by Marc Bekoff, PH.D.
Some people love dogs parks and some hate them, but it’s the dog’s opinion that counts.
A young man once told me, “I know my dog doesn’t like dog parks. She gets all sorts of nervous and resists leaving the car, but she just has to get used to it because I like going.” Why go to a dog park if it doesn’t benefit the dog?
As I was researching Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, I spent a lot of time at dog parks, more so than before. Over the years, I’ve realized I’ve become something of a canine and dog park “confidentialist.” Dog parks can play a surprisingly important role in our lives, in addition to all the benefits they provide for dogs. For some people, their visit to a dog park, I’m told, comprises a large percentage of their interactions with other humans. Some people spend upward of one to two hours at dog parks each and every day—drinking coffee, texting, chatting on the phone, hanging out with friends, meeting new people and dogs, and having a good old time with everyone, dog and human. In many instances, when I see the care and attention people lavish on their companions, I wish I were one of their dogs—though surely not always.
Dog parks are not perfect places, and people are not perfect, either. At times, I wish people spent more time watching their dogs and were more focused on their canine friend’s needs. Some people visit a dog park more for themselves than for their dog, and it shows. Neglectful people and frustrated, unmanaged dogs tend to be at the center of dog park conflicts and troubles when they arise. Nevertheless, I love going to dog parks, even when I don’t have a dog with me. Dog parks are a fascinating, recent and growing cultural phenomenon. I go rather often to what I call my field sites, for that’s what they are, to study play behavior and other aspects of dog behavior, such as urination and marking patterns, greeting patterns, and social interactions, including how and why dogs enter, become part of, and leave short-term and long-term groups and social relationships.
Dog parks are the fastest-growing part of city parks (1). There were 569 off-leash dog parks in the hundred largest U.S. cities in 2010, a 34 percent jump in five years, while overall parks increased only 3 percent (2). Some dog parks are also making accommodations for special-needs individuals, and some cities are offering places for dogs and humans to interact that are in between homes and dog parks.
You might say that dog parks have never been more popular, and they are becoming better and better places to be. A quick ask of people at dog parks around Boulder showed that more than 95 percent of people loved them for the obvious reasons: they are safe places for dogs to run off leash and play with friends, and people can chat as their dogs have fun. Most people find dog parks a relaxing experience (3). In addition, I love when I see local trainers at dog parks, since they get to see dogs outside of the context of training. As I mentioned earlier, dog parks can be great classrooms for learning about basic principles of animal behavior and evolutionary biology. These Cliff Notes–like discussions benefit people as well as their dogs. It’s easy to become a naturalist in a dog park and learn a lot about the behavior of dogs.
It’s important not only to learn about dog-dog interactions but also dog-human and human-human interactions at dog parks
I have to admit I was extremely surprised to discover when I read various articles on the pros and cons of dog parks, that a good number of people don’t like dog parks at all. Some vehemently criticize them as if they’re all bad places. Sometimes this is a safety concern, since conflicts among dogs can occasionally escalate into fighting, which can lead to injury for dogs and people. Personally, I don’t find dog parks to be unsafe environments, and the vast majority of people with whom I’ve spoken agree, but we don’t have any empirical studies that focus on this question. More often, though, it’s more a matter of dog park etiquette and of the social environment that turns some people off to dog parks. Many people simply don’t like the way other people and their dogs behave at dog parks. I don’t want to belabor dog park courtesy here, since there’s a good deal of information about this online. However, I do want to note that often these issues are a people problem for which the dog can get blamed. When people complain about a dog, it’s really their human companion who’s at fault, leaving the dog to get the short end of the leash, so to speak.
When dogs and humans are sharing space, it’s essential to remember that not all people like dogs. Years ago, I was walking a large, some might say zaftig, malamute on a loose leash. I saw a man approaching us, and when he saw us, he began crossing the street, obviously afraid of the dog. I stopped and said, “There’s no problem. He doesn’t bite,” Unfettered, the man asked me, “Well, how does he eat?” I told him that was a good question, and we went on to have a nice conversation during which he told me that he had been nipped by a dog when he was young, and now he was afraid of them. My mother also was bitten when she was young, which is why I grew up with a goldfish with whom I had numerous conversations, rather than a dog. It’s essential to respect the fact that not all people love or even like dogs.
In addition, each dog park has a unique identity that reflects the culture and attitudes of the locals or regulars. Even within a small city like Boulder, there are differences among dog parks. Without mentioning names, one I go to often is open to newcomers, both dogs and humans, but another one I frequent is, as one of my friends puts it, “a bit more uppity.” When my friend went to the latter park for the first time, people became concerned at seeing a newcomer and asked her if she lived in Boulder! The same thing happened to another friend who went to this same park because he wanted a change of scenery for him and his dog.
Finally, I’ve had cause, though only rarely, to marvel at just how inconsiderate a few people can be. This is not related to dog park etiquette but rather to basic human courtesy. On a few occasions, I’ve been asked by someone why their own dog has bad manners when they themselves are rather inconsiderate. I’m always tempted to quip, “Have you looked in the mirror?” It’s not an accident when people and their canine companions reflect one another—but rather than get involved, I redirect their attention to some interesting dog-dog interaction happening elsewhere.
While we need a lot more research about what goes on at dog parks, Elise Gatti, a graduate student at the University of Utah, told me that a good deal of conflict comes down to different forms of “dog parenting”—some humans are very controlling and protective helicopter guardians and others are more relaxed about their dog’s behavior. In Sonoma State University professor Patrick Jackson’s essay “Situated Activities in a Dog Park,” he noted: “Caretakers become ‘control managers’ who must negotiate problems related to a variety of dog behaviors, especially mounting, aggression, and waste management. In this process, caretakers use various strategies to manage their own and others’ possible perceptions and understandings of appropriate behavior for dogs in public places.” Dr. Jackson kindly followed up on some of his thoughts in an email to me, in which he wrote:
“I was impressed with the high level of the disconnect that may or does exist between the humans and the nonhumans in dog parks I’ve been to. Perhaps we may be able to more easily get a handle on what the humans are feeling about how and why they do what they do in relation to their dogs in the park, and what I notice (and I’m thinking you would agree to some extent) is that people often have no idea what their dogs are ‘really’ up to. But the fact that that exists—that humans in the dog park create interpretations and act on them (regardless of their ‘objective’ accuracy or relevancy to the dogs in the way the humans intend)—can have huge implications for the dogs and their inter- and intra-species interactions in that context.”
I agree with Dr. Jackson that we really don’t know all that much about the dynamics of control and freedom at dog parks. At the conclusion of his thoughtful essay, he writes, “This study suggests that dog parks not only provide insight into canine behavior but also into human-animal and human-human interaction. Thus, while dog parks may appear as urban playgrounds for dogs, the interactions that take place there have implications that extend far beyond the fence that defines their boundary.”
If you enjoy going to a dog park, allow the dog to tell you whether they also enjoy it.
All in all, there is no inherent reason why dog parks always are “bad places” for dogs. The bottom line is a simple one, namely, if a dog enjoys going to meet his friends, other dogs, and perhaps other humans at a dog park, then take them there. And if they don’t, then don’t go unless you go on your own, which also can be a very pleasant experience. Recall what I wrote above about a young man who once who told me, “I know my dog doesn’t like dog parks. She gets all sorts of nervous and resists leaving the car, but she just has to get used to it because I like going.” Why go to a dog park if it doesn’t benefit the dog?
As in all interactions between humans and dogs, we must take into account the dog’s point of view—what they want and need—and listen to them very carefully. Nothing is gained, and a lot is lost, when we selfishly impose our wishes and desires on our canine companions. Let them have a say about the situation at hand. When we allow them to state their opinion and accept what they’re telling us, it’s a win-win for all.
- “Dog Parks Lead Growth in U.S. City Parks.” The website for the Trust For Public Lands (link is external), where the latter report appears, contains numerous details about many different aspects of urban parks.
- Information on the history of dog parks can be found in Allen, “Dog Parks” and El Nasser, “Fastest-Growing Urban Parks Are for the Dogs.”
- For a detailed study of an evaluation of off-leash dog parks in which “users were generally satisfied,” see Lee, Shepley, and Huang, “Evaluation of Off-Leash Dog Parks in Texas and Florida.”
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Allen, Laurel. “Dog Parks: Benefits and Liabilities.” Master’s capstone project, University of Pennsylvania, May 29, 2007.
El Nasser, Haya. “Fastest-Growing Urban Parks Are for the Dogs.” USA Today, December 8, 2011.
Reprinted from Psychology Today with permsission of the author.
About the Author
Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.