This article is written like a a personal reflection or opinion essay that states the Wikipedia editor's particular feelings about a topic, rather than the opinions of experts. (May 2012)
A dog park is a park for dogs to exercise and play off-leash in a controlled environment under the supervision of their owners. These parks have varying features, although they typically offer a 4' to 6' fence, separate double-gated entry and exit points, adequate drainage, benches for humans, shade for hot days, parking close to the site, water, tools to pick up and dispose of animal waste in covered trash cans, and regular maintenance and cleaning of the grounds. Dog parks may also offer wheel-chair access, a pond for swimming and a separate enclosure for small dogs.
Benefits of off-leash dog parks
Off-leash dog areas, or dog parks, provide a community setting in which people can gather and socialize and where they can observe the interaction of groups of dogs at play. Dog parks allow owners and their dogs to spend time together and offer dogs a space for play and companionship with others. Leashes can cause dogs to become territorial. Roaming free is beneficial for dogs.
Organizations like the ASPCA view that dog parks are beneficial to dogs and dog owners. According to Dan Emerson of Dog Channel.com, proponents of dog parks cite the following benefits: "They promote responsible pet ownership and the enforcement of dog-control laws; give dogs a place to exercise safely, thus reducing barking and other problem behaviors; provide seniors and disabled owners with an accessible place to exercise their companions; and provide an area for community-building socializing." Dog park regulations vary from park to park, but some are quite extensive and comprehensive.
In the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, the number of dog owners has grown by several millions from the 1990s to the 2000s, and the number of dogs per household has also increased. In her 2007 Master's Thesis, Dog Parks: Benefits and Liabilities, author Laurel Allen wrote:
"In urban environments dogs are generally confined to a crate, portions of the home, or small sections of the yard most of the time. Typically, dogs are taken on daily walks, but because of strict leash laws, they cannot run free or easily socialize with other dogs."
Studies have shown that people find it easier to talk to each other with dogs as the initial focus, breaking down the usual social barriers that make people perceive others as strangers. Research has also shown that dogs improve the health of their owners by lowering their blood pressure and increasing resistance to disease. They reduce anxiety and depression, stimulate people to exercise, connect people with others, and help redevelop a sense of purpose. Companion animals are very beneficial for the elderly, many of whom are unable to properly exercise their dogs and who stand to benefit from taking their dogs to a dog park.
Additional benefits of a dog park to the community include promoting responsible dog ownership as well as accommodating dogs and their owners in a public open space, which has been shown to lead dog owners to higher levels of compliance with relevant laws.
The benefits of exercise for dogs are well documented, although dogs can learn and reinforce bad behaviors if owners are not vigilant or careful. Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, cautions that the dog park should not be used as a substitute for a daily walk. He suggests that the owners walk their dogs briskly for 35 minutes to calm them before placing them unleashed inside a dog park enclosure. Dogs that are highly socialized and exercised are healthier, happier, and less aggressive in behavior. They are less likely to bark or be destructive or aggressive if they are able to expend pent-up energy during regular play or exercise.
Concerns with off-leash dog parks
Establishing a dog park can create contention within a community when residents worry about noise, smell, and traffic. The town of Leesburg took eight years to approve a small dog park in Loudoun County, Virginia that will hold only 20 dogs at once. The town of South Windsor, CT built a Bark Park on town owned land within a few hundred feet of private residences, without discussion nor notification of the homeowners. The homeowners hear barking dogs and car traffic while in their homes. This has led to a lawsuit against the town for noise nuisance. Laurel Allen, author of Dog Parks: Benefits and Liabilities points out that very few experienced experts in park design or dog behavior are consulted during the design process of dog parks:
Most dog parks result from the perceived needs of a local dog owners' community without guidance or input from experienced park designers, veterinarians, or experts on dog behavior. There is no comprehensive reference manual outlining the requirements for the design of a safe and well-maintained dog park. The only available reference for local dog park advocates is Susyn Stecchi's So You Want to Build a Dog Park? (2006), which was written from the perspective of an AAHA certified animal hospital practice manager and dog owner and co-founder of the first public dog park in Florida; Susyn operates a business that promotes dog park construction, called DogParks USA. Untapped authorities who could be used to assist novices in the design of dog parks include livestock farmers, cattlemen and ranchers, game-farmers, veterinarians, kennel owners, and zookeepers most of whom have had decades of experiences with animal husbandry.
Some experts caution that a dog park is no substitute for a daily walk, and contend that if owners walk their dogs on a leash for at least 20–30 minutes per day and play with them for 15 minutes daily, their dogs will be well-adjusted to the urban environment.
Before introducing a dog park to the community, it is best to plan thoroughly. Advocate for a park on the local level with partners that can help, like public parks staff, solicit for funding, and establish a set of firm rules that will be strictly enforced by dog park officials. A primary objective - and one of the toughest - is to ensure that the location is appropriate for the dogs, their owners, and the community. The park should not be placed in environmentally sensitive areas, and it must be free of poisonous plants that might hurt the dogs and dangerous topography such as steep cliffs that might present a danger to their owners. The second objective is to ensure that the park is safe for dogs, people, and wildlife. This generally will require the park to be some distance away from traffic to mitigate any concerns, and always requires an appropriate fence or barrier to ensure that dogs do not run away and end up in precarious situations, and adequate lighting if dog parks are open past sunset. A third objective is to make sure the size of the dog park is appropriate. Dog parks that are too big can result in opportunities for dogs to learn and demonstrate anti-social, dominant behavior, which can result in fights without swift intervention by their guardians. Smaller dog parks allow an owner to react more quickly if their dog becomes unruly, but these allow only a few dogs in at a time.
Allowing dogs off-leash in the safety of a dog park is an excellent way to socialize dogs, but they must be supervised at all times. When people converse with each other they can lose sight of their dogs, which can lead to trouble. Some owners are unaware of "dog language" and inadvertently read signs of aggression where there are none. Still others ignore warning signs or mistakenly think that a stiff wagging tail means that a dog is friendly.
Some people keep their dogs locked up in a crate during the week, only to unleash their dogs in a dog park on the weekend without proper exercise, creating issues; and still others allow dogs with illnesses or unvaccinated dogs to run alongside healthy dogs. Dogs who are shy or aggressive can learn to interact safely with other dogs if their owners take the time to learn about dog behavior and acclimate them at the dog park.
The right kind of socialization is essential to the normal development of a family pet. Dogs are social creatures that crave the attention of people and the companionship of other dogs. This ability to spend time productively with both people and play with other dogs does not just come about naturally, it must be carefully fostered.
Offleash Area Segregation: Some dog parks have separate play spaces for large and small dogs. Others have one large area for dogs of all sizes. There is debate about this issue, as some argue that dogs should be segregated by size (see reference for one example in an editorial column of a newspaper), while others feel that dogs of all sizes can and should socialize together.
In any case, dog owners must make sure their dogs are well-socialized, and watch carefully so that they can intervene if the dog acts anti-socially towards other dogs or humans.
Children in dog parks
In Houston, Texas, some dog parks allow children inside if they are properly chaperoned by an adult, while others exclude children. The Houston Dog Park Association, a non-governmental club, said that adults should be cautious about bringing children inside a dog park and be aware that it is hard to keep a careful eye on both the dog and a child.
Community solutions: Instant dog parks and unfenced dog parks
Instant Dog Parks: Communities that desperately need cheap or free new off leash parks can simply re-purpose an underused tennis court as a new off leash area. Some communities have great success using pools, ice rinks, hockey rinks and tennis courts in the off season as makeshift dog parks. It is an inexpensive, practical, and quick way to solve a problem. Equestrian facilities, riding rings, warehouses, abandoned lots, tennis and basketball courts with cracked or poor surfacing, all make good off leash areas. For an example see an image of a converted baseball field at Joe Station Dog Park in Tulsa. Municipalities can offer a zoning variance and/or tax incentive, and liability waiver to anyone with a fenced pasture who is willing to let local dog owners use it. This along with allowing a property owner to install a donation box at the pastures gate provides incentive for a private land owner to help out the community at little cost to citizens and taxpayers. The constant traffic to and from dog parks can add safety to a community. The dog park at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. was planned to deter local drug transactions and was successful in this endeavor.
Unfenced Dog Parks: Dog owners can find suitable off-leash space in many fenced dog parks and in a few unfenced areas where dogs are permitted off-leash. Prospect Park in Brooklyn is a national model for incorporating off-leash space without fencing, into a large multi-use park. Portland offers several unfenced off-leash dog areas with limited hours and restrictions. An unfenced dog park can present challenges to residents who live nearby or whose property abuts the park, especially if dog owners bring dogs that are not properly trained to follow commands.
Hot Weather: Unless plenty of shade and water are available, dog parks can be brutal for active canines in hot weather. "Symptoms of heatstroke include restlessness, excessive thirst, heavy panting, lethargy, lack of appetite, dark tongue, vomiting, and lack of coordination." Dehydration, canine sunburn, and overheating can result in serious health problems. On stiflingly hot days dogs must have easy access to water and should not be permitted to run and play for too long. It is best to take pets to the dog park early in the morning before temperatures rise.
Cold Weather: Except for puppies and old dogs, and hairless or short-haired dogs, most dogs don't notice the cold in winter. They may take up to a month to acclimate to cold weather, however, and it is advisable to keep them inside if the temperatures dip too far below freezing. Water might not be readily available at dog parks in winter, so owners should make sure that fresh unfrozen water is available. Barker Field in Richmond, Virginia notifies owners that the water tap is turned off during the cold months. After exercising their dogs in cold weather, owners should check tender paws and provide their dogs with warmth as soon as play time is over.
Dog park growth
December 2011: Dog parks are the fastest-growing segment of city parks. There were 569 off-leash dog parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities in 2010, a 34 percent jump in 5 years, while overall parks increased only 3 percent. Portland, Oregon has the highest per capita in the USA with 5.7 dog parks for every 100,000 residents. Calgary, AB has the highest per capita in North America, with 15.9 dog parks for every 100,000 residents. There are now more American households with dogs than with kids of 43 million and 38 million respectively. "It's a playground for people without kids."
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