The Dog Park May Be No Picnic

On first blush, dogs and parks seem as natural a pair as champagne and New Year’s Eve.

But before you pile the family (human and furry) into the wagon and head for the wide-open spaces, you may want to think carefully about what – and who – you might find there.

The theory behind dog parks is simple: give humans and dogs a special place of their own where both can run unbridled and civilization flourishes. People may meet others of like mind (pets ARE family, right?) and dogs can return home in a happily exhausted heap, their snouts filled with the scents of new friends and adventures.

As more and more families acquired furry friends in the 1990s dog parks sprang up like wheat fields in Kansas. These days, one does not have to travel far from home to find a dog park.

Some parks are lush with landscapes befitting an HGTV make-over while others are dusty lots akin to a rodeo rink. Size and appearance are linked closely to municipal budgets while their very presence can spark rancor between locals with competing interests.

There are “rules” of conduct, some spoken some not. Many parks carefully post signs listing the guidelines at the entrance. Virtually all highlight the number one proviso: Pick up the poop! Poop-bag dispensers strategically dot the park to minimize the chances of pets and/or their parents tracking nasties into their house later on.

However, it is ultimately the lack of a uniform code and the disparity in attitudes among dog owners/parents that can turn a pastoral pleasure into a fighter’s free-for-all. I have personally known two people whose dogs were attacked and killed by other dogs at dog parks. On both occasions, the grieving pet parents were met with cavalier dismissal by the owners of the attacking dogs.

Smart people understand that these incidents have infinitely more to do with the dog OWNER than the breed of the attacking dog. And, it is episodes like these that point to what I believe to be the inherent and glaring flaw of dog parks.

Just as there is no uniform code of conduct for dog parks, there is no uniformity in attitude and sense of responsibility among dog owners. This combination can be a recipe for disaster.

For some, “off-leash” means “anything goes!” These are probably the same slobs who say “kids will be kids!” when they learn that their child is bullying his or her classmates at school. Responsible dog parents who try to intervene during a doggie dust-up may be met with derision at the very least and a right-cross to the chops at the worst. Not to mention a possible emergency trip to the vet . . .

YOU may have provided good early socialization for your four-legged buddy – along with proper vaccinations, flea treatments and spay/neutering. YOU may able to curb the lure of social media to focus on your pet’s behavior in the potentially chaotic environs of the dog park. YOU may dutifully scoop up the poop. You know you, and you know your pup. What you don’t know is the mind and heart of every dog-walking person who enters the park.

It SHOULD be that people inherently adhere to a credo of community at the dog park, but this is often not the case – unless you live in an exceptionally tight-knit neighborhood.

As I see it, the dog park is only as safe as the most careless dog owner who uses it.

There are alternatives to dog parks for providing socialization and expenditure of energy including group training classes, meet-up groups and walks organized by pet-advocacy organizations.

Given these options for quality yet controlled interaction, the dog park just doesn’t seem to be worth the risk.