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Dog Park Details and Design

Best practices for safety and fun socializing

A young boy and girl pose with a happy Golden Retriever

Photo by Melissa Stanton, AARP

Dog parks can be fun places for sociable dogs (like Daisy, a Golden Retriever) and dog-friendly children.

Quality dog parks can be good for people and pets.

Dog parks give dogs a safe space to exercise and roam around freely.

Dog parks allow sociable dogs to socialize with other dogs.

Dog parks enable dog owners to spend time outdoors being physically active with their pets.

Dog parks are a place where people of all ages with a common interest (dogs) can interact. 

But the enjoyability — and safety — of a dog park for both people and their pets is greatly influenced by the quality of the park. A large cement pad with a chain-link fence around it or a muddy, enclosed field might be called a dog park, but it's not a pleasant place to be. Since dog parks are for people as much as they are for dogs, amenities matter. 

Dewey Dog Park in Maryland

Photo by Melissa Stanton, AARP

The fenced, lighted 22,000 square-foot dog park at the Dewey Local Park in Montgomery County, Maryland, is adjacent to a multi-age playground, a street hockey enclosure and a tricycle track. The dog park offers shade and seating for humans, a small dog area, and little hills for canine climbers.

Safety, Shade and Sound-Control

According to park professionals and dog experts, a dog park should:

  • Be about one to five acres in size, since a smaller space could result in overcrowding problems, while a larger area may be too large for controlling off-leash dogs

“Dog parks are best for healthy and well-socialized pets that are comfortable around people, including strangers, and really enjoy meeting other dogs and exploring new environments.” 

— Sydney Bartson Queen, senior manager, ASPCA Behavioral Sciences

  • Be secured by a fence that dogs can’t wiggle through or jump over, and have a double-gate system to prevent dogs from escaping when other dogs and people enter or leave the space

  • Include, if space allows, designated areas for large doors, small dogs, perhaps even older or less-active dogs
  • Have good drainage to help prevent muddy conditions that can make the space unpleasant or impossible to use

  • Include shaded areas, such as from trees, umbrellas or open gazebos

  • Be well-lighted and conveniently located, preferably in an area that isn’t isolated

  • Be equipped with at least one, preferrably more, dog-friendly drinking fountains.  (Communal water bowls should be avoided as they can transmit germs, cause crowding by thirsty dogs and are rarely cleaned.) 

  • Provide waste removal supplies and equipment, such as baggies, shovels or scoopers and covered trash containers

  • Be wheelchair accessible

  • Have sturdy, pet-friendly seating for people (and, at times, their pets)

More Dogs!

Click on the images to learn about dog parks located in communities for older adults — as well as a wilderness dog park created and cared for by dog-loving volunteers. 

  • Display visible, easy to read and understand signage that explains the dog park’s rules

  • Have parking nearby if not in a walkable area

  • Be bordered by a buffer zone — such as hedges, trees, berms or other land features — to separate the park from neighboring homes, buildings and/or busy roadways

Rules of Engagement

Parks have rules. The following guidelines for people and pets are recommended by dog care professionals and park experts.

  • Dogs need to be current for all of their vaccinations and flea and tick protections.

  • Dogs need to be licensed or registered as required by local laws.

  • Dogs should be able to obey basic commands.

  • Dogs who are selective about their canine friends should stay home.

  • Dogs with a history of dangerous behavior toward people or other dogs should not be brought to a dog park.

  • Sick dogs need to stay home (for their own safety and that of the other dogs).

  • Female dogs in heat must stay home.

  • Puppies less than four months old should stay home since they haven’t yet received all of their vaccinations, they can easily get hurt by the other dogs, and the atmosphere at a dog park is often too unpredictable. (A better way to socialize a puppy is through small, organized, at-home play dates with sociable puppies and gentle dogs.)

  • Owners should not bring toys or food into the park as both can incite possessive behaviors and fights.

  • Owners should refill any holes dug by their dog.

A Paw Park on the Prairie 

A 2022 AARP Community Challenge grant helped create a place where Montana dogs — and their accompanying owners — can play. (Click on the image to learn more) 

  • Leashes should be used only when entering and exiting the park — but kept handy at all times just in case.

  • Very young and small children should not be brought to a dog park.

  • Children under age 16 should be accompanied by and supervised by an adult.

  • Poop must be picked up and properly disposed of.

  • Owners need to pay attention to their dogs — and the other dogs. If a dog is moving away, cowering or hiding, or otherwise acting like they do not want to engage, the dog's owner needs to step in and gently remove their dog from the situation. 

According to Lindsay Hamrick, the director of Shelter Outreach and Engagement at the Humane Society of the United States, inattentiveness is the top complaint of dog park users.

“At some dog parks, the owners are not supervising their pets, they're on their phones,” says Hamrick. “When a dog fight breaks out or somebody intervenes and gets hurt, it's usually because people are not paying attention.”

Dog Parks Aren’t for Every Dog

Signs of a scared or uncomfortable dog, says Sydney Bartson Queen, senior manager of the ASPCA’s behavioral sciences team, can include a tucked tail, a lowered head or body, raised hair along a dog’s back, panting when it’s not hot, or ears that are pinned back. Fearful dogs might also pull back their lips, show teeth, and even give a warning snarl.

A dog that shows these signs is finding the park too overwhelming. In such cases, it’s best for the owner and pet to leave and perhaps try visiting again during a quieter time. Or, schedule a doggie play date with one or two other people and their dogs in a quieter location, such as a backyard. 

“Just like us, dogs have good days and bad days,” says Hamrick. For instance, she explains, a dog that once loved the dog park but begins snapping at the other dogs might not be feeling well. “Take it as the dog saying she's no longer enjoying the park and consider having her checked by a veterinarian.”

“If a dog looks uncomfortable or is not getting along with the other dogs, leave. Don't wait around to see if they warm up. Not every dog will do well at a dog park, and that's okay,” adds Queen.

Additional advice:

  • An owner needs to evaluate their dog’s personality and comfort in new situations before going to a dog park. Start by taking walks in areas where there are dogs to see how he or she reacts.

  • For the initial visit to a park, go when it’s less crowded. Let the dog get used to the new environment.

  • Assess the behavior of the other dogs before entering the park. Positive signs to look for include loose, bouncy body language and dogs enjoyably participating in games of chase or light wrestling. 

If a dog simply can't handle a busy dog park and the dog owner doesn't have a fenced yard, one option is to rent a yard. Homeowners with fenced yards but no dogs are renting out their backyards by the hour to dog owners. Do a web search using terms like “private dog parks” or "backyard dog parks" to find the organizations and companies that provide databases for such locations.

Amy Lennard Goehner is a freelance reporter and writer. She is a former staff member of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines. 

Page published May 2023

Learn More

These organizations have articles and resources about caring for dogs, creating and managing dog parks, and more:

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