Dog Park 101

I love dog parks, and even helped to spearhead their official creation in Chicago (though Wiggly Field had already begun as a trial). In Chicago, these fenced off dog parks are within larger parks, so they are called Dog Friendly Areas (DFA's). The Chicago Park District offers lots of information - including DFA rules and locations.

Ethels first dog park visit 007.jpg

at Chicago's first DFA, Wiggly Field on Sheffield and Wrightwood

Advantages of dog parks are numerous, and I am a huge fan. But I also advise caution when it comes to dog parks in Chicago or anywhere.

Clearly, these places offer dogs a place to run - and play fetch with their owners. If you live in a house, you take your backyard for granted, but apartment and condo locations typically have no yards for games like fetch. Some sprawling dog parks in the suburbs offer tons more space than any backyard, even lakes or rivers for swimming. While some dogs (your average Dalmatian, for example) require more exercise than others (like your average Pug), all dogs do need some exercise. Never before has this been more evident than today, when perhaps 30 to 40 percent of dogs are overweight.

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at the dog beach just north of Montrose Avenue Beach

By giving dogs a place TO go - the lesson (I hope) is that the number of dogs declines off-leash where they shouldn't be (on beaches for people, in parks, etc). This simple idea of giving dogs a place to run off-leash theoretically lessons disease transmission to kids and dog bites, and doggy poo not picked up.

Because DFA's are limited in space in Chicago and sometimes become very
crowded - the potential for aggression might be higher than a park
which allows more space for each dog. I find community enforcement best;
for owners to get together to approach the owner of the aggressive dog
- politely asking (but really demanding) that person to leave.
Dog parks not only offer space to run - it's all about socialization. Dogs are social
animals. And while there's no trumping companionship of human family
members, well adjusted dogs also require opportunities to 'be a dog.'
Socializing with others of their own kind is fun, good exercise and
important stimulation (for dogs who like other dogs). 

Though most people to use good judgment, unfortunately not everyone brings dogs suited for dog parks. Every once in a while, someone exposes children at the park to a dog who doesn't like people, kids in particular. Your job is to protect your kids. if you bring children
to a dog park, pay particular attention.

Dogs at Dog park.jpg

Some dogs at the dog park are more social than others

Of course, my biggest biggest biggest biggest BIGGEST problem - are the people who are reading the paper, drinking their Starbucks, and paying no attention to whatever is happening. Whether their dog is pooping (that should be picked up promptly) or gets in the middle of a scuffle (which could have been avoided, or at least you'd intervene earlier if you were right there).

Sometimes people bring dogs to dog parks who don't like other dogs - go
figure? Sometimes, those people don't 'get it.' They think their dog is
fine, even though an argument erupts whenever their dog is around, or
somehow excuse the behavior, like 'he's just in a bad mood.'

Other concerns include dogs who simply don't like to go to the dog park. Let's face it,
people are social animals. Yet, some of us prefer not to hang out in bars. If your dog doesn't seem to be having a good time,
he's probably not. There's nothing wrong with that. Older dogs, in
particular, may not enjoy the experience of being jostled by the young
punks. Similarly, small dogs may get hurt even in a friendly game if
the other players are dogs ten times their size (Some dog parks have fenced off play areas for small dogs).

There are also lots of potential medical hazards which can be passed
from dog to dog, even dogs to people at dog parks, as described by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't go to a dog park any more than your
kids shouldn't attend school, but it's important to know what the risks
are, mostly they are also preventable. 


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  • Great post, very informative. You're right, not every dog enjoys it, some find it stressful and competitive, and what may look like fun is actually stress or over-stimulation.

    I can only think of two real benefits to bringing your dog to a dog park: 1) Exercise, 2) Mental Stimulation. Other than that, nothing good happens at the dog parks. I much prefer to go when it's not crowded. Sometimes my dogs end up getting beat up on and the last thing I want is them to become dog-aggressive because of an incident. Some pet owners don't realize the difference between play and borderline bullying. Maybe I am biased because I would like dog owners to have a bit more control before they bring their dogs, like a solid recall and break command (for when playing too rough), a solid leave-it, and to redirect their dog when its invading another dogs space who doesn't seem interested in playing.

    Notice how I keep a 25-ft longline on my dog here at the Montrose Dog Beach, Why? Because shes a pup still in training, it's best for new or untrained dogs to wear this for control.

  • I know many trainers discourage their clients from visiting dog parks, or even think they shouldn't exist, but I'm not one of them.

    Routine off-leash socialization and exercise are both key to mental health, preventing certain forms of aggression, and developing a strong working relationship with one's dog.

    Dog parks are clearly not for every human or for every dog (or every combination of the two). That said, a little practice at reading canine social signals and a few tips on responsible handling, can go a long way to set the average dog/human team up for a successful trip to their local Dog Friendly Area.

    Of course, I do argue for a minimal level of obedience training as a necessary condition for having one's adult dog out in public, particularly off-leash.

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