Should You Take Your Dog to the Dog Park?

Dogs are social creatures, but while some dogs clearly love to visit dog parks, others seem less happy about it. New research investigates whether the dog park is stressful, and what dogs do there.

A chocolate and a yellow labrador running with a stick
Photo: Gerald Marella / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Dog parks are open spaces, usually fenced, where dogs can be off-leash. They are particularly useful in municipalities where leash laws mean there are few spaces for dogs to run free. Researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland (Ottenheimer Carrier et al) set out to find out how dogs find the dog park. They recruited owners at a dog park and asked if their dogs could take part.  

Eleven dogs took part in the first study, in which saliva samples were collected before and after a walk, before arrival at the dog park, and after being in the dog park for about twenty minutes. Because some samples did not get enough saliva, full results were available for six dogs. The results showed that salivary cortisol levels were higher after 20 minutes in the dog park compared to before they arrived. There was no difference in levels before and after a walk.

Sixty dogs aged 6 months to 15.5 years took part in the second study. 81% were spayed or neutered, and all but one were medium or large breeds because the park was for dogs over 12kg. Owners completed a questionnaire about their dog, including the frequency of visiting the park, and canine personality scales. Each dog was videoed for twenty minutes, and then a saliva sample was taken.

The videos were analyzed to see how dogs spent their time. Five dogs were not included in this analysis because, during the time of the video, they were alone or one of only two in the park and hence did not have chance to interact with several other dogs. For the remaining dogs, there were typically seven dogs in the park at any one time.

Forty per cent of the time was spent near to a human, either with a human alone or with a mixed group of human(s) and dogs. The size of the dog park could have had something to do with this. Dogs spent about a third of their time alone, and about a quarter with other dogs in groups or more.

There was a correlation between play behaviour and mounting. There was also a correlation between stress behaviour (such as a tucked tail) and a hunched posture. Almost all of the dogs displayed a stress-related behaviour at some point, and 83% displayed at least one play signal/behaviour. Older dogs were less active, and younger dogs were more playful.

The owners’ ratings of their dog’s amicability were linked to the frequency of play signals and behaviours. Ratings of extraversion linked to how much time was spent in a pair with another dog. 

The dogs who visited the dog park the least had the highest cortisol levels, suggesting that they found it stressful. Dogs that had already visited the park within the previous week showed fewer stress-related behaviours than dogs that had not visited as recently. In these dogs who visited often, the high cortisol levels most likely reflect arousal at the presence of other dogs and the environment in which they could run around.

So what does this mean for your dog? The scientists say “Owners of dogs showing lowered posture in the dog park might be advised to reconsider exposing their dog to this setting for welfare reasons. Most dogs, however, especially those which owners rate as physically active and friendly, appear to have overall positive experiences in the dog park, and likely benefit from the physical activity and social interactions that such a setting provides.”

Does your dog like to visit the dog park?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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See also: Why do dogs play?

Ottenheimer Carrier, L., Cyr, A., Anderson, R.E., & Walsh, C.J. (2013). Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 146, 96-106 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.04.002

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