In Portland, they’ve grown so much in popularity and numbers that our fascination with them has been spoofed in comedy shows like Portlandia. Dog parks have become a cornerstone of the urban dog-lover’s life, and Americans have fallen in love with playgrounds for their pups. Trainers and behaviorists, however, are less than head-over-heels with them.
In Portland, where the City Parks and Recreation Department lists more than 30 off-leash dog parks, veterinary behaviorist Valli Parthasarathy, Phd, DVM says she rarely takes her dogs to any of them.
“I do more structured activities, like agility. We do walks in the woods, and they play off leash then.” Parthasarathy practices at Synergy Behavior Solutions and serves as president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. “We sometimes go to the dog park but not a lot,” she says. “It can be really dicey. Some dogs are not suitable for dog parks. Your dog might be suitable, but then along come other dogs that aren’t.”
Talk to anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time at dog parks and they’ll share hair-raising stories of inattentive or abusive humans, surprise poop piles, naughty dogs, and even severely aggressive dogs. It’s a jungle out there, and professionals caution that a happy trip to the park can turn unhappy enough to leave dogs physically or emotionally traumatized.
“It’s too unpredictable,” cautions Scott Raymond, MS, CPDT-KA, lead trainer at Synergy Behavior Solutions. On the rare occasion he takes his dogs to off-leash parks he too often feels the need to interrupt and redirect risky behaviors in other peoples’ dogs. “If another dog is doing something inappropriate, I’m going to address it; but then I’m doing damage control instead of enjoying the park,” he says.
“Dogs should have friends, and they should play. And they should play in different places, not just in their home,” says Helix Fairweather, KPA, CTP, who owns Your Dog’s Personal Trainer in Keizer, OR. Still, Fairweather doesn’t recommend dog parks. “There almost always seem to be inappropriate dogs there, with owners who don’t realize they’re inappropriate,” she says. Even without inappropriate dogs or uninformed people, she says the setting itself presents some risks. “Dogs use subtle body signals when they play, and those signals can get lost in a large group and bad things can happen.”
So what’s a pet parent to do? These professionals all recommend alternatives to keep dogs safe while they run and tumble with compatible canine friends. Dr. Parthasarathy says, “I recommend that my clients identify the dogs their dogs play well with and have small-scale playgroups.” Raymond agrees. “Meet friends at the dog park during a time when no one else is there. Or when you do meet someone whose dog plays well with yours, ask for that person’s contact information and arrange a play time.”
Like Parthasarathy and Raymond, Fairweather is also happy to teach her clients how to assess which dogs are suited to play together. She hosts supervised small-group play sessions in her own backyard, and says many trainers might be willing to arrange small-fee playgroups if their clients ask. No matter the setting, trainers can help you interpret dog behavior and decide when to encourage your pups to keep playing or step in and redirect them.
Raymond concludes, “My philosophy is that my job is to protect the welfare of my dog. So I’m always with my dog, watching the situation.”
Dr. Parthasarathy and Scott Raymond are at Synergy Behavior Solutions in SW Portland http://www.synergybehavior.com.
Helix Fairweather trains in the Salem, Oregon area, and can be reached at http://www.helixfairweather.com/index.php.