People of a certain generation may have fuzzy childhood memories being greeted outside the school bus by any number of neighborhood dogs. You might also recall, as I do, spending your weekends and summer holidays, not in scheduled, organized sporting activities, but riding bikes, splashing around in the local creek, climbing trees and playing games of hide and the seek. You also might recall that dogs were part of these activities and often accompanied their children on daily adventures.
Other dogs were simply let out into the neighborhood and came back when they were ready.
These memories, for better or worse, speak to a different time—an era of neighborhoods with unlocked doors and an absence of home security systems. Today’s households, in addition to being more secure, are also much more scheduled. Our pace of life is simply much faster than it once was. Dogs are no longer welcome to spend their days wandering the neighborhood, awaiting their children's return from school. Many of today’s dogs live as structured a life as their human counterparts. Between scheduled activities, enrollment in various classes, day care and play dates, our dogs are as busy as our children.
These changes have resulted in the development of the off-leash dog park. Over the past 20 years, what where once unofficial dog play areas, located primarily in urban parks, have progressed into government and community sanctioned neighborhood amenities. Houses situated within walking distance to a local dog park can list this as a selling feature to entice one of the approximately 43 million dog owners across the nation. Approximately one out of three people looking for a new home is a dog owner.
Not all dog parks are created equal and not all dogs should use them. A dog park is only as good as its rules and the enforcement there of. While born out of great intentions, sadly, not every community sets up a dog park with the help of people with any real expertise in canine behavior or language. This is evident by the list of posted rules most dog parks display at their entrance.
While rules are important for a dog park, those who use them would also do well to ensure their dog is a good candidate for off-leash play with a wide variety of dogs. Dogs that do not tolerate other dogs or people are clearly not dog park candidates, but the scrutiny should go much further than that. Dog that are either very submissive or very dominate may not be ideal either. Dogs that tend to be possessive or territorial might not appreciate or be appreciated at the dog park. Ultimately, it is up to each owner to determine if their dog is a good dog park candidate. Some dogs do well with certain groups of dogs and for these, a loosely scheduled play group or meeting time might work out well.
I am often asked about the best way to introduce and use dog parks. For the safety of your pet, other dogs and all people at the local dog park, my suggestions are included in the PDF in the media gallery.