When I first moved to my current location for graduate school, I was firmly rooted in the camp that dog parks were nothing more than a gathering place for rowdy, possibly aggressive dogs owned by people who could not be bothered to train their dogs to sit. (Please read the rest of this post before you start slinging bags of dog poop!)
Fast forward nearly 3 years, and I cannot imagine my life without my local dog park, the dogs I’ve grown to love, and the owners who have become some of the closest friends I have ever had. When I first began frequenting my local dog park, I had just gone through a breakup, and because I’m human, I needed to get out of the apartment that seemed to only house memories. As luck would have it, a group of people were just starting to become “dog park regulars” and we hit it off instantly. Granted, it was months before we knew each as anything more than, “Geordi’s mom,” but very quickly the dog park became the highlight of my day, and all of us connected through our mutual love of our dogs. All of of this is not to say that there were not occasionally rowdy, just downright obnoxious dogs (with owners who could be described the same way!). Those dogs and people are always a possibility at dog parks, but you learn ways to recognize them and more importantly, you learn ways to deal with them whether it be physically removing yourself from the situation (i.e., moving to another section of the park or leaving altogether). This is part of being an advocate for your dog and it’s the most valuable lesson the dog park has taught me.
My 12 year-old Beagle, Geordi, is a prime example of the kind of situation that most owners warn of when they advise people not to go to dog parks. I would agree, were not for how on top of him I am and the fact that I take active responsibility for his possible behaviors. Geordi has never been a “merry go lucky hound” as the Beagle breed standards states the Beagle should be. He has always had a chip on his shoulder and he couldn’t care less where you are or about other dogs most of the time. There is one exception. If an intact male dog comes into the dog park, Geordi becomes aggressive. This behavior worsened once Geordi was neutered, and I have been in contact with animal behaviorists regarding this issue. As of yet, I have not found a solution. Due to this, if a dog I do not recognize begins to enter the side of the park Geordi and I are on, I always ask if the dog is neutered and then I explain why I am asking.* If the dog is unneutered and intent upon entering the side of the park we are occupying, I take Geordi to the other side, or we leave. My other dog, a 9-year old Brittany named Paris is the epitome of the low-key, friendly dog park dog. Out of the two, he is the one I worry about the least but I still keep my eyes on my dogs at the park and if things start going awry, I act. Being a dog park-goer has taught me how to stand up for my dogs and how to withdraw them from stressful situations without worrying about offending another owner. These are things that as an introverted people-pleaser were difficult for me in the past. On top of friends and advocacy, the dog park has been a networking goldmine.
I have become friends with professors at my university in a multitude of departments. These connections have opened doors for me that would have remained closed in terms of research opportunities and mentors across fields willing to look over my work and offer advice. Many of my dog training and dog grooming clients have also come from the dog park. They were friends first. In fact, I honed my dog grooming skills by grooming friends’ dogs for bags of coffee before I ever began charging money for my services. These people talked to other people, and my clientele base has grown.
Becoming a better advocate for my dogs, the friendships, and networking I have found through the dog park are reasons that I recommend dog parks to clients who I think are ready for them. There are always inherent risks when you place a bunch of dogs in an enclosed area, but I believe that if both owner and dog are prepared, the benefits outweigh those risks.
Please comment with your dog park experiences and opinions, whether you agree or disagree. I look forward to reading them!
*Unneutered dogs are not technically supposed to be in the dog park but this rule is usually not reinforced unless an unneutered dog is causing problems with multiple dogs and a physical safety of dogs or people becomes a concern.
Pictured: My Brittany, Paris (yes he is a male, named after a Star Trek Character) at our local dog park.