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Posted on Tue, May 15, 2012 : noon

Dog parks are an excellent option, but an inherent responsibility comes with using them

By Lorrie Shaw


Lorrie Shaw | Contributor

The nice weather here in Michigan never seems to last long enough, and for that reason, we all want to get outdoors as much as we can. With that premise in mind, those of us with dogs find any opportunity that we can to get them outside, especially if there are opportunities to burn off the extra energy our four-legged family members always have in abundance.

Walks are great, yes, but as myself and anyone else who works or lives with dogs will tell you, there isn’t anything that quite compares to going off-leash and running free. Whether a pooch is playing fetch with their favorite toy, romping with another friendly dog or just sniffing around the way that dogs do, it’s necessary for them.

Not every family has the option to have the option of a large yard. With so many arrangements from apartment living or a condominiums that lack sufficient green space, and even homes that lack the yard to really allow a dog to get out and run like crazy, a lot of pet owners are in the same boat.

Recently, there has been a lot of attention on the issue of off-leash play in Ann Arbor in areas where it hasn't been structured.

One excellent solution that has gained popularity with so many area residents — dog parks — addresses that need.

The premise is simple: A dog park is a large fenced-in area where well-behaved dogs can run free to interact with their owners, other dogs, or just to be dogs. A secondary benefit of these safe, fun areas is that you can get to know others with whom you share a common interest.

Fortunately, there are dog parks all over Washtenaw County, for example Canine Corral at Copper Leaf Crossing, Swift Run and Olson Park, Mill Pond in Saline and others that are just on the outskirts, like the Arise Dog Park in Pinckney.

Although visiting a dog park should be full of fun and lightheartedness, it by no means is something that should be undertaken with a casual attitude, for several reasons that encompass the safety, health and overall well-being of the animals and humans involved.

Michelle McCarthy of Chelsea understands those reasons well. As a nationally-recognized canine behavior professional accredited by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), she’s had plenty of experience with dogs — and people.

“Everyone has their own idea of what a dog park is,” says McCarthy.

And that’s where problems can begin.

Behavior problems at the dog park

“Of course, we know that they are a great place to go to allow their dogs the opportunity to get exercise and to socialize with other dogs,” which are two obvious benefits to heading out to one.

But, then there are others who think that going to a dog park will help solve behavior problems that their pets are having.

The latter, McCarthy explains, is a misconception that can produce disastrous results.

Fearful, aggressive or reactive dogs don’t learn better tools to cope with challenging situations with other dogs by being thrust into a group setting and just letting them figure things out.

They must, through proper socialization and environment, attain the skills they need to navigate through a difficult encounter with another dog first. That’s why socialization with other canines early in life is crucial.

McCarthy brings up another important concept when it comes to dogs: Not every dog will like each other dog. And that’s okay, contrary to what many believe.

“Dog parks, by their very nature, easily produce encounters of all types, and some can be tense. In the case of a dog that lacks the skills that he needs, things can easily escalate to a level that’s not manageable, and no one wants that.”

The burden of responsibility to have good behavior in a social setting does not lie with the dog, but with the human.

How can we ease our dogs into social situations like this with finesse? Start early, says McCarthy, who is owner of K-9 Homeschooling.

“Puppies need to be involved in playtime with other healthy, well-behaved dogs their own age.”

Young dogs learn things like bite inhibition and other things from each other best — not humans. When puppies play together, they quickly discover what is acceptable, and what isn’t.

When and how do we start is an idea that is as contested as most any when talking about the health and behavior of dogs, and the process always starts with humans. Being enrolled in a puppy class is very helpful, and ideally, puppies start attending class at 10 weeks of age.

By that age, puppies who have been deemed healthy by their veterinarian and have a current Health Certificate can safely be around other healthy pups in their age group.

“At 10-16 weeks, you should begin hand-picking playmates for your puppy,” says McCarthy.

She recommends inviting those families with puppies that you’re familiar with over for playdates, and vice-versa. In doing so, you give them the opportunity to have contact with other canines safely and lessen the worry of being exposed to diseases that they haven’t been vaccinated for as well.

Health concerns when puppies and dogs meet each other

At 16 weeks, puppies can start visiting the dog park. By that time, their core vaccines have been given and they have had some experience under their belt socially.

The issues associated with health should be at the forefront of our minds, because when you have groups of dogs together, the level of oversight becomes even more of an issue.

Margaret Lane, DVM can’t emphasize that enough.

In her practice at Lane Animal Hospital in Chelsea, Lane notes that beginning an open dialogue with clients from the very first visit with a new puppy or dog of any age is crucial.

“When clients come in, we make a point to talk extensively about all sorts of issues related to the health of their pet. From the importance of proper vaccination, internal and external parasites, and zoonotic disease, it’s a regular part of the dialogue.”

One point to consider when considering any aspect of health, is the lifestyle that the pet leads.

“If a pet visits a dog park, that is something that their owner needs to talk about,” notes Lane.

Their level of exposure is obviously different, so making sure that an animal has protection against preventable diseases is vital.

Lane says that compliance among pet owners is good when it comes to vaccinations, and that comes from pet owners being well-educated about the risks, and getting the right vaccines.

“We don’t want to over-vaccinate,” offers Lane, “so in taking into consideration the dog’s age, level of exposure and overall health, we personalize the vaccines that are given.”

One core vaccine is rabies, and that can be given at 16 weeks. In fact, it’s a must for pets. Others include:

  • Bordatella (kennel cough)
  • Canine Distemper

Leptospirosis is a concern, and although it’s not considered a core vaccine, it’s something that you need to understand and talk about with your vet. It is a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be passed from pet to human. Read more about that by clicking here.

A trend to not vaccinate pets out of concern that vaccinations cause harm to the animal is a hot topic, and Lane says that it needs to be discussed, especially if a pet frequents a dog park.

“If someone is opposed to immunizing their pet, they should respect the fact that they are putting the health of other pets at risk,” says Lane.

She acknowledges that some pets have been found to have a sensitivity to vaccines, and while she’s not opposed to the idea of testing a dog’s titers to see if they have an acceptable level of immunity against a preventable illness, she makes clear that an open line of communication and understanding is crucial.

External parasites are concerns, so ensuring that your dog uses flea and tick preventative and that they get a regular physical exam is necessary. That includes a fecal exam to test for internal parasites.

Common sense is king, Lane reminds.

“Treat the situation of going to a dog park as you would with a child in daycare. If they have a cough or other kind of respiratory distress, or have some gastrointestinal trouble, it’s probably best to skip the dog park until that is addressed and cleared up.”

And always be prepared to pick up after your pooch.

McCarthy emphasizes that dog owners need to be empowered. And that means really understanding dog behavior and body language (yes, she teaches a class on it), and recognizing when to step in and help extinguish a dicey situation and when to let allow dogs to work it out on their own. (Click here for a great article on that topic.)

More tips for a good dog park experience

She also makes a few other great points to consider:

  • Visit the park — alone — ahead of time to observe what goes on with both dogs and humans

  • Pay attention to your dog’s preferences

  • Make sure play is safe and productive

  • The humans need to pay attention to their dogs while at the park

  • If your pooch is a bit unsure of themselves in this setting, consider attending during low-traffic hours (usually during the middle of the day)

Basic training is a must for any dog, and because of the high-level of distraction that comes with being at a dog park, a pet should have mastered basic obedience concepts like name retention and the “sit” command, and they should come when they are called.

Also, if you have a dog that’s a rescue, it’s wise to have them temperament-tested before embarking on your first dog park adventure.

A recurring theme I hear frequently from dog park enthusiasts: The owner of a poorly-behaved dog doesn’t do anything to step in when there is problem behavior.

The bottom line on this, as McCarthy says: “Dog owners need to be willing to be an advocate for their pets.”

In essence, they need to have the backbone to speak up if they are seeing that another dog is not handling himself well.

All in all, most dog park interactions are positive, but recognizing when they aren’t is key.

McCarthy concluded by saying, “Off-leash playtime is a must for any canine. But, the dog park setting isn’t for every dog, so you need to be prepared for the idea that your dog might be one of them.”

But all is not lost if your dog can't handle an off-leash dog park: buddying up with other dog owners to have backyard playdates with pets that your dog does get along with well is certainly an option.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly and subscribe to's email newsletters.



Thu, May 17, 2012 : 4:56 p.m.

Wouldn't it be nice if in Washtenaw County the leash laws were enforced? In my hood dogs are running around off the leash all the time, every day. Owners are never in sight. Owner just open the door and let the dog run. So why do we need dog parks? Must admit I'm tired of working in my yard only to have dogs running up to me with no owner anywhere around. Since the leash laws aren't enforced in Washtenaw County...and the owners don't care....I'm not left with many options. I hate to take down the dog because it isn't the dog that is at fault....why does Washtenaw County have laws on the books that they never intend to enforce....or I should say....enforce equally on everyone........

Lorrie Shaw

Mon, May 21, 2012 : 12:33 p.m.

I think that this is an interesting point, to be honest. And GoblueBeatOSU, you're not the only one to voice that concern. I agree - there are leash laws; I certainly abide by them, & they should be enforced. We have them for a reason. They are there to protect people & pets. In past discussions about unleashed dogs, I have always found some responses to residents who voice concern for their safety or the personal or legal enforcement of leash laws to be surprising. In walking dogs daily, I don't see many unleashed dogs, but I know that they are around. For that reason I have to be extra careful as sometimes I'm caring for a pet that has a difficult time handling themselves around other dogs. Being approached suddenly would make for a very dicey situation in some cases. That being said, it's a responsibility that I've taken on, & as a professional I know how to deal with it should anything happen. I understand that not everyone has an appreciation for dogs the way that I do. They may not feel comfortable around them, or have a lot of experience with dogs. (Maybe they just don't like them!) Also, let's not forget that we live in an area that is has a fair amount of cultural diversity, too, & that may play a role in some people's feelings toward dogs. My thinking is that anyone with a pet should respect that. For those reasons & more, I don't feel that someone working in their yard *should* have to be thinking on a regular basis about a loose dog approaching them who may or may not be friendly. In the latter case, I would find that upsetting, too. It's their own little oasis, for goodness sake. Sure, dogs become separated from their humans on accident sometimes & I don't think many people get all up in arms about that. But I think that Goblue represents a fair number of people in the county who see loose dogs - maybe the same ones - time & time again & are fed up. It all boils down to a people problem: Humans need to be more responsibl


Fri, May 18, 2012 : 4:40 p.m.

Take a picture of the dog on your property using a camera phone. Call the police. Or keep a water bottle handy to squirt dogs once they enter your property. A healthy squirt of water in the dog's face will keep him away.

Denise Heberle

Fri, May 18, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

why on earth do you think "take down the dog" is your only option??


Thu, May 17, 2012 : 7:30 p.m.

Do your yard work with a leash within reach, grab the dog and deliver it to the Humane Society. If it has a collar and tags the Humane Society can contact the owner.


Thu, May 17, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

I have seen, at dog parks, groups of owners working hard with newcomer problem dogs, using their dogs to "socialize" the problem dogs to the point of those dogs becoming much more friendly and playful. It is amazing how dogs can change personalities over time if they're given consistent and safe messages. Unfortunately that absolutely requires humans who know what they're doing. I think many problem dogs are actually the representatives of clueless owners.

Denise Heberle

Fri, May 18, 2012 : 3:27 p.m.

My sweet old pooch has always had awesome social skills, both with dogs and people, and with the exception of a couple of really abused animals, has always been able to help other dogs adjust their attitudes. It's amazing to watch him go incrementally through his repertoire of gentle warning, body language, and only as a very last resort, showing anything close to aggression. It helps that he is a big guy, but it's mostly that he likes dogs.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, May 17, 2012 : 12:46 p.m.

Great point, ArgoC. And, there are so many fallacies that are perpetuated today, especially on television shows. Thanks!


Wed, May 16, 2012 : 3:42 p.m.

Good article. I have only attended a private dog park (paid monthly membership). It is wonderful! It is very self policing and the owners are frequently on-site. It is interesting to see how dogs find the playmates they are most comfortable with. I highly recommend dog parks for our canine companions!! (I do wish there were small neighborhood park tho....hint hint...)

Lorrie Shaw

Wed, May 16, 2012 : 10:16 p.m.

LA: Private dog parks are great, and certainly, a good model for public parks. I, too think it's interesting to see how dogs choose their buddies - and to watch their relationships flourish! Thanks for bringing up the option of private parks. :)


Wed, May 16, 2012 : 12:47 p.m.

Darn. This article does such a good job of covering the basics of doggy park behavior that I don't have much to add. Except for my wish that city-run dog parks would have a list of Dog Park Etiquette posted at the entrance. An on-line list is available at Also, my personal pet peeve (pun intended) is human children screaming or throwing a ball around in the dog park. That's akin to tying a pork chop around the child's neck. Dogs are interested in the noise & activity and might try to join in the fun.

Lorrie Shaw

Wed, May 16, 2012 : 1:27 p.m.

RunsWithScissors: Your final point is a great one, and I agree. Dog parks are for dogs. I think that a list of rules and etiquette should be clearly posted at every dog park entrance as well. It's a big responsibility, having a dog in your care - especially in public. Being reminded of that is a good thing. :) Thanks for adding that!


Wed, May 16, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

We've never been to a dog park with Bree. She usually scares other dogs, and aggression occurs. Not good.

5c0++ H4d13y

Wed, May 16, 2012 : 11:40 a.m.

Gosh, I though gods liked cheese.


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 8:04 p.m. is a great service that socializes your dog by picking them up and taking them to a private farm with a one acre fenced area. Since it's not a public dog park, there's no worry of unruly or unvaccinated dogs. I highly suggest people check it out.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 8:58 p.m.

Yes actually, I've spoken to the owner, Scott Kett several times and have referred many people to him, as they aren't located within my service area. Thanks for chiming in, Scott.

John Hritz

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 6:49 p.m.

Here's a link for the Central Park Paws group:

John Hritz

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 6:36 p.m.

The author states, "A recurring theme I hear frequently from dog park enthusiasts: The owner of a poorly-behaved dog doesn't do anything to step in when there is problem behavior." That's why I think dog parks will struggle as an addition to Ann Arbor public parks. The group that meets at Central Park in New York has strong self-policing and has expectations of both dogs and owners. A similar group would need to form and serve that function for it to work in Ann Arbor subject to Parks and Recreation rules. Seems like something that could be piloted with snow fencing, but everyone likes the idea of having a place where their dog can run free, not everyone wants to manage their dog. You have less of a problem at for-pay dog parks because following the rules is a stipulation of membership.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 9:04 p.m.

John, I don't think that the existing dog parks in themselves are struggling. But, self-policing is so necessary. There are a lot of reasons why the latter falls short; lack of knowledge of dog behavior and body language are just a couple. The fact is, I really believe that by and large, most people that choose to go to a dog park really do care about their pets. Some are misguided, others are more inexperienced in dealing with dogs than they think in a very public setting. Thanks for adding that comment!

Woman in Ypsilanti

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 6:07 p.m.

I have to say that generally, I have found people to be pretty responsible about their dogs. There are some people, of course, who refuse to accept that their dogs are capable of misbehaving but those folks are a rare exception and the best way to deal with them is avoidance. My friends with kids say that it is the same with parents. Most are good but some refuse to even acknowledge bad behavior in their own kids. One thing I've noticed though is that the type of person who is willing to take the time to take their dog out for off leash play is usually the type who is fairly responsible as a dog owner.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 9:35 p.m.

Woman in Ypsilanti, It is a daunting thing, isn't it to have that happen? I think that one of the things that we fail to remember as humans, is that a dog park setting - while structured for safety & fun - is not natural for dogs to do. Having several dogs who are not from the same family (in most cases, the same litter) thrust together & interacting in one fenced green space changes the dynamic of behavior considerably. Lots of different personalities, backgrounds, etc. I really wonder how many of those dogs who are misbehaving at dog parks do just fine otherwise, or frequently misbehave in other situations, even at home. In the latter case, how is it handled? Is it recognized? Is the human equipped with the right tools? Maybe not. I had an interesting conversation with a behaviorist years ago about the topic of dog parks. She said that if there is one dog who really isn't that good at being social at a park, it's like forcing a socially inept human being to go to a cocktail party: They're going to have trouble navigating the waters. I often think that some people feel a bit pressured to attend dog parks with their pets by friends or fellow dog owners, etc. It is quite popular, & it seems so fun to do, so why not, right? Maybe deep down they don't feel confident in going. Behavior problems make for a very unhappy dog & human. Michelle actually brought up the idea that there are all sorts of behavior issues that are common, say on-leash aggression. That's a very difficult thing to handle for a lot of dog owners, so they start skipping leashed walks, any contact with other dogs... in essence, the world of the dog starts to shrink little by little. Not so good. Getting the help from a qualified professional is vital, & pronto! It would be great if there were a better support system in place for families of pets who need help with understanding & unfolding better behavior. I think that this discussion is a good start. Thanks for bringing that u


Tue, May 15, 2012 : 5:45 p.m.

All city parks should have a off leash fenced in dog area.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, May 15, 2012 : 9:36 p.m.

I think that would make a lot of folks very happy, DanEdWard!