Most cities and towns across America have a variety of leash laws, many of them strict, meaning that getting one's dog to an off-leash park can be a saving grace for both owner and pet. But does bringing your dog to a dog park encourage inherently risky behavior? Multiple factors can influence whether your dog leaves with a smile or a puncture wound. It's a rules-of-the-road type experience: You're not behind anyone's wheel but your own.
"Even if your dog is great, you can't control what other dogs and people will do," said Hillary Hayward, a Boise-based dog behavior and training manager for Hailey's Mountain Humane animal shelter.
Many dogs have pent-up energy from being home all day, and it only takes one wrong move in a dog park for a situation to erupt. With so many elements you can't control—other owners, other dogs, the park itself—Hayward insists that it's important to focus on what you can control.
"In theory, I think dog parks can be good; if they're well-constructed and well-managed, and dogs can engage in healthy play styles, and owners are watching and can read dog body language, they can be great. But for the most part, I know of very few dogs that do well at dog parks," said Hayward. "Some owners may not realize that their dog's behavior isn't park-appropriate, like chasing, acting rough, and dogs that bully other dogs. How a day at the dog park goes is as much on the owner as on the dog."
Being vigilant about watching your dog, and being able to call them successfully and leash them—ideally before something terrible happens—is crucial. For example, owners should look out for their dogs' body language: High tails, lunging and general assertive behavior are signs that a bad situation is brewing.
"I liken the dog park to the bars at 2 a.m.," said Hayward. "Some people can handle the bars at 2 a.m. and some people would rather be home. Dogs are the same way: Some dogs can handle the craziness of a dog park but some dogs can't. You have to know your dogs and what they prefer to do. I think you have to know your dog well and also be aware that it's a risk to take your dog to a dog park."
Here are some tips to ensure a great visit: Go during less popular times, keep a very close watch on your dog, don't bring treats, keep moving and walking, and be able to leash your dog when necessary.
"Dogs will fight over treats, and when dogs are leash-free, they're certainly going to have a lot more chance of having contact with other dogs. And it's the dog-to-dog contact which can lead to just play, [or] other times we'll see everything from aggressive play to downright straight aggression," said Dr. Karsten Fostvedt, a veterinarian who has practiced at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Sun Valley since 1989.
Aside from injuries from fighting, Fostvedt said he sees other negative consequences of dog park interactions at his clinic, like diarrhea from being exposed to various viral agents in the sniffing of other dog's stools, kennel cough, highly contagious dry cough, and lice, which can be transferred from dog to dog.
"Dog parks are wonderful for veterinarians," said Fostvedt. "They keep us busy!"
Jennifer, a Boise dog owner who preferred to keep her last name private, said she loves going to one of Boise's 13 off-leash dog parks.
"I feel like I've had really good dog park experiences," she said. "I've found that at the dog park, other dog parents self-police really well. I think all we can do is practice common sense and encourage other people to do the same. If there has ever been a very aggressive dog, we generally leave the park or ask them to leave. But it's a hard balance because a lot of people are also at the dog park because they are trying to get their pets better behaved [or] socialized."
Hayward has two more recommendations if you are bent on socializing your dog in a group setting. She advised talking to friends or an animal trainer to see if they think your dog is well-behaved enough for a park visit. Also, check out the park in advance to see what other kinds of dogs and people are there. Or, to err on the side of caution, schedule something akin to a "play date" with friends and a few dogs in a small groups, perhaps in a backyard setting, where you can monitor and manage behavior.