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I’m addicted to dog parks.

Does one admit “addiction” to anything other than ill habits? I’ve often felt defensive about this dangerous love if only because discussions about dog parks tend to focus on their negatives — you could get yourselves killed at these places, for God’s sake! The way I see it, every dog park is beholden to specific contexts, moments, and patrons, because they are, by definition, spaces carved out of some kind of community. Rejection of dog parks is not so much a pronouncement of their inherent evilness, but more a rejection of the types of sociality that accompany them — which is fine, as neither human nor dog can be expected to socialize in the same ways. But unlike some more extreme critics of dog parks, I’m less likely to blame the park itself than the people who designed it and established patterns of antisocial use in the first place.

Now, what I call a “dog park” includes many different arrangements. For me, it’s any public space that permits the presence of dogs, ideally off leash. Some are fenced, some are designed with dogs specifically in mind and thus equipped, some are multi-functional areas that just happen to allow dogs, perhaps in designated or segregated spaces. At any rate, we have many to choose from here in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Dog parks in the East Bay (from DogGoes.com)

How do you choose, when not all options are created equal? Experiences will vary according to you, your dog, the time of day, the way the air smells at the moment… point is, I don’t know that I can generalize. I just have stories and experiences and a handful of lessons learned through repetition and observation.

Stories behind a jump for length and pictures of bruises and punctures and pain.

11 August 2007

Park A: Fenced, approx. one acre in residential area, woodchip surface with concrete sidewalk running through the center of the park between two gated exits, folding and plastic lawn chairs scattered throughout, four picnic tables, light tree coverage.

The Good: Closest off-leash dog park to my home, so it was our most frequented site for the first few years after moving here. I got acquainted with a good group of regulars, and felt like I was initiated into an aspect of local community that I desperately needed in my process of repatriating to the United States and getting acclimated to grad school — a lifestyle that frequently isolates its constituents.

The Bad: Knowing the regulars did not make this a consistent experience. This park was such a hotbed of surprises; I only realized retrospectively how unpleasant it often became. For starters, it was far too small a park for the dogs to do anything other than interact with each other. Second, the chairs and picnic tables scattered throughout the bare, single acre encourage loafing and sedentary inattentiveness. The worst is when people assume that a picnic table in the middle of a dog park means that they’re licensed to actually have a picnic — so they bring their lunch to the park, totally disregarding how the introduction of high value human food radically alters dynamics between otherwise docile dogs. Third, its central location seemed to attract so many egregious Just-Don’t-Get-It types, I need a separate post to document all the jaw-dropping scenarios I’ve witnessed (acknowledging that I, too, was once ignorant of proper behavior).

Despite all its faults, I learned a lot about dog park culture and how to socialize with my own kind, just as Bowdu learned… and changed his perspectives, too.

Which brings us to…

The Ugly: Though Bowdu initially seemed to enjoy his time at the park, over the years he became more intolerant of other dogs and more interested in guarding his territory, which included me and wherever I happened to be sitting or standing.

The end came when Bowdu and I both got bitten badly here, effectively terminating our romance with this park. Long story short… a scuffle broke out over some combination of a stupid park toy that had been left in the woodchips, my presence, and two reactive dogs. I responded inappropriately to break up the fight, and sustained the brunt of the other dog’s fury on my right knee, while Bowdu got bitten on the back right up between his shoulder blades.

29 April 2010 Bruise, Day 06

That’s basically one solid chomp that swelled and bruised all to hell. It didn’t look anything like that when I left the park… without getting the other person’s contact information, a major error on my part. We never did follow up with the woman whose dog did that to me, because we quit going to that park altogether.

In conclusion: Faults inherent to the design and location of this park promote irresponsible behavior on the part of owners and pets alike. We now avoid all small, fenced-in dog parks with similar layouts.

7 July 2011

Park B: 31 acres of converted landfill that has long since gone back to nature; unfenced, beach access, juts out into the San Francisco Bay

The Good: This park gives access to amazing scenery, public art, graffiti, anarchist library, skate ramps, and even thickets of wild blackberries ripe for the picking. The site bristles with local activist history, which I appreciate for its own sake. The terrain is constantly changing, and every visit presents new visual and material surprises for those who thrive on the unexpected.

The Bad: A shifting population of homeless squatters and their somewhat territorial dogs started to make the park very uncomfortable for the Bows, specifically Bowdu. Those dogs were protecting their encampments as home, while we were just strolling through. The heavy duty tricycles that rattled along the back trails, carting piles of scrap metal and fuel canisters, unnerved the Bows who were not expecting such vehicles in their off-leash playgrounds.

The Ugly: At some point last year, as if a switch was flipped, Bowdu began refusing to enter the park of his own accord. I’d walk far down the trail with Bowpi, look back, and find Bowdu a distant speck at the head of the trail, refusing to budge no matter how much I called. Treats and other incentives didn’t seem to change his mood, either.

As his outright refusal to explore is so aberrant, I decided to heed his instincts. It’s probably best if I don’t find out what he’s sensing.

In conclusion: Apparently, here there be monsters.

12 July 2011 Nightmarish

Park C: Any park that shares trails with horses

The Good: Horses are beautiful creatures.

The Bad: They shit wherever they feel like it.

The Poop: Bowdu loves rolling in it.

20130215 Grin from horse poop heaven

In Conclusion: Not worth the additional time of having to bathe Bowdu whenever we get back home. Besides, neither of the Bows are horse-trained, so for the sake of everyone’s safety, we avoid any known horse trails altogether.

30 June 2012 Congo Terrier rises up against Belgian Tervuren

Park D: 23 acres, unfenced promontory extending into the San Francisco Bay with stream and beach access, completely designated as an off-leash dog park, convenient and well-managed on-site facilities including a hosedown station (free), grooming and bathing center (paid), cafe with food and drinks, free biodegradable poop bags and easy access trash cans

The Good: Since photographing dogs has become my near-daily hobby, this park has risen in the ranks as one of my personal favorites. At its best, it’s downright Edenic — wide open space and the glittering waters of the San Francisco Bay over the horizon. Nowhere else have I been exposed to such a variety of happy dogs on a regular basis. In the process of observing countless good dog-to-dog interactions, I feel like I’m learning more about canine body language than ever. With regular weekday visits, a lot of the dogs have become quite familiar.

Most importantly, both Bows get ample room to do what they are most comfortable with. Over the years, Bowdu has matured into more of an explorer, preferring to sniff and mark bushes and trot comfortably at my side. Bowpi has emerged as a socialite, enjoying meeting new dogs and often engaging them in play. There is room at this giant dog park for them each to do what they prefer without feeling pressured or claustrophobic. And as a bonus, their recall has improved as I have become a roving beacon.

The Bad: I’d wager that this is the most trafficked dog park in the East Bay, owing to its size and its reputation as a park primarily for the dogs. And so, danger is a matter of statistical probability. The more dogs you meet, the higher the chance of something happening.

The Ugly: This is where I talk about Bowpi’s at the end of last month. I’d had a general policy of avoiding this park on weekends, as Saturdays and Sundays are at least three times busier than our usual times on the weekdays. But we had recently managed a couple incidence-free Saturday afternoons, so I let my guard down.

As for what happened with Bowpi, I am not able to say exactly as I didn’t see it. No, I wasn’t on my cell phone, or busy taking photographs of someone else’s dog. Rather, I was engaged in idle chatter with another Shiba owner, monitoring my typically troublesome Shiba with my back to Bowpi. When I heard the shrieking and turned around, I wasn’t even sure it was my dog crushed underneath the bigger attacker, since as I insist, she’s usually the last one to get involved in squabbles.

14 June 2012 (P)Re-enactment of Bowpi's bite
A dramatization of Bowpi’s bite! No, this is not the dog that bit her, and the two are just playing here. The actual dog was a similar size though, and Bowpi’s legs were flailing like this in my memory.

The fight was broken up within seconds and Bowpi came running right to me, screaming and holding up her leg. The woman was close behind while her friend held her dog, asking me to please inspect Bowpi and make sure she was okay. She saw the punctures for herself, and immediately handed me her business card with her contact information and insisted that I get her checked out at the vet. So after everyone calmed down, I picked up Bowpi and we walked together to the parking lot.

30 June 2012 Bowpi bite
Doesn’t look too bad after she cleaned herself, but she was definitely punctured (matching hole on other side). Better to be safe and get it cleaned up!

In conclusion: It could have been much worse. But I think this woman’s responsiveness is a testament to how conscientious local dog owners truly can and should be.

Despite our best efforts to keep our pets out of harm, nothing is foolproof. I’m mindful that accidents can happen at home too — in the yard, on the sidewalk, with other co-habitating dogs.

In the future, we will attempt to decrease some risk by avoiding this park on weekends. But in general, I think that the main reason we have as many wonderful, dog-friendly options available to us out here is because people use them instead of desert them. Dogs, like their humans, are not programmed to be perfect angels. Get enough of them together, and they will squabble, growl at, scrap with, harass, and yes, sometimes even bite each other. That’s all part of normal dog-to-dog engagement. But well-socialized dogs, as well as the human on the other end of the leash, learn how to deal with the moment, whether by properly inhibiting their bite, or responding appropriately in the first place. The path down actual desocialization is far scarier than any looming dangers I could envision.

9 July 2012

We will return because it remains a good option for the Bows. These parks, these beaches, these woods, these trails, these dogs are far too nice to turn our backs on. But the creation of habitable, healthy spaces does take constant work, vigilance, training, observation, and effort.

Isn’t that true of any space you would call your own?

For more information on both the good and the bad of dog parks, please visit this page at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website.

[EDIT 24 August 2012] One more link to Dr. Sophia Yin‘s great blog entry on dog park etiquette, which comes with a downloadable poster!