Would Your Dog Fit in at the Dog Park?

Published May 5, 2015

I absolutely believe that giving to local charities more directly helps pets than giving to large organizations with bloated bureaucracies and complicated distribution of funds. That is why my homemade dog food business has chosen a local pet adoption group and a local dog park as my official company charities. The helpful effects of my donations are immediate.

In the case of my local dog park, I regularly hang around as an informal “Ask the Vet-Anything” source for the pet parents using the park. We are the only dog park in the area, or perhaps anywhere, that offers this type of service to dog owners. My time there shows me that dog parks can be both good and bad for dogs, and dog parents must weigh the benefits against the potential risks.

Here is what I have learned:

Dog Park Dogs are Healthier

Over 90 percent of the dogs that use our park are fit and at their ideal body weight. This is opposed to less than half of my veterinary patients that are ideal weight.

Admittedly, about half of our dogs are young and not yet experiencing a slowing metabolism, but exercise is still playing a significant role in their fitness. Between fetching tennis balls and Frisbees, chasing each other, and running to greet every newcomer, dog park dogs are burning far more calories than if they were strolling with their owners (the typical leash walk that burns 0 calories). The owners also report that the exercise makes the dogs more calm at home and decreases separation anxiety.

Not all dogs are “dog park dogs”

Because dog parks are “off-leash” areas, dogs going to dog parks need to already be well socialized and very obedient to voice command. Dogs that are fearful of other dogs display body language that either invites attack from other dogs or results in attacks on other dogs during group play.

Group situations quickly turn to what I call “feeding frenzies” and typically end with injury to dogs and to the owners trying to separate the dogs. In this frenzied state, dogs revert to pure instinct of the primitive brain and are difficult to control and command. I have personally given first-aid to both injured dogs and their owners.

This is why I don’t take my dog to dog parks. I rescued her when she was older and she clearly is not comfortable around other dogs or people. Putting her in an uncomfortable social setting only stresses her, and because she is part pit bull it could result in unpredictable behavior and serious consequences. She is not a “dog park dog.”

With group play, this frenzied behavior is going to happen even when dogs are closely supervised by their owners. But if all of the dogs are well socialized, I have noticed that the dogs quickly resolve it themselves, with the participants showing the necessary body language to end the pack dynamic and return to normal group play.

The bottom line is that a dog park is not the place to socialize a dog. That should be done between the ages of 7-16 weeks of age, the peak time for effective socialization. Puppy classes or play dates with vaccinated and healthy dogs and puppies and constant encounters with strangers in controlled situations are better. And no, dogs do not need to be fully vaccinated before starting a socialization program. These posts should help explain why.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Stanimir G.Stoev / Shutterstock


Could You Be Waiting Too Long to Socialize Your Puppy?

Puppy Vaccinations Take Back Seat to Socialization

No, Your Dog Does Not Have to Be Social


Ken Tudor, DVM


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