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How to Keep Your Kids and Dogs Safe at the Dog Park

I take my six-year-old son to the dog park with our dogs, but I don't let him run -- and I don't let him eat snacks.

Kezia Willingham  |  Aug 25th 2015


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.

We're having fun at the park, but I'm still being watchful. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

We’re having fun at the park, but I’m still being watchful. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

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!”

Two of my dogs enjoy the sunshine at the park. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Two of my dogs enjoy the sunshine at the park. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

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.

Justin has been raised with dogs, so he knows how to behave around them. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Justin has been raised with dogs, so he knows how to behave around them. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

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.

1. Don’t run at the dog park

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.

Justin gets dog body language, but other kids at the park might not. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Justin gets dog body language, but other kids at the park might not. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

2. Let other dogs approach you

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.

3. Hold your hand out, in a closed fist, to let other dogs smell you before you try to pet them

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.

(Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Zinnia with one of our dogs at the dog park. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

4. If a dog runs toward you, stand still with arms crossed across your chest

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.

(Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Justin at the dog park. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

5. No snacks at the dog park

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.

6. Monitor your kids, and dogs, closely

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.

We keep leashes handy so we can go home whenever we need to. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

We keep leashes handy so we can go home whenever we need to. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

In regards to keeping my dogs safe, here are the things I do for them.

1. Keep them current on vaccines

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.

2. Have them wear current ID tags

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.

3. Monitor the mood

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.

4. Sometimes, it’s just time to go

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.

Magnum enjoys a rest after a romp. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

Magnum enjoys a rest after a romp. (Photo by Kezia Willingham)

5. Have leashes ready

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.

Read more by Kezia Willingham:

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.