaviour. If you expose your dog to the wrong kind of puppy school or dog socialisation class, you’ll spend the next six months undoing the habits he picked up there. I know, it happened to us.

How to socialise a dog

These days, I know that proper dog socialisation training is not about just letting your dog play with other dogs. It’s about giving your dog experience being in close proximity to other dogs while staying calm and exposing him to a variety of stimuli in a controlled way, so as to desensitise him to them.

When composing your dog socialisation checklist, think:

  • scooters
  • crinkly bags
  • kids
  • people bouncing balls
  • loud noises
  • prams
  • cats
  • car rides

…the list goes on.

Anything that irks him or frightens him or is unfamiliar. While your dog is a puppy try to expose him to one new thing each day.

But just running riot with a bunch of other puppies? This is not how to socialise your dog. It is doing your pup more harm than good.

The same goes for dog parks. Dog parks are certainly not how to socialise a dog to other dogs or how to socialise a dog with humans.

The wild running and chasing and pile-ons that go on there might burn off energy. But there are smarter ways to exercise your dog, body and mind, while reinforcing desirable behaviours. Did you know mental stimulation will tire your dog out faster than pure physical exertion?

Off leash dog parks might be easy. They might be trendy. Dog park goers will have a hard time understanding your choice to go elsewhere. But make an informed decision.

One (or two) exceptions

There might be one exception to the rule to avoid dog parks.

If it’s the middle of the night or the middle of a downpour (I kid you not, this is our favourite time to head out). Or if your dog park is quiet enough that you can find times of day when you and your pup can have the place to yourselves. In that case, go for it.

Fenced in dog park near me? Yes, if you stay on the outside

Fenced in dog parks can be useful places to practice distraction training. By staying outside and requiring your dog to remain calm and focused on you, you can use a fenced dog park to your advantage.

Otherwise though, there are smarter ways to have fun with your dog.