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DOG PARKS. A Politically Incorrect View

S. Greene

Previously Published:
GSDCA Review
Dallas Morning News
K9Coach.com

Introduction

I love dogs. Big dogs, small dogs, compliant dogs and dogs that don't give a hoot about pleasing anyone but themselves all share a place in my heart.
I love parks. Whether the majestic Tetons in Wyoming or the rugged beauty of the Grand Canyon, parks are special. I even like the corner tot lot - it is a great place for puppy socialization.

I love walking dogs in parks. Whether hiking a wilderness area in the high Sonoran Desert or enjoying an impromptu conversation with a child, going with a canine simply makes the trip better.

Yet, I am against Dog Parks. I am not in favor of fenced urban grasslands where numbers of strange dogs are brought to frolic in unleashed bliss. This is especially true when people are oblivious to their dogs' actions, in particular, and totally clueless about canine behavior, in general. With few exceptions, owners of both pet and working dogs should avoid Dog Parks like the plague.
Manure doesn't move out of your way; you must step over or around it. There are enough problems with training and socializing dogs. Without looking for them, some are bound to find their way to your door. No need to invite them in. When you come upon a situation that may land you in deep doo-doo, like a Dog Park, use common sense - avoid it.

Disease

I have yet to see a Dog Park that posts a sign: "No one under 21 weeks admitted." No puppy belongs at a Dog Park. A pup's immune system is immature and cannot physiologically be expected to repel a full frontal assault. Bringing a pup into a Dog Park is playing Russian roulette with its life. Yes, socialization is important. But, you can't train a dog that is either severely brain damaged or dead.

Even when your pup is older, or if you have a dog that is fully immunized, going to a Dog Park is very risky business. Who in the park is shedding Parvo virus or leaving giardia infested stools? Which dog was just exposed to kennel cough? Want to share fleas or ear mites? Is that a hot spot or ringworm on the pooch walking by?

Dog Parks actively facilitate the exchange of contagious diseases and parasites.

Socialization

The People

  • Macho Man - "My dog could take yours, if I told him to."
  • Little Person - Mastiff accompanied by pre-teen and his friend.
  • Clueless - Drinking latte, dog's hackles up: "uh, duh+like, you know+?"
  • Show Off - "I can do anything to any dog and it won't bite+watch me."
  • Know It All - "You can cure allergies by feeding your dog Vicks Salve. "

The Dogs

  • Hackles up, teeth showing, growling at each new dog that enters.
  • Ears back, tail tucked, shaking like a leaf, spending lots of time on its back.
  • Dig, dig, dig - - China here I come.
  • Jump, jump, jump - - on people, on other dogs.
  • Climb the fence, get pulled off; climb the fence, get pulled off+
  • Mark the gate, mark a tree+oh, no+he just marked ME!

Dogs learn from other dogs. Are you willing to have your dog mimic these behaviors? In an ideal world, only highly social dogs with stable temperaments that are under voice control of their handlers would be found at Dog Parks. The world is not ideal.

To me, utilizing a Dog Park for socialization makes as much sense as using a stick of dynamite to light a cigar. Not only will you not get what you want, you may get results you couldn't imagine - even in your worst nightmare. And, you may have a big cleanup after the smoke clears, plus a scar or two.

If any trainer advises you to take a shy dog to the Dog Park and let it learn to play - get another trainer. If any trainer tells you to take an aggressive dog to the Dog Park where it will meet dogs that are even more aggressive to put it in its place - stop payment on your check. If any trainer suggests you take a fearful dog to a Dog Park for total immersion with strange dogs, new people and a variety of situations - cover your ears. And, should a trainer say that you have a really nice dog with good temperament and balanced drives - keep it that way. Don't risk training or socializing at the local Dog Park.

A Dog Park is not the appropriate venue for your canine companion to either learn obedience commands or practice socialization skills. That must take place under controlled conditions.

Control

Many control issues come into play the minute you open the Dog Park gate. Even if your dog is Lassie and fully obedient at all times, things inside a Dog Park are not under your control.

People

You cannot control who comes through the gate. Despite posted rules and regulations, you cannot direct the behavior of other dog owners. You may ask others to watch their dog more closely, but what if they don't? And, what if they take offense at your request?

Size of Dogs

Many Dog Parks are divided into two specific areas: one for dogs over 50 pounds and one for smaller pets. Ever seen a forty-nine pound dog shake a MinPin? When there is one owner for both a toy poodle and a Great Dane, which area will they use? Will you be happy with that owner's choice?

Physical Environment

You enter the Dog Park with an aging pet and find several mud slicks. Will your dog be able to maintain adequate footing with puppies jumping up or other dogs playing chase? Slick footing is dangerous for pups' joint development, as well as for senior dogs.
Is there a gap in the fencing? Are there holes beneath it where another dog tried to escape? Is poison oak growing up a tree? Why did the groundskeeper leave a length of barbed wire inside the fence and how many dogs will try to chew or fetch it?
NOTHING is under your control at a Dog Park - not the people, their dogs or the physical environment.
If you believe your pup has issues socializing with other animals or people, ask a competent trainer for help.

To Treat or Not To Treat

I watched a man bring packages of "mystery" meat into a local Dog Park, offering hunks the size of my fist to any dog close enough to take them. There were eight dogs present and only one pet owner succeeded in getting to their dog before it ate at least some of the meat. I prayed the man was a generous butcher and not mentally unbalanced or cruel.

A friend watched a woman place the contents of two bags of dog bones into a huge pile and then call ALL the dogs in the Dog Park to come for "treat time." Isn't that a new and interesting way to test dominance, aggression and food guarding?

One man's meat is another man's poison. Some dogs share food; other's fight for possession. What risks are you willing to take?

Authority

  • Who has authority at the Dog Park?
  • Owners who succeed at intimidation?
  • Aggressive dogs that snarl or bite?
  • Dogs that have formed a park pack?
  • Gang members looking for fun?
  • Regulars - who ask you to wait until they're finished?
  • Park Rangers who may patrol weekly?
  • Animal Control personnel who are a 30-minute-drive away?

The only authority you have is the ability to take your dog and leave the Dog Park. But what happens if your exit is blocked by any of the first four on my list?

Setting the Stage

Each outing with your pet should be pre-planned. Not only does this mean taking the necessities, such as fresh water and a leash, it also means having a training plan and setting goals. Perhaps your visit to the park will be aimed at walking on a different surface. Maybe a trip to the tennis court is really a better opportunity to try off-leash obedience in a fenced area.

Setting the stage means deciding what steps you will take to make certain you and your dog reach a specific training goal. The more controlled your environment and the better prepared you are, the less likely you are to need remediation. It is much easier to set your dog up for training success than it is to try and fix a problem that you never saw coming.

A Dog Park cannot meet my criteria as a safe place for dogs to play or learn. There are too many risk factors working against a good training or socialization plan.
To set your dog up for success, you must have control of the training stage. This can't happen at a Dog Park.

True Stories

Can you dig it?

A neighbor takes her high-energy miniature poodle to the Dog Park so that it may use those facilities, rather than her yard, for digging. As the dog dug its umpteenth hole, a woman approached my neighbor and politely asked her to remove the dog and replace the dirt. My neighbor said: "I won't leave and you can't make me." As the woman turned to avoid escalating the confrontation, she fell - - in one of the freshly dug holes - - and broke her ankle. My neighbor paid her medical bills and sent flowers, too.

Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?

A good friend took her Shiloh Shepherd to the local Dog Park early on a Monday morning. The usual weekend crowd was absent and several senior citizens were visiting with their pets. My friend took her dog off leash and slowly walked to the back of the park where she'd spotted an empty bench. As she sat down, she noticed her dog - - OUTSIDE the fence and immediately commanded DOWN-STAY. Then, my gal-pal proceeded to climb the fence and help others call their dogs. Someone failed to secure the gate and it was the owners who were securely INSIDE the Dog Park, while their pets were running free.

Truth is stranger than fiction

I haven't told you about the 160-pound Mastiff rescue brought to the Dog Park by new owner on his way home from the shelter. What about the 3 Dobermans that were dropped off at the Dog Park while their owner drove down the block to pick up his girlfriend after work?

Exceptions to the Rule

Friends would accuse me of undue prejudice if I failed to mention times when a Dog Park may work:

  • You live in an access-controlled, gated community that has a Dog Park for residents, only. Your HOA Rules and Regulations or CC&Rs specifically require that a current shot record be kept on file prior to issuing you a pass for the Dog Park. There is individual accountability and responsibility with sanctions or fines for those who do not follow the posted rules.
  • Your town allows private groups to reserve the Dog Park and during those times access is by invitation only, checked by a city employee. (This will not lessen health risks, of course.)

Set you and your dog up for training success, not failure. Be smart. Be safe. Be in control.

Shirley Greene can be reached @: jeff6542@aol.com

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