In warmer weather, we find ourselves making the trek to the dog park on an almost daily basis. These walks are among my favorite things to do, as I have my kids and my dogs with me, enjoying the beautiful outdoors. Not only do we feel the benefits of exercise and companionship, but we also get to witness the world around us.
Our neighborhood dog park is Westcrest Park in southwest Seattle. It has a playground, hiking trails in the forest, a community garden, and two off-leash dog parks, one for small dogs and another for larger dogs.
However, with my six-year-old son in tow, I know that our dog park adventures, while quite enjoyable, are not entirely carefree. You have to keep a close eye on both your kids and your dogs to make sure they are safe.
The other day we were there, along with many others. My 17-year-old daughter, Zinnia, and six-year-old son, Justin, and four of our dogs enjoyed the sunshine, fresh air, and room to roam. A little white fluffy dog seemed particularly curious about my son, and expressed his interest by nipping at him more than once.
Fortunately, my son is being raised in the company of dogs. We have five of our own and have fostered a couple as well. Justin is used to being around dogs and doesn’t freak out when one tries to bite him. Nevertheless, I don’t like it. So every time the little white fluffy dog would jump at him, I stood close to my son to protect him and remind him about holding his arms close to his body and not moving, except to turn away. I told the little dog, “No!”
At one point, the owner of White Fluffy, who spent the entire time observing from a bench, made a snide remark to the woman standing next to her, “Well, it’s a dog park,” as though children should not be present, and if they are, they deserve to be nipped at. Being unable to restrain myself, I sarcastically replied, “Yes, it IS a dog park. And we are here with our dogs!”
An awkward silence ensued.
Then we finished our visit, me in my irritated mom stance, trying to maintain a calm demeanor while attempting to ease my frustration at the white dog’s owner.
I know plenty of people feel that children should not be present at dog parks due to concerns about the safety of both children and dogs. There are no laws prohibiting children’s presence at dog parks in Seattle, at least to my knowledge. Many families have dogs and like to bring children to the park. After all, people such as myself feel that both our dogs and our children are part of our families. And those who value their families enjoy spending time together.
My 17-year-old conducts herself like most adults at the dog park, so I doubt that most people know she is a minor. My six-year old is clearly a child, and his presence seems to make some people feel on edge.
I believe that children and dogs at dog parks should be carefully monitored. In order to keep my son safe, these are the things I am teaching him to practice while we are there, plus a reminder for me.
There are few things my son seems to love more than running wild and free with our dogs. We live in a townhouse with essentially no yard, so this is not something he can do whenever he wants. While I would love to let him run as he wishes at the dog park, I am teaching him not to when there are other dogs present. I know that not all dogs are comfortable around children, and that a severe accident could occur in a matter of seconds. So I feel it is best for him to walk, instead of run, alongside our dogs.
My daughter and I are also trying to teach Justin not to approach other dogs, but instead to let them come to him. As mentioned above, not all dogs like or are familiar with children. If they want to come to him, they will.
Not all dogs like to be touched. So we are teaching Justin to hold his hand out for a smell when dogs approach him before he touches them.
My son is really getting good at this, and it makes me happy. When I was a kid, I didn’t have a dog. And I was really scared of them. I used to spend hours outdoors, wandering my neighborhood. Of course there were dogs, mostly inside fences. But once I learned that dogs could sense a person’s fear, I developed an enormous amount of anxiety about this. I worried that a dog would feel I was scared and savagely rip me to shreds. One time, this little yappy dog chased me up a tree. I clung to the branches until the owner was able to get the dog back inside. I was sure that dog was going to devour me. Thankfully, my son does not have this fear.
Sometimes my son wants to bring crackers or a beverage to the dog park. I ask him not to because I think it’s best to eat at home or in the car. Dogs like to eat, and I think it’s asking for trouble for a young child to have snacks where tons of dogs are running all around.
I always keep my eyes on my son at the dog park. Not all parents do. But I think it’s best for your kids, your own dogs, and the dogs of others. I don’t want my son to get attacked, but I also don’t want him to inadvertently do anything that might provoke a dog. Kids are curious and don’t have the same ability to inhibit their actions as adults. Our job as parents is to guide, teach, and protect them until they master these skills.
In regards to keeping my dogs safe, here are the things I do for them.
The communal water bowls and mud puddles at dog parks freak me out. But I can’t prohibit my dogs from drinking from them occasionally. So I do make sure they are fully vaccinated.
My dogs have good recall skills, but in the event that some crazy thing ever happens and we get separated, I want them to make their way back to me. So they wear their city licenses, rabies tags, and ID tags.
If there is a huge, rough pack in one part of the park, we will walk to a less populated area. This particular dog park is large enough for us to find different areas to hang out.
If the energy feels weird, from either people or dogs, or both, we know when to leave. If there is something that makes me, my kids, or my dogs uncomfortable, we leash up and walk home. I usually don’t bring my smallest dog, Ruby, because she barks at other dogs too much and I know it’s not polite. We will either bring her at an off-time or leave her home, depending on the circumstances.
In those times when we need to make a quick exit, it’s good to have the leashes handy. Some people seem to really dislike leashes, but quite frankly, I just don’t understand, particularly when you live in an urban environment.
Adventures to the dog park with my kids and dogs are right up there at the top of my list of things that bring me joy and peace in life. During nice weather, we find ourselves at the dog park on more days than not. I hope that the memories we create will be among the happiest that my children will one day hold. And hopefully, by teaching them how to conduct themselves there, this will be the beginning of a lifelong source of contentment.
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About Kezia Willingham: Also known as the Breadwinning Laundry Queen, Kezia resides with her family, which includes a pack of rescued cats and dogs, in Seattle. Her writing has appeared on multiple anthologies on family, and in the Seattle Times, New York Times, and xoJane. You can follow her on Twitter @KeziaWillingham.