For those who follow us on Facebook, you know I promised to share some of what I heard at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Annual Conference that I attended in mid-October. Here is my first in a series of reports on that conference. The topic: dog parks.

Dog parks are all the rage these days – new ones are opening up around the country at record pace. In theory, dog parks are a great idea: open space for dogs to run and play together, especially for those who have limited opportunities to run off leash in their daily lives and limited opportunities to interact with other dogs.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about dog parks. They can be a dream come true for some dogs (and their guardians) and the worst nightmare for others. I discuss the pros and cons in more detail in Chapter Six of my Juvenile Delinquent Dogs book. So, rather than going into detail about my own views, I want to share some thoughts from a presenter at the APDT Conference.

Sue Sternberg is the founder and director of a shelter in New York as well as a respected trainer, author and speaker in the world of animal shelters and positive reinforcement-based dog trainers. I attended her session “An In-Depth Look at Off-Leash Interactions between Unfamiliar Dogs” in which she shared videos and her interpretations of them from activities at a variety of dog parks around the country that she has visited.

Sue believes that she does not see any healthy play among dogs at dog parks. While some interactions might start out that way, most eventually turn into something she thinks verges on or turns into something more dangerous. In the videos she shared, she pointed out lots of interactions that most owners thought of as normal play that she felt were inappropriate interactions that could easily lead to fights. While the vast majority of interactions do not lead to dog fights, the potential is there.

Sue doesn’t believe that dogs need to play with other dogs – especially unfamiliar dogs. This is the same perspective I heard last year when attending a seminar by English dog trainer, author and speaker, John Rogerson. He also does not believe we need to socialize dogs to one another and allow them to play together.

While I understand their perspectives, I can’t say that I agree with them entirely. Though, in many cases, I don’t think that dog parks are the best way to socialize our dogs to other dogs. I used to take Romeo to a local dog park when he was younger, but I no longer do. I was careful to only take him to a dog park that was quite large (17 acres) and where people did not congregate in one place but continually walked laps. I also only went during off times when there were fewer dogs there. For us, the goal was really off-leash exercise until he was ready to be off-leash in unfenced areas, not so much to play with other dogs.

What are your thoughts about and experiences with dog parks?