We stand at the gate of Brookdale Park Dog Park. My dog’s tail is wagging so hard his rear end is wagging too. He paws at the fence as I remove his leash and open the door. He rushes in, leaping and bounding. He licks the muzzles of his favorites while others, put off by his enthusiasm, turn away or show their teeth. I know I’ve already broken some dog park rule by not making him sit and calm down before entering, so I walk quickly over to where he is. He’s taken a stick from another dog and is leading a merry chase around the enclosure. “Go, Henry!” says another dog owner. I check my watch. My dog has an hour to run, play, and tussle – in short, tire himself out — before we go home.
Not all of our dog park entrances have gone as smoothly as the one described above. Both good and bad experiences have made dog parks a polarizing issue among dog owners. Some swear by them and use them regularly. Others avoid them on the advice of their vets or never return after a bad experience. I am well aware that not everyone loves dog parks, or is even on board with the concept of putting a group of unrelated dogs in an enclosure for an extended period of time. I’ve heard stories and witnessed some intense interactions between dogs—and between dog owners. If I hadn’t been so desperate to get my dog some exercise, I probably never would have gone back after the first few times, but I did.
Here is my family’s story.
Our journey to the dog park began in August of 2009 at the Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter in East Hanover, NJ. As first time dog owners, we told the adoption counselor we wanted a smaller, older dog, one we could easily handle. I had done some reading about dogs, but had almost no hand’s on experience with them. My pre-teen daughter had repeatedly asked for a dog, but I wrote her requests off as typical for a child her age. The truth was, I wanted a dog. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a good dog owner, that I could bring a dog up right. Little did I know what I was in for.
A few days after our first visit to the shelter the counselor called to say she had the perfect dog for us: a 7-month-old hound mix named Gizmo. “I know you said you wanted an older, smaller dog,” she said, “but this guy has the perfect disposition and temperament for a family.” Skeptical but intrigued, I went to the shelter to check him out.
Gizmo was a textbook woebegone hound: sad eyes, droopy ears, big paws, and almost no energy. He didn’t even get up when I came to his kennel to say hello. When I pointed out other dogs in the shelter that day as possible candidates, the counselors said things like, “Oh no, that dog is way too mouthy for a house with kids,” or “No, that guy has food issues.” Then another visitor to the shelter stopped in front of Gizmo’s kennel, took one look at him, pointed and said emphatically, “That is going to be one good dog.” Somehow, I had to agree. We decided to take a chance.
Once home with us, and renamed Henry, our new dog shook off his shelter shock and got his puppy on. He could vault over his crate in a single bound. He would fly through the air and rip my sweatshirt to shreds. My arms were covered with bruises from his playful mouthing. I did my best to keep up with his exercise needs with long walks that left me foot sore and Henry looking for new things to jump over. Fencing our yard in helped a little, but by then I had read a little of Cesar Millan’s book that likened shutting a dog in your yard akin to putting him in a fish bowl. I wasn’t going to be that kind of dog owner, remember? But one day after two hour-long walks that did nothing to calm Henry down, I burst into tears. It was time to ask for help.
On a recommendation from a pet food store owner, I hired a dog trainer who told me I had to get my dog to run. “If his tongue isn’t hanging out, he’s not tired,” she said. “Going for walks isn’t enough. Get him to the dog park or somewhere he can run.” This was news to me — none of the books I’d read mentioned dog parks. But lucky for me, there was one nearby, so off to Brookdale Park Dog Park we went.
A typical newbie, I had no idea what to expect at the dog park. Our first trips were horrible. Henry was completely cowed, tail tucked and shaking before we got beyond the gate. The other dogs, sensing his young age, showed him who was boss by mounting him and taking him down. I was completely unprepared for the way the other dogs behaved. My ignorance coupled with Henry’s fear made for a vicious cycle of anxiety for both of us. More tears ensued. However, the trainer said my dog needed to run, so we kept coming back.
Gradually, I learned the ropes. Other dog owners offered advice and clued me in to how dogs “play.” I always kept a watchful eye on Henry, and stayed poised to intervene or pull him off other dogs if he got too jacked up, because once over his initial shyness, Henry became like the wild dogs of the Serengeti. He liked to grab other dogs by the scruff of the neck (or collar) and spin them around on the ground. This upset a lot of other dog owners, and me, and we got yelled at a lot. However, there were some dog owners who really seemed to enjoy dogs playing this way. Henry took his licks, too, though, and spent some time cowering under the benches, hiding from larger and more dominant dogs. I tried to time my visits to hours when the park wouldn’t be too crowded, and when Henry and another dog weren’t getting along, left to try again another day.
It’s been almost three years now, and even though Henry’s exercise needs have become less urgent, we still go to the park at least three times a week, in addition to taking long walks during the day. He and I have friends at the park, dogs and people we have come to know and love, who enjoy watching the dogs run, play, and do all the things that dogs do.
Love them or hate them, dog parks can be a boon to owners with energetic dogs for whom daily walks are not enough. Are they the perfect place for every dog? No. There are dozens of rules posted outside the park for a reason. But the reality is, we live in a densely populated and hyper-regulated area, and in the absence of farmland, woods, fields, and other open spaces, we suburban dog owners do the best we can with what we have. Would my dog be happier living on some farm in Virginia where he was picked up as a stray? Maybe. Is he happy romping with his pals in an off-leash facility? He certainly seems so. Am I the dog owner I wanted to prove I could be? I’m still working on that, every day.
Joli Furnari is an Adjunct Professor at Montclair State University and hosts the website brookdaleparkdogpark.com.