Dog Park Play: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Photo Credit: © Kathie Meier

Dog parks can be a fabulous venue for dogs to socialize, exercise, and get out their “ya ya’s”. Many dogs have a blast there, as do their humans who enjoy the opportunity to socialize with other dog lovers and are grateful that, after an excursion to the dog park, their little energizer bunnies will be content to go home and take naps.

Dog parks are certainly not the “bee’s knees” for every canine, including my two little mutts. While Nellie and Quinn love playing with each other and the neighbor dogs, when at the dog park they become seriously introverted and downright snobby. They have no intention of whooping it up with a bunch of ruffians they hardly know!

If you and your four legged best friend enjoy frequenting the dog park, keep in mind that special vigilance on your part is required to avoid the medical maladies that are an integral part of the dog park scene. For example, this week at work, our surgeons were tending to an adorable one-year-old Beagle who sustained some nasty bite wounds at the dog park. Unfortunately, Mom was also bitten as she attempted to disrupt the melee.

Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) recently provided a list of the most common dog park-related medical conditions gleaned from their 2011 database. Topping the list were soft tissue injuries, lacerations (cuts), and bite wounds. Kennel cough, insect bites, head trauma, heat stroke, parasite infection, and parvovirus infection were also frequently documented.

While some of the problems found on this list may not be readily avoidable, others certainly are. Here are some recommendations for keeping your dog as safe as possible at the dog park:

  1. Simply pay close attention! I realize how easy it is to pull up a chair in the shade and get caught up in conversation with friends at the “human park,” but far safer for your dog if your eyes are on him. Issues such as bullying behavior or play that is too rough can be detected early and nipped in the bud before a casualty results.
  2. Do not take your pup anywhere near the dog park until seven to ten days after he receives his last set of puppy vaccinations (administered at four months of age). Before that time, it is fine for him to socialize with other dogs, but only those that you know have been well vaccinated. Parvovirus, in particular, is a hearty little bugger that can survive and remain infectious within the dog park environment for days.
  3. Allow your dog the opportunity to practice socializing with one or two doggie friends before turning him loose with ten to twenty hooligans at once.
  4. Work with your veterinarian to create a customized parasite prevention protocol for your dog.
  5. Plan your trips to the dog park so as to avoid the heat of the day, particularly if you have a smoosh-faced breed such as a Pug, Bulldog, or Boston Terrier. If your dog does not know his own limits in terms of running and playing (think Labrador Retriever here!), be sure you bring play to a halt when appropriate so as to avoid hyperthermia (overheating). Early signs of heatstroke can include any of the following: bright red tongue, incoordination, heavy drooling, and heavy, rapid, noisy breathing. If you observe such symptoms, use water at the park to cool your dog off before heading to the closest veterinary hospital.
  6. Talk with your veterinarian about the potential risks and benefits of vaccines that may help prevent kennel cough.
  7. If your dog is a bully or tends to get bullied, accept the possibility that the dog park just isn’t a good environment for him. If spending time at the dog park is important to you, enlist a reputable trainer or behaviorist to help you help your dog acclimate to this venue.

I encourage you to check out what my friend and dog trainer extraordinaire Jill Breitner recommends to ensure safe and positive dog park visits.

How do you and your dog feel about visits to the dog park?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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21 Comments on “Dog Park Play: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. I personally and professionally do not go into Dog Parks, but I love to work or recommend working dogs on the outside for added distractions in training. I simply do not trust the majority of other dog owners in the training or health care of their dogs enough to warrent the risks. For those that really want to participate inside the fence, I simply recommend that they first have excellent control of their dog in different situations, their dog is current on health care, and they observe the behavior of the dogs and owners in the park for a bit before entering the park. *JMO* :)

  2. I notice you’re not naming the one huge elephant in the room: pit bulls and pit-type dogs do NOT belong at dog parks. I’m not for banning these bully-type dogs, but it would be nice if we were honest about what they were bred for and what they do to other dogs.

    I’m old enough to remember when there were never casualties at dog parks. Everyone who went there felt safe with their dogs…and rightly so, even heated arguments didn’t result in wounds beyond (at most) a scratch. You could take a pup there and let adult dogs do their expert pup-raising thing, never a pup hurt.

    It’s only since pit bulls (and their mixes and derivatives) have become so all-pervasive that dog parks have become so scary. That it’s become so scary to let adult dogs socialize a pup (which fear results of course in more anti-social non-pit adult dogs as a side-effect).

    I know my comment will enrage many, and perhaps offend you because it names the elephant you don’t want to name. But this is a growing problem we need to address, I can’t help feeling let down when people like you don’t mention this problem and frankly address it.

    Respectfully, Yoka

  3. Thanks, Dr. Kay for another informative article. I used to bring my Golden to a dog park until one very large dog decided that she was very, very attractive and kept on trying to mount her. I had to push this dog away forcefully at least 10 times until the owner finally came over and pulled him away, only after asking me if my Golden was “fixed”!!!! Grrrr! It made me lose my taste for dog parks after that. Luckily, I wasn’t bitten.

  4. Excellent article Dr. Kay. We are just getting ready to open a Dog Park in my area and I do have reservations about it, not so much about my dogs but about the humans attached to “their” dogs. I see too many people who see a leash free park as an excuse to just let the dogs do what they want and “work it out themselves” when something happens..

    @ Eileen Kerrigan I have to disagree with you on dogs not having hierarchies. Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, noted animal behaviorist says that “Dominance-Submissive relationships do exist among some household pet”. To quote her, “But hierarchies are not necessarily linear, individuals can share similar ranks and clear hierarchies may not always exist. In some households, certain individuals clearly have priority access to resources and might use aggression to establish this priority. “She also states that dogs tend to show clear signs that they are vying for higher status.
    She also states that dominance is a relationship between two or more individuals.

  5. Thanks Nancy! I don’t take my dog to the local dog park anymore. My problem isn’t with the dogs but with the humans. People with little dog training or common sense, or exhibiting defensive, overly protective, and even aggressive behavior.

    My dog loved it when she was a puppy, and there seemed to be a cohesive like-minded group of regulars. Now, at age 5, she’d rather go for a walk and look for rabbits. Last time I went to the dog park, she hung out next to me waiting for a walk, minding her own business. When a dog got into her face she growled, and the owner freaked out, scooped up her dog and left the park! Another person yelled that my dog was aggressive and shouldn’t come into the park! This is the same person who parks her chair in the middle of the park and constantly yells at her dog in complete sentences.

    I found a neighbor who has 2 dogs that she can hang out with, or she occasionally goes to doggie day care where they screen the dogs before grouping them.

  6. It’s a two-sided coin and one which were are almost forced to use, if we wish to access off-leash exercise for our dogs sadly. When did we are dog owners simply give up the fight for full access? In California, we have an actively hostile state Parks system (I knew someone who worked there and told me this). In my own city (Oakland), they turn their backs on dog owners every day by continuing a complete ban on dogs in any city parks (yes, it’s true).

    My point is that we should be fighting to regain access to parks and open spaces all over. To make the time-old comparison between dogs and children, we consider our dogs to be our children. Would we are parents of children allow them to be segregated into gated tot areas and not allowed in any other venue? I understand the comparison might not please everyone. However, children spread germs as much or more than dogs, believe me. Dogs are different species and as such they can’t pass on most of their diseases, unlike children.

    I think we need to help some parents and others get past their dislike of dogs sharing space with them. I don’t know what form that will take but I completely believe in this cause and will do everything in my power to bring it to light.

    Power to the dogs and their people!

  7. Thanks again for useful and important information, Dr. Kay! As an ER vet, I see the bad things that come from dog parks, so I can attest to the dangers – both to people and pets.

    It is a sad state of affairs that the reality is so far from the sepia-toned vision that many folks have of dog parks. It sounds great, but there is so much potential for tragedy. You did a great job of informing without feeding the hype.

    Over at our blog, ANIMALicious, we have just posted a blog on the same topic (as you said – great minds think alike!). I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to come on by and participate in the discussion:

  8. One more comment – i notice that many guardians hang their leashes on the gate when they enter the park with their dogs. I think it is much better to keep it close to hand in case you need to leash your dog to cool off or leave. Sometimes running to the gate to retrieve your leash allows too much time for a situation to escalate. Better to be prepared!

  9. Great article, especially Jill’s advice. Unfortunately, like so many “dog problems”, most of the concerns at dog parks are “people problems” – inattentive, overly protective, competitive, oblivious, lazy, arrogant people. We have a number of wonderful public dog parks in the Nashville area and generally people behave well. My dogs like to go, but not to play. They generally survey the scene and enjoy the new smells and territory to explore. For me, it is a fun place to “people- and dog-watch.” The key is common sense and courtesy.

  10. We have a number of dog parks in our area but I have chosen not to frequent the public ones for a number of years after one of my dogs was side-rammed at high speed by a poodle – the result – an ACL tear and surgery.

    We do however have two local parks (big dog and small dog) which are available for private reservation. For the past year and a half we have a standing reservation for an hour or more each Friday for our group of two goldens and two berners. All four have very similar play styles, are the same age, have been in class together and love their playtime together. It gives us a dog park fix each week as a supplement to all of our other activities. Thanks for a great post.


  11. I’ve never taken my dogs to a dog park, for all the cautions you stated. It is difficult enough to simply walk them up the road with free roaming dogs (local and worker’s canines) of unknown temperment.

    The Parvo warning for puppies is so true. So many folks get a puppy and take it out too early to tragic results.

    Thank you for your great information.

  12. Hi Eileen,

    Thanks very much for your comments. I will pass them along to Jill. In response to your first comment, until a pup is fully vaccinated (again wait 7-10 days past the last vaccine) they should not ever be an environment that has been frequented by potentially unvaccinated dogs. I don’t think we know with certainty just how long parvovirus can last in every single environment- therefore, the warning to simply keep pups away from such environments. Nothing is foolproof- heck, one can track parvovirus into the environment on the sole of their shoe. So, nothing is 100% protective, but a little common sense goes a long way.

  13. Thank you for yet another wonderfully helpful article — I pass them on to everyone in our rescue group :-)

    Two comments:

    1. You mentioned that “Parvovirus, in particular, is a hearty little bugger that can survive and remain infectious within the dog park environment for days.” I’ve always heard that parvo can survive in yards/lawns for up to six months, and that you shouldn’t bring a puppy into an environment that’s been exposed to parvo for at least that long. Has that advice been revised, and if so, what’s the new recommendation for staying “parvo-safe?”

    2. Jill’s article also had good advice … but I was very disappointed to see frequent references to “dominance” and “dominance behavior,” since it’s been pretty well demonstrated by now that dominance is a RELATIONSHIP between two beings, not a “behavior.”

    The reference to humping as a “dominant” behavior was especially disheartening; humping is an arousal/excitement behavior, and has nothing to do with “dominance.”

    I have two “personal” dogs, a long-term foster dog, and an ever-changing parade of short-term fosters who all randomly hump each other, depending on who happens to be more excited at any given moment. If this was truly a “dominance” behavior, only ONE dog (the “dominant” dog) would ever be the “humper,” and everyone else would always be the “humpee” … but that’s not the case at all.

    Dogs in a “natural” state don’t live in hierarchies or have pecking orders (humans do; chimps do; horses do; dogs don’t); they live alone or in ever-changing groups in which various dogs might be “top dog” at various times, depending on the circumstances. For example, a lot of fuss has been made about dogs sleeping in the highest spot (allegedly a sign of “dominance”) .. yet my 3/4/5 dogs routinely take turns claiming the top of the sofa as a resting place. In a hierarchical society ruled by dominance, only ONE dog — always the same dog — would control that spot.

    If that article is going to be spread around as good advice on dog parks (which, as I said, most of it is), I’d respectfully suggest removing the “dominance” references … and suggest that Jill take a look at this web site and read the referenced book (“The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs”):

  14. Very timely article since I am currently involved with petitioning for a dog park in our community. Personally, I have no experience with them … just a young dog who needs a lot of exercise and socialization and nowhere else to readily get these things. Thanks for the tips, as our plans develop will certainly take these points into account.

  15. Hi Ray,

    Please fill us in on the end of the story! What ever happened to the little Chihuahua you were fostering?

  16. I haven’t had a dog in my family for over 25 years, when my very best friend for 13 years passed. However, I volunteer for a local rescue group and a year ago December, we held a ‘Superadoption’ event where a number of rescues and shelters participated. As the last day of the event began, word leaked out that one of the shelters would snuff any of the animals that they had to take back at the end of the day. Staff members and volunteers from all over the area took charge of those animals and became their fosters. One of them, a little Chihuahua, was taken by a staff person from the organization with which I’m affiliated. When she had to attend to some business, she asked if I could look after the little pooch. He climbed onto my lap, fell asleep, started snoring, and stole my heart. I was about to visit relatives for Xmas and asked if I could take him with me. So on the way back home, I stopped at a couple of dog parks, and all was well. He spent the night at my place and as I was taking him back to the rescue group’s office, I decided to visit my local dog park in Taylorsville, UT. When I arrived, I found out that to use the park, one had to pay a fee and the dog had to have a license. Paying an annual fee for a single visit seemed unfair and I was in no position to license a dog that belonged to someone else. So I had the ethical quandary of being a lawbreaker or depriving a sweet little doggy of a few minutes to run around in a safe area. I’m ashamed to say that I became a lawbreaker. About 5 minutes after we got there, a lady came by with 2 enormous dogs, one a GSD and I don’t remember what the other was. Now most dog parks have two enclosures, one for dogs over about 20-25 pounds and the other for smaller ones. Not this place with all the fees. One enclosure for hundred pounders and eight pounders. The lady told me that I shouldn’t worry, that her dogs were friendly and that they just liked to play, but when the GSD picked up the little guy in his mouth and started to shake him, I decided that I was being punished for breaking the law and I got us out of there quickly. The dog parks in Las Vegas, NV and Kingman, AZ were fine but I sure can’t recommend the one in Taylorsville, UT. Especially for small dogs.

  17. This article does touch on many of the dangers of using dog parks. As a pet care professional, I choose not to use dog parks at all and encourage my clients to avoid them as well. There are other safer ways to socialize and have fun with your dog and although I completely understand the convenience of a dog park, especially to those without easy access to a large yard for running, people do need to realize that their pet could get seriously injured, even killed, by other dogs while there.

    Of course, some folks just refuse to give up their dog park adventures. For them, one major piece of advice I give (other than your #1 to pay close attention!) is to go at the same time and the same days so that you can get to know the regulars. The community that is created can help keep the park more safe as folks begin self-policing and help keep dogs that shouldn’t be there, out. I’m always amazed at how clueless some owners can be when it comes to recognizing when their best friend just isn’t cut out for dog park trips.

  18. Donna’s post about “body slammers” reminded me that I forgot to mention the risk of human injuries at the dog park. I’ve seen a couple of people end up with knee ligament injuries thanks to a canine body slam!

  19. I am nervous about regular dog parks. Unfortunately, there’s no control over the types of dogs who come there (e.g. bullies) and also the level of responsibility the guardian takes. Too many times, the humans are busy drinking coffee instead of monitoring the play and my friend, whose dog was roughed up by a bully, was even sworn at by the “owner” of the bully who said, “ah, they’re just being dogs!”
    The solution for me with an exuberant two year old Golden Retriever is: (1) doggie daycare where temperaments are assessed and dogs are placed in appropriate groups (most Labs are in the “body slammers” category, not for us), and (2) a “members only” dog park where dogs have been screened ahead of time by the sponsoring boarding facility. We’ve been doing this for about six months and have had NO problems.

  20. I do not recommend dog parks to my clients for many reasons – many of which you have touched upon. Providing opportunities for your pet to exercise and socialize is very important. Most important of all is that your pet is socialized to people so I advise taking your pet to places where pets are welcome. Obviously, pet stores are one opportunity but locally, here in Cincinnati, Home Depot welcomes pets. Walking your dog; having guests visit your home help with the training – sit to be petted and then given a treat are all wonderful things that will help your pet be a better behaved citizen. Taking your dog to a training class is very important and the earlier, the better. Check out the classes that are offered in your area and definitely go to observe a class before enrolling. Check with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to locate trainers in your area. Look for training that is based on positive reinforcement. Have fun with your dog – your relationship with your dog is very important. Playing with other dogs is not necessarily the only or most important approach to socialization. I also strongly recommend seeking out trainers who are evaluators for the AKC Puppy S.T.A.R. program and the Canine Good Citizen Program. Both of these are good lead-ins to therapy dog work -just in case you are interested!

  21. Dear Dr. Kay: Another great post. As a certified dog trainer and assoc. behavior consultant I would add that the humping is sometimes a displacement behavior for dogs who may not be totally savvy yet in dog to dog play. In other words, they are anxious about what to do and so behave this way.

    Another thing I suggest to my clients is to be sure to stick on the appropriate side of the dog park. That means if you have a small dog please don’t go into the Big Dog side and vice versa. Finally, it is not appropriate to bring your baby in a stroller to a dog park in most circumstances because the baby’s face will be at the level of most dogs and a re-directed bite could seriously hurt your child.

    One more thing: Get off the cell phone. Watch your dog(s) and be present to interrupt incorrect play!

    Thanks for a great post!