Dog Parks are a relatively new cultural phenomenon, and have increased in both number and popularity over the last 15 years. It is an understatement to say that people are rather polarized in their views of dog parks. Advocates maintain that these designated areas provide invaluable opportunities for dogs to enjoy off-lead exercise, socialization and play with other dogs, and for owners to meet and befriend like-minded people in their communities.
HOW ADVOCATES VIEW DOG PARKS
At the other end of the spectrum, critics argue that off-lead dog areas are often poorly managed and supervised and present unacceptable risks to dogs. These risks include aggressive (or predatory) attacks, physical injuries caused by large groups of dogs running together, and the transmission of parasites and disease.
HOW OPPONENTS VIEW DOG PARKS
Full disclosure: I should admit at the forefront that I am personally not a fan of dog parks. My reasons include all of the aforementioned plus the fact that I genuinely just prefer to go walking or running alone with my dogs. However, a fair number of our training school clients frequent dog parks because they provide an opportunity for off-lead exercise and play with other dogs. While it is not for me, I have respected their choice and have provided students with the usual set of precautions that have hopefully kept their dogs safe.
The Study: A recently published study focused not on the dogs who visit dog parks, but rather upon the people who give them the ride there – their owners (1). Patrick Jackson, a sociologist at Sonoma State University in California, was interested in the emerging social norms and group dynamics of people who gathered regularly at a community dog park with their dogs.
DOG PARK PEOPLE
Study methods: The author used an ethnographic method of data collection, an approach that is commonly used by sociologists when studying complex interactions among people. Over a period of 15 months, Jackson visited a local community dog park with his two dogs. They visited the park between three and five times per week and at various times during the day. He collected data that included owner and dog demographics, the activity patterns and spatial distributions of people and dogs, visit durations, topics of conversation among owners, the frequency and type of conflict between dogs, and the approaches used by owners to resolve problems. Data were recorded during visits and immediately afterward and behaviors and interactions were coded according to emergent themes and patterns.
Results: A number of owner behaviors and interaction types were found to be consistent from day-to-day and appeared to represent the social norms of the dog park that was studied:
Public Demonstration of Owner-dog connection: Dog park visitors frequently (and often repeatedly during a visit) demonstrated their attachment to their dog through active play with the dog, offering (and often receiving in return) friendly eye contact, and speaking to (and for) their dog. This public display of connection appears to be an important component of dog park culture as it allows all visitors to place each dog with his/her owner.
- Types of Problems: Four major types of problems were regularly observed. These included: mobbing/aggression at the gated entry into the park; mounting behaviors; aggressive behavior (attacks and fights); and feces clean-up issues. Behavior problems that dogs showed that were considered annoying but not necessarily in need of intervention included jumping on people, urinating on the benches, and excessive attention-seeking behaviors toward people other than the owner.
Owner Roles in Problem Management: Jackson identified a set of approaches that the park attendees regularly used to avoid or respond to problems in the park. These were summarized as:
- Avoidance: This occurred when people witnessed a commotion such as a dog fight or a dog being mobbed by several dogs at the gate. Others in the park would simply “steer clear” of the area and would not get involved.
- Leaving the area or the park: This tactic was observed both by people whose dogs had been attacked or were being repeatedly mounted by another dog (see below) as well as by owners whose dogs were the misbehaving party. Owners of dogs who had been attacked or bullied typically left angry and upset. Owners of dogs who had misbehaved often moved to another area of the park or “left early”.
- Humor and Baby Talk: Humor was reported to occur most frequently when one dog was mounting another. Sex jokes were apparently popular (ick). Humor was also used at the expense of owners whose dogs were being mounted by another dog (and were trying to stop it) or were upset about the behavior of other dogs or owners. Finally, some owners would use remedial (baby) talk to their dogs to ostensibly chastise them for their bouts of misbehavior while doing nothing to actually stop or prevent the behavior or to help the targeted victim………
OKAY. That’s it. I’ve had enough. I can take no more of this paper.
I started writing this essay with every intention of focusing on the topic of the paper – the behavior and social interactions of people who visit a dog park with their dogs. And, admittedly, the paper does present some interesting themes and observations about emerging social norms of the dog park. However…….as I read and then reread this paper, it was impossible to ignore its complete exclusion of any mention whatsoever of the potential or actual harm that came to many of the dogs whose stories were being told. Many were situations in which a dog was being emotionally harmed and possibly physically injured. Here are four examples that the author reports:
- Immediately after entering the park, a dog stares down and then chases another dog, holding his head over the retreating dog’s shoulder and snarling. The dog then switches to another dog, continuing this behavior. (Owner: Does nothing. Other owners: Watch and say/do nothing).
- A black Labrador mounts another dog and will not stop. The targeted dog’s owner repeatedly attempts to get the Lab off of her dog, to no avail. Four people standing nearby watch this and laugh. The dog’s owner finally succeeds in removing the Lab from her dog. Upset and angry, she leaves the park. The observing owners joke about the incident.
- An older dog is attacked by a young dog. The fight is prolonged and the owners have difficulty breaking the two dogs apart. Following the attack, the young dog’s owner said to his dog: “Bad dog; lie down, sit down. We are going home early because of you.”
- A dog’s ear was bitten off (yes, her EAR) by another dog. The author states that this problem was “resolved” because the attacking dog’s owner offered to pay the veterinary bill. This incident is reported in a section describing ways in which owners “over-react” to problems.
Rather than provide needed research about developing cultural norms of dog parks, this study ultimately confirmed for me that:
- Dog parks are not safe for dogs.
- Dog park people frequently behave badly by not being responsible dog owners and by being inconsiderate and uncaring towards other people and their dogs.
Granted, this ethnographic study examined the cultural milieu of a single dog park. Certainly dog parks vary in size, type of rules, participant behavior, and numerous other factors. And of course, more research is needed. However, until a study comes along that convinces me otherwise, I will continue to hike and run with my dogs for exercise and companionship, and to provide play times for them with doggie friends who they know well (and whose owners I know and trust as responsible and caring dog people).
I am also going to modify my advice to my training school clients. For those who tell us that they visit dog parks, I will advise them to stop going and to seek less risky (and more dog- and people-friendly) ways to exercise and socialize their dogs.
Take your dog walking with your friends and their dogs.
Be your dog’s best friend and his protector.
‘Nuff Said. Off of Soapbox.
Reference: Jackson P. Situated activities in a dog park: Identity and conflict in human-animal space. Society and Animals 2012; 20:254-272.