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What Is Up With Irresponsible People at Dog Parks?

As a veterinarian, dog parks provide me with plenty of business. But I no longer let my dog anywhere near them.

 |  Sep 25th 2012  |   259 Contributions


I understand the theory of dog parks perfectly well. Dog parks are supposed to be like kindergartens. Dog parks, like kindergartens, are filthy catchbasins for disease, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, it can be good -- you must be exposed to germs if you are to have a healthy immune system.

Dog parks, also like kindergartens, are supposed to aid in the development of healthy socialization. They should be fun for dogs. They also should be fun for owners, who should be able to enjoy the opportunity to socialize with other like-minded, responsible folks.

Should is the key word. Because although the theory of the dog park is a wonderful thing, in my experience the practice is quite different. In my experience, dog parks stink.

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In fact, many of the people who populate the dog park nearest my house are almost otherworldly in their irresponsibility. Sure, there are some decent, responsible folks there, but they don't make a very strong impression. They also seem to be a minority.

I went to the dog park today, and I was greeted by a sight that is essentially universal: an off-leash dog with no owner in view. I'll come back to that in just a moment, but first I must address a matter that no doubt has come to the minds of the astute among you. If I think so poorly of dog parks, what was I doing there? It turns out that the park also has nice tennis courts with tall fences and solid gates (the better to keep errant dogs from stealing tennis balls). I was there to practice my serve. My pal, Buster, was safely resting at home, and he'll get a nice, long, on-leash walk as soon as I'm done writing this.

Back to the seemingly ownerless dog: There was an owner. She showed up about five minutes after I arrived and made a perfunctory effort to corral her pet into the car. He was having none of it. At the sight of her, the dog darted into the street and then down the block. She yelled after him haplessly. That, by the way, is possibly my No. 1 pet peeve. If you have to call your dog more than once before he comes back to you, then he shouldn't be off-leash.

This dog's owner had to call more than once. In fact, the more she called, the farther he ran. What's worse is that he had a very dangerous habit of weaving across the street as he disappeared over the horizon. One of the owner's acquaintances tried to give chase, but the owner stopped her. The owner stated that once the dog gets going, there's usually no catching him. They would just have to wait for him to come back on his own. I'm sure that working diligently on the dog's recall is not on the owner's agenda.

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Clearly, this had happened before. Which leads to an obvious question: Why is such a clueless person allowed to own a dog?

The last time I took Buster to the dog park, several months ago, I was the only person at the off-leash area. Of course, there were half a dozen dogs running around with (no surprise) no owner to be seen. The dogs ignored Buster, and he ignored them -- fetch was the only thing on his mind.

The person who was supposed to be watching the dogs showed up about 10 minutes later. She had been walking the rest of her pack (there were at least four more dogs) in a wooded area a short distance away. She loaded seven of the 10 dogs into a dirty van with a bumper sticker that read "I have a dog and I vote." The other three dogs ran across the street, trampled a neighbor's flower bed, and eluded capture for about five minutes -- and during those five minutes darted back and forth across the street several times. Miraculously, none was hit by a car.

Owners such as these pose a danger to neighborhood flower beds, and also to their own dogs. But at least all of the dogs described so far were friendly. Sadly, at dog parks that is not always the case.

Not long after the dog-owning political activist took off in a cloud of smoky exhaust, a new person showed up. His dog did not ignore Buster. As Buster chased his ball, the other dog chased Buster. I casually enquired whether the other dog was friendly. The owner's response was that the dog "is friendly with people, but she wants to bite your dog on the butt."

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I weighed my options for a moment. The guy was smaller than me, didn't look to be in very good shape, and didn't seem very tough. I was pretty sure that I could kick his ass if his dog did, indeed, bite my dog on the butt. But it wasn't worth it. I took my dog and went home.

I didn't seriously consider getting into a fight that day, but I can assure you that plenty of altercations do occur at dog parks. Treating canine fight wounds inflicted at dog parks is a sad staple of my business. But a not-so-well known sequella of dog fights is that they sometimes lead to human battles -- physical as well as legal. 

I no longer go anywhere near dog parks with my pal Buster. But I'm wondering: Are all dog parks as bad as the ones where I live? Is there something special about San Francisco that makes our dog parks so heinous? Are there dog parks out there where the grass is always green and mowed, the owners are all responsible, the poop is always picked up, and the dogs are all above average? Let us know in the comments.

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