Dog Parks – aka “Pawshank Redemption”?

If you’ve never been to a dog park, I want you to do something. The very first warm day (when it reaches into the 70’s), I want you to go to your area’s most popular dog park, around 7pm if it’s a weeknight or 1pm if it’s a weekend, by yourself (no dog, just you), and sit for about an hour. Get your phone ready to take some video. When a dog fight breaks out (not if but when), send it to our FB page via messenger. I’ll add them to the bottom of this page.

Matt Duffy, one of my top 5 dog training mentors, asked me last year if I would help give a rescue’s input during a talk at the new dog park in New Albany, IN. I was thrilled that he thought of me (he has lots of rescues he could choose from), but I kindly declined. I get what they’re trying to do; get the community involved/educated and get dogs outside doing things other than being stuck living between the 4 walls of a house. But I’ve seen too much. I am so glad Matt is reaching out/teaching people about dog park etiquette and dog behavior, someone has to (probably the only dog park that has asked a master dog trainer to educate park goers, that I know of). But still, I won’t do it. I will be one less person to push the dog park agenda. With this blog, you’ll see why.

First I have to say – what boggles my mind is how the average dog owner/consumer/animal rights activist will demonize the use of an electronic fence (read my last blog on electronic fencing here), or any kind of punishment training tool, all because of the damage it can do to a dog. Then they turn around and embrace the use of a dog park almost to the point of it morphing a person into some kind of free-loving hippie dog guru/whisperer if they frequent one. Like, you’re the best, most lovable dog mom/dad if you go to a dog park. To me, it’s stunning to the point of hilarity. This once again is a long blog, but it’s a critical, detailed topic to cover so I’m leaving no stone unturned. And I start with completely humiliating myself on my own zealotous dog park ignorance.

I don’t know how, but I completely forgot to add this to my list of zealotous/crazy dog people topics people fight about. Well, actually, there’s no fight, it’s honestly one sided where one side says “YAY! Dog parks are awesome!” (90% of dog owners) and the other side just keeps their mouth shut (10% of dog owners). If my saying that makes your hackles stand up, I can prove it with one question – “Do you know of any professional dog trainers/handlers/enthusiasts that go to dog parks?” The answer to that is no. None do. You will never see a show dog there. You will never see agility dogs there. You’ll never see tracking dogs there. You’ll never see highly trained service dogs there (you might see fake service dogs there. There’s a topic to add to my blog list.) No decent, educated, seasoned dog owner/handler would be caught dead taking their dog to the dog park, and this blog will tell you why. I know Matt does these dog park talks, and I haven’t asked him this but I can assume he doesn’t take his IPO Czech GSD to the dog park allowing all those strange dogs randomly coming up to Occam to sniff his butt, trying to dominate him, circling him to see what he’s made of. (I’m laughing just thinking about it. Occam is one badass dog.) I mean, people with off-leash trained dogs don’t need a dog park….they have the whole world for their dog to experience/explore, amen?

Going way back, when we got Jaxon (our Doberman) as an older puppy, he was poorly socialized. The vet told us to take him to the dog park to help him come out of his shell. Lots of vets say that, I’ve come to realize. So we took him to Mt. Airy Dog Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s a nicely designed dog park with picnic tables, lots of trees/shade, access to fresh water, doggie pools, etc. It’s not the park that’s to blame, it’s the people that go there.

After we would leave the dog park (usually on a weekend), by Monday/Tuesday Jaxon would sometimes come down with conjunctivitis. At this point I had switched vets, this new vet had show/titled Rotties, so she was a seasoned dog handler (she falls within the 10% mentioned above). The vet asked where Jaxon had been to have this raging double eye infection. I tell her he was at the dog park. She informed me right then how disgusting dog parks are, how other dogs could have parasites he could pick up and how they’re not kept up on vaccinations, etc. Read this article here if you don’t believe me. The grass was pummeled in the middle and it was all dirt. So if the people don’t pick up their dog’s poop (and they don’t), and the rain “washes it down” and/or the dogs trample it over time, that dust is actually poop dust. Dogs get running at the dog park, dust goes flying, it gets in Jaxon’s eyes, and then the eye infection would set up. Not every time, but definitely 50% of the time. (FYI, you’re also breathing it in, wanted to make sure I mention that. Yum.) I kept the eye ointment on hand to clear it up. But the other vet told me how good dog parks are, and now this one is giving me the look of judgement. “But he’s good and tired after a long run at the dog park, and we meet all these nice dog people….how could it be bad?” Like all crazy dog park lovers, I couldn’t be convinced, even though that was the only place he had ever been in his entire existence that junked up his eyes.

The worst part is, every time we went to the dog park, we’d see a dog fight. One time we went, there was a Great Dane pulverizing every dog that approached it, owner stood aside and did nothing. Jaxon, who only knew kitchen sits and silly tricks like playing dead, had no recall or space respect (this was before I met my trainer, Sam. When Sam reads this, he may never speak to me again or deny we’ve ever met.) He approached the angry Great Dane to sniff its butt out of curiosity, and because I had no recall, Jaxon refused to listen to me (remember the Invisible Fence story of Jaxon making his own house rules in the front yard? Here’s another environment where that behavior transfers), and the Dane landed Jaxon on his back. His back/spine was scraped by a huge tree root that was poking out of the ground. The Great Dane owner would not leave the park, so we went home.

Dogs similar to that Dane aren’t few and far between like one would think. Steve went with me one time and was sitting on top of a picnic table when a stealthily-moving Rottweiler went under the table and poked his head out between Steve’s legs. Out of instinct, Steve goes to pet the dog with a “hey, buddy” and the owner quickly warns, “don’t touch his head.” Steve doesn’t move an inch, waits for the dog to leave his crotch area, and then whispers to me, “why would you bring a dog like that to a dog park?” Everyone just takes everyone else’s word for it that their dog is under control, is nice, is trained, is social. You just assume “because all dogs like me” or “my dog is nice to his dog buddy at home or the friend’s dog that comes over on occasion” that all dogs in a random mixture at a fenced-in dog park will get along. We, completely forgetting that they’re animals, expect them to uncharacteristically act and reason like humans at all times (when humans act far worse than dogs ever well, just look at social media and turn on the news. Am I right?)

On yet another visit to the dog park, some lady brought McDonald’s into the park, sat down at a picnic table to eat it. All dogs hear the crinkle sack and come running, a fight almost breaks out. The lady also had with her a young kid, who was sharing the French fries. I can’t remember the kid’s age but she was eye-level to the dogs, so 5 years old or younger. All the dogs were swarming, jockeying for position to get a French fry. She finally stood up to eat her food which helped some, but oh man….she got lucky. Again, you think it’s a one time thing, but check out what someone just posted this past summer on Mt Airy’s public FB page (I grabbed the comments for your review as well):

Dog Park don't bring food to the dog park

I saved the worst story for last. I talked my boss’s wife, Barb, into going to the Mt. Airy dog park. They had a lovely Chocolate Lab named Chloe (she and Jaxon got along pretty well). When we got there, Chloe would not come out from under the picnic table. I took that as thinking she was “shy, needed to be pulled out of her shell” like the first vet said about Jaxon. What Chloe was saying was, “and why are we here? This place is insane.” We were there maybe 15 minutes and we see some guy arrive with two Bull Terriers (the “Spuds MacKenzie” dog. There’s a Gen-X term for ya). Both dogs had on a spiked dog collar, and so did the owner. The dogs were building in aggression, almost dragging the owner on leash, as they were approaching the double-gated entrance. Barb looks at me like “that’s not good.” The guy walks in, cuts the dogs loose, they slowly trot around casing the joint. The guy picked a spot to stand, the dogs stood with him unmoving like they were waiting for something (most dogs sniff around and check the place out, pee here, poop there, but they were doing none of that). Then some lady with a grey miniature poodle put a leash on the poodle (tail was tucked the entire time it was in the park), said goodbye to the people she was talking to, started for the gate to leave, and the two Bull Terriers jumped that dog. One grabbed the poodle by the throat and would not let go. The poodle owner, screaming, started hitting the Bull Terrier in the head, which made the dog clamp down harder. I’ll never forget the look in that Bull Terrier’s eyes – looked identical to a human eating the richest piece of chocolate, staring off into the horizon as it got so high that it reached Nirvana. It was taking the beating like it was being petted and told “good boy”. Owner. Did. Nothing. Finally, when the Bull Terrier was satisfied that the life had left the poodle’s body, he released it down onto the dirt. Poodle owner picks up its limp body, cradled it in her arms, turned around and looked at everyone in the park while she scream-cried, all so surreal to her that this just happened to her baby. Finally someone yells, “GET TO THE VET NOW!! GO!!” She broke out of her daze and took off running with her poodle’s limp body bouncing with every step through the gate to her car. Bull Terrier owner stood there like nothing happened. Barb looks at me and said, “yeah, this is a lot of fun.” Bull Terrier owner would not leave, even after being told (boldly) by everyone in the park it was against the rules to have an aggressive dog at the park. So we left, along with everyone else that valued their dog’s life. That was the last time I ever went to that park.

The very first time I met Sam Malatesta was during his seminar in Cincinnati, November 2004. He tells a story of a poodle puppy that got attacked pretty closely to the one described above. And when the people put the poodle on the picnic table to examine it, the group of dogs yanked it off the table and finished the job. I sat there with my jaw in my lap. I mean, he’s Canadian, I thought it was just Americans that were airheads. He asked the group what a typical dog park looks like. Everyone took turns answering the common setup – people standing in the middle of the park, dogs circling the people in a swarm. Sam said, “do you know what that looks like from nature’s perspective?” Here’s his answer….

“OMG” is right. My hair stood up on the back of my neck. And these were seasoned rescue/shelter people in attendance, their response was the same. They all sat there in silence, Sam pausing for a moment in order to let it sink in. NO dog trainer has ever put it that way. Makes you question whether all the other dog trainers and veterinarians truly know dog behavior if they can’t reason like that, yeah? (Side note: Went to a Sue Sternberg seminar in St. Louis in 2011 where she talked about the act of putting 3 dogs in a play yard together, two will always band together and pick on the third. She proved it with research videos she had taken in her own shelter environment. Her advice to rescues and shelters was to allow dogs into the play yards in pairs and not trios to avoid bullying, because dogs are going to do it, it’s in their nature to single out the weakest among them. Imagine an entire park full of dogs and the madness that ensues based on Sue’s philosophy.)

Fast forward to spring 2007 when my husband was sent to Irvine, California for a 6-month work project. Jaxon and I joined him. Irvine is the town of “Perfect” they talk about in the Walgreens commercials – clean, neat, organized, truly perfect. Not a whole lot of open space to run your dog around unless you drive up to the mountains, and at the time there were many reports of mountain lions being suspected of attacking dogs – with Jaxon being a lover and not a fighter, I had to come up with a plan B to help him work out his energy. There are dog parks all over the expansive Los Angeles region, and I assumed that since it was California, a state that allows dogs into open air malls (saw a Mini Schnauzer in the shoe department in Nordstrom while the owner was trying on shoes, talk about a double-take), and this is the land of the peace-loving hippies I so admire, AND this is the land of Cesar Milan, therefore they’re all really dog savvy, right? They’re not anything like the midwest. Or the Canadian dog park mauling story Sam told. So I head down to Central Bark dog park in Irvine during the work day (when dog parks are usually empty) with Jaxon in tow to check it out and make sure.

Fantastic park, clean, somehow it still had a decent amount of grass (being warm year round helps), so Jaxon wouldn’t get eye infections like he did years prior. They had two separate areas; one for large dogs, one for small dogs. I thought that maybe this new separate setup might help prevent the Bull Terrier/Poodle disaster I saw in Mt. Airy dog park. I check out the park, go back to our apartment. Steve gets done for the day and I told him, “let’s go down to the dog park and take photos of a dog fight.” He asked why I would do such a ridiculous thing, I said at the time it would be for a blog (ta-da! Here it is, 11 years later!) I was going to add one detail to this blog, and that’s “what happens to dogs when they’re on leash in a dog park”. People always throw a fit about that (even Cesar Milan), also in the screenshot above, and Jaxon had been through training for a over a year now, so let’s see what happens and document it.

I sit down on the bench around the people congregating in the middle (you know, the buffalo herd.) I had Steve take Jaxon all the way up front far from where all the dogs were running around and start doing long-line work (practicing recall, stay, etc.) A Boston Terrier came up, owner nowhere to be found, and starts tugging on the long training lead.


The energy that came from that caused a stir, Jaxon gets nervous, Steve tells him to butt out and let him handle it (something Sam was teaching us to do at the time.) Steve tries to coax the Boston Terrier off the leash to no avail. Finally Steve drops the leash, the tug game over, the Boston Terrier drops the leash also and looks up at Steve, gave him a dirty look, then walked away. The lady in the olive-colored jacket standing to my left (see photos below) said referring to Steve, “that guy is a moron.” (Yeah, as they say around the south, “them’s fightin’ words, sweetheart.”) I choked down my knee-jerk reaction of turning her every which way but loose, and instead I asked her, “oh? Why do you say that?” She said, “you NEVER bring a dog into a dog park on leash.” Why is that? Why do people think dog parks are super awesome, but if you bring a dog into a dog park on a leash then they’re as good as dead? They’re a target (because dogs are a target on leash because they’re stressed when on leash? My dog wasn’t stressed on leash until a darn Boston Terrier was dangling from it!) So, the people that swear dog parks are the ultimate land of doggie love and connection, they get upset when someone brings a dog into a huge dog area to train it? NO, WE WANT YOU TO BRING YOUR JERK OF A DOG IN HERE, CUT IT LOOSE, DON’T TEACH IT RECALL AROUND OTHER DOGS, AND HOPE FOR THE BEST! That’s what they’re really saying. “All dogs are saints!!” Really? If that’s true, then Steve should be able to do some recall training on leash in a dog park, and dogs should just sit on the side and applaud instead of wanting to kill him or aim for a weakness.

A short time later, some woman brings in a small black dog. She carries it in, passes up the small dog yard because no one was in it (HELLO?! THAT’S THE PERFECT SETTING! YOU HAVE IT ALL TO YOURSELF, ZERO RISK OF DOG FIGHTS! Ugh….people….), and puts it on the ground of the dog park for larger dogs where we were. The dog was shivering with fear. Steve, who stopped the training/leash experiment and came over to stand next to me, looks over at the scared little dog, then whips his head over to me and says, “that dog’s a gonner.” It maybe took 15 minutes? A whole 15 minutes and things get stirred up. Here we go. The “buffalo” were busy talking, the Husky gets the party started (no, it’s never the Pit Bulls, y’all….it’s ALWAYS the Huskies. “Not my husky because it’s a sweetheart!” Oh I’m sure it is. Can you recall it off of something or tell it to butt out/leave it and it listen to you? Probably not. Which proves my point. Read this story here: Here’s the series of events captured in photos.


Here, let me zoom in so you can see this little dog’s face….



“Well, POMH Rescue….I go to dog parks all the time, and I’ve never seen a dog fight.”

Here, let me post some YouTube videos of dogs being saintly….


This one is my absolute favorite – a dog’s eye view of a dog fight after it steals a ball from another dog and runs off with it.


There are so many videos on the internet of dog fights, and they were all caught on film by accident or directly right after to out someone on social media. Imagine now, if you will, all the fights that weren’t caught on tape? Lots and lots and lots and lots.

When I went to California, I realized that all dog owners and all dogs are the same, doesn’t matter where they live. Fights are going to happen. Humans all around the world think dogs are social creatures when they’re only social within their own pack (and people aren’t social, why do we assume dogs are? Do you enjoy talking to the “close talker” in your office that can’t respect your space at work? Or do you make every attempt to avoid them and get frustrated when they find you?)

There were things I noticed about dog parks that fascinated me, though. Dogs are racial. Beagles will always find other Beagles, and start running/barking, kicking in their hunting instinct. It’s crazy to see when they do that. Fluffy dogs gravitate to fluffy dogs. Short-haired dogs gravitate to other short-haired dogs (Jaxon would hang with Boxers, other Dobermans, and Weimaraners). Not all the time, but most of the time. Sounds crazy, but pay close attention if you go to one. I’m not talking about a Rottie following a submissive boxer around, that’s not “choosing to hang out” with another dog, it’s seeking an opportunity. I’m saying a dog actually being comfortable with another dog, it’s usually one that looks similar to them. Check out these photos.

DSC_0213 2DSC_0218 2

When I noticed that about dogs, I said to Steve, “It’s like a prison yard. New prisoners coming in and out, everyone being forced to pick a group that represents their own kind, getting punked at the gate to see who the new victim is going to pack up with. It’s almost like a Pawshank Redemption.” Think about that – the dogs stand at the fence and watch dogs come in. Here’s a photo I took at Mt Airy.

Dog park waiting at the fence for new meat

Those dogs at the fence are going to run all the way to the entrance and wait for that dog to come into the park and get all up in their stuff. Compare a dog entering a dog park:

To this scene in the movie:


“It’s not the same.”

Wrong, it’s exactly the same, except humans don’t sniff crotches.

What do professionals (who have the guts to) say about dog parks (whether you agree with their training technique or not, these people work with it on a daily basis)?

Read this article (with videos) from Leerburg’s website:

How about this article:

Another great article:

And another great article (and confession much like mine):

Peter Caine:

Sue Sternberg:

Cesar Millan:


People are going to go to dog parks anyway. You can give them all the rules/etiquette in the world, they won’t follow it. Gandhi or Jesus himself could come down and tell people how dangerous these places are, and these desperate dog owners wouldn’t believe them. What it all comes down to is this….TRAIN YOUR DOG TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU SO THAT IT DOESN’T WANT TO RUN OFF AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT, THAT WAY IT CAN EXPERIENCE THE WORLD! Don’t just limit the dog to your house and the boxed-in prison yard of a dog park. Just you and the dog – the dog truly doesn’t need any more friends than you. And if you need friends, the dog park isn’t really the best place to find people who have their act together emotionally/mentally, just watch this and you’ll catch my drift (LOL! Looks like fun!):


As bad as dog parks were back then, I haven’t been to one since smart phones really caught on. While searching for photos on the internet, I found this one of a bunch of buffalo with their noses stuck in their cell phones (do you think they’re watching their dogs?):

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 4.40.23 PM

Are you really going to trust a total stranger with a completely untrained, disrespectful dog with the life of your dog? Not me, man – I’ve seen my fair share. I’m lucky that Jaxon was a forgiving dog. I’m even more lucky that Sam had helped me train Jaxon to be a sound, 100% solidly off-leash trained ambassador dog to the foster dogs in my rescue – that was not the dog park that did that for Jaxon, it was my relationship I built with him and earning his trust (after I destroyed it with my own needs/wants). My advice…join a dog training club; meet people who have their dog’s emotional/physical best interest in mind. You know they take care of their dog’s health, and they have good leash skills as well as the same training knowledge that you do. What you will get is a group of dogs that your dog can trust and get used to over time, that is the best “social outing” a dog can get. Many of my fellow students of Sam’s training camps are my closest friends, they populate my speed dial list on my phone. Contact your local kennel club, or do a search on the internet for any variety of dog training groups in your area/region. A good group of savvy dog owners is worth the drive if you have to travel an hour out of your way to find one. Be around people who are dedicated to doing right by their dog – because where your dog is concerned, it can “get busy living, or get busy dying.” It’s your choice.


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