Dog parks are the worst. There. I said it. Let the hate mail come, but I stand firmly behind my opinion. The issues are so far-reaching that I have a hard time knowing where to begin. So let’s dive into the worst case scenario.
Dogs die violently at dog parks all the time. There are no substantiated statistics, but a simple internet search is enough to show there are countless verified reports of dogs dying at dog parks. I can only imagine how many more victims belong to owners who prefer to grieve in private rather than taking their anger to the media. There are so many news stories on this topic I can’t even include them all in the body of this post, but there will be links to a larger selection at the end.
Here’s one story to get you started. A cocker spaniel named Nicky was attacked and killed by a German Shepherd at a local dog park shortly after walking through the gate. If you read through more of the stories at the end you’ll see this same story again and again. A dog who loved dog parks is attacked and killed. The owners of both dogs involved never saw it coming. And therein lies the problem. They never saw it coming. Off-leash dog play among dogs from different households is a complex and difficult dynamic which should not be attempted by the average dog owner. But more on that later… This article is a good read because of the interviews with local veterinarians who explain that dog-on-dog attacks are, in fact, common. They report seeing multiple injuries from dog park attacks every week. Remember, this is only one veterinary office, so this does not account for all of the attacks that occur in the city’s dog parks.
One problem with dog parks is that safety relies on every participant’s knowledge of dog behavior and their judgement, and people are stupid. Okay, that’s mean and a generalization, but I think you know what I meant. Any one of us can make a bad judgement call. Some people…more than others. Owners may believe that their dog is not an aggression risk and be wrong. Or they may know deep down that their dog is an aggression risk but want so badly to believe it is not that they convince themselves otherwise. You may have a hard time believing this, but trust me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spoken with a potential client on the phone and been told how wonderful his/her dog is with other people and dogs–never even the slightest issue. Then after beginning training, the owner slowly reveals that he/she sought professional help because the dog was showing signs of aggression. Or they may know full well that their dog is aggressive and take them to a dog park anyway. I think most people would say, “Surely someone who knows their dog is aggressive would never bring their dog to an off-leash dog park.” That’s where you would be wrong. There are many accounts of dogs attacking and even killing multiple dogs before being tracked down by authorities.
As you start browsing through the horror stories, you may notice a pattern emerging. Lots of the stories feature a small dog being attacked by a larger dog or dogs. There are reasons for that, which I’ll address next. But don’t fool yourself into thinking your large dog is safe. Firstly, a small dog is more easily killed by a large dog. Tiny bones and thin skin versus big mouth and lots of force. Large dogs get attacked too, but are less likely to succumb to their injuries because of their size. Secondly, large dogs die or are seriously maimed, too.
There are reasons small dogs are likely to be attacked by larger dogs, too. Many types of larger dogs were bred for hunting, herding, or even killing small animals. I know we don’t like to hear that about our beloved pets, but terriers were bred for killing rodents and other vermin. Hunting (including retrieving, flushing, and pointing) and herding behaviors are also modifications of a dog’s natural prey drive sequence. A dog bred for any of these purposes can play happily and without incident. Then the appearance of a small, sometimes fluffy dog can trigger that latent prey drive which has been bred into the dog. All it takes is one, instinctive snap. And the owner never saw it coming, because it hadn’t been there a moment ago.
Many dog parks have created gated areas to separate large dogs from small dogs. It’s a nice idea, and I’m sure it reduces the number of deaths. To me that seems like a crazy idea. Reducing deaths that are completely preventable. But don’t forget, large dogs, as we’ve seen, are capable of killing other large dogs. And yes, small dogs are capable of killing small dogs, too. Let’s not forget that separate areas rely on owner compliance, and as we’ve already seen, people can make poor choices. Many small dogs are killed by large dogs in designated small dog areas. Sometimes small dogs are killed by large dogs when their owners take them outside of the designated small dog area, and the large dog is always the one blamed.
Dogs are not the only ones at risk in dog parks. Children and adults are attacked, sometimes viciously, sometimes incidentally as a result of trying to protect their dog. Here are few of the vicious variety.
But when you look over these, you’ll see that one child was bitten when reaching through a fence, I would assume to pet the dogs. This is a terrible idea. Toddlers can be terrifying for some dogs and an arm reaching through a fence even more so. It’s hard to know if this dog was vicious or scared, or both. The mother of the child is calling for the dog’s blood, but I’m not sure that’s fair to the dog or the owner. The first thing I teach my kids when they are outside of my boarding kennel is to never, ever put their arms through the fence to pet the dogs, even ones they have met and played with outside the kennel. They are not even allowed to hold the fence with their fingers, no matter how nice the dogs inside the fence are. It’s too risky.
Owners often believe that they are safe from prosecution or litigation because there are signs and/or waivers at dog parks which state that owners who bring their dogs into the park do so at their own risk. That’s not true. Those waivers are intended to release the municipality from assumption of risk. Depending on the local laws, you may face lawsuits, investigation, and/or criminal charges if your dog bites another dog or person.
You may think that you’re safe because your dog would never bite. Again, that’s where you’d be wrong. A big problem with dog parks is that one dog starts a fight and another dog finishes it when it defends itself. Guess which one gets blamed? The owner of the second dog can face litigation or prosecution, and the dog could face euthanasia. Don’t believe me? It happens. I am warning you, this next story is horrific. Please don’t follow the link (I know, now you want to more than ever). I almost didn’t include the link, but I want to provide substantiation for my claims, so here it is. A woman was walking her dog on a leash with her son when three unleashed dogs attacked from behind. The mother and dog both feared for the child’s safety. The mother grabbed the child, ran him over to a safe spot out of the dogs’ reach, while the three unleashed dogs attacked hers. She then returned for the dog. By the time she got back her dog, a small Staffordshire bull terrier (they usually weigh about 30 pounds), had killed one of the attacking dogs. Guess which dog was blamed? A media and social media frenzy was unleashed to destroy this vicious dog who was protecting himself and his family. It didn’t help that the dog was a bully breed, which are automatically blamed for any fight. He was slated for euthanasia. Only later, when a video was uncovered that showed everything unfolded exactly as the mother described, was there any defense of this poor guy. Here’s the link, but please don’t follow it.
So yes, dogs can face euthanasia after dog park incidents. Here are a few:
Meet Baxter, my heart and the sweetest guy you’ve ever met. In fact, I spent about ten minutes trying to get this photo because he wouldn’t stop licking my face. He’s a giant wimp, too.
I would never, ever risk Baxter by putting him in a situation like a dog park. If another dog attacked him, you can bet he’d defend himself. Who wouldn’t? And he’d win. Just look at the muscles on those jaws of his. I can guarantee that no matter who started the fight, Baxter would be blamed, for no other reason than he’s a pit bull. I’m not saying that pit bulls can’t be vicious dogs, because absolutely there are some bad apples, like in all breeds. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter whether or not the pit bull is vicious, he will be blamed for a dog fight even if he didn’t cause it.
And–this is an important take away for everyone who thinks their dog is too sweet to ever hurt another–as wonderful and sweet and perfect with other dogs as Baxter is, I would not trust that his innate prey drive would never kick in if a small, fluffy, unfamiliar dog darted underneath him. I have small dogs. I have cats. I have rabbits. Baxter plays with all of them nicely, but once in a great while he gets over-excited and pounces into a play bow (Baxter, if you’re reading this, the rabbits don’t understand play bows). He’s careful and never hurts them when he does this, but I get after him every time because it only takes one mistake, one misstep and those great big paws could land on a small animal’s back. I know he wouldn’t do it on purpose, but those paws could land on the back of someone’s small dog. I’m not taking the chance.
So this brings us to our next point. Deaths are not the only concern at a dog park. Accidents, incidents, and fights that don’t result in death are much more common. A big reason is because owners think they know a lot about animal behavior, but they don’t. As in the Staffordshire bull terrier in the story above, usually the dog blamed for the fight is the wrong one. The reaction is what gets attention rather than the initial incident. This is also true for altercations which don’t result in an actual fight. One dog snaps and is labeled as a bad dog, when really it was defending itself from obnoxious or even injurious behavior. From my experience with training people to manage play groups in our boarding kennel, I can confidently say that even smart, educated, dog-savvy people typically identify the wrong dog as the problem when two dogs are annoyed with each other. This is why we have such a long, involved training process for our employees.
This incorrect identification is doubly-damaging. The dog blamed for the incident learns that other dogs are bad and it will be in trouble for trying to defend itself. This leads to aggression as the dog tries to form a bubble to keep dogs out of its space. The dog who instigated the incident learns that being obnoxious and/or injurious to other dogs is okay, and becomes a bully. This behavior gets learned throughout the dog park. The only way to have fun is by becoming a bully.
To illustrate how much people don’t know about dog behavior, here are a couple examples of terrible advice given by dog parks:
Keep your dog on leash until you know how it will interact with other dogs. This would be great advice if all the other dogs were leashed, but it’s terrible advice to bring a leashed dog into a group of unleashed dogs. The dog on the leash feels trapped, with no escape while being mobbed by unrestrained strangers.
Muzzle your dog until you know how it will interact with other dogs. Wow. That’s even worse. Now the dog can’t even defend itself. Imagine how helpless it must feel. Talk about causing aggression.
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
Maybe you’re thinking, I’ll take my dog to a dog park and defend it if something happens. Well, that’s fine, if you’re willing to take the risk of civil or criminal charges when you do so. Injuring someone else’s dog opens you up to investigation or prosecution for charges ranging from damage of property to animal cruelty. This is for real.
When I was researching this article I was shocked by the number of people on message boards and the like who mentioned their dog had been attacked and seriously injured, and then they returned to the parks. I saw tons of people who said that they’d been going to parks for years and their dog had never been seriously injured. Let’s set aside all the bad behaviors I’ve already mentioned are invariably learned at dog parks. Maybe I’ll have to do another blog post another day that delves a little deeper into this behavior. But for now, let’s pretend the only thing we are worried about is a vicious attack. Remember this: it only takes once for a visit to end in tragedy.
Dog parks are the worst.