Kids at the dog park

Dogs have a grand time at an off-leash park, but is it a suitable place for a child or toddler?

I’ve experienced some pretty uncomfortable, potentially dangerous situations at the dog park. I’ve had more than my fair share of awkward moments that have caused me to exit the park quickly whilst rolling my eyes and shaking my head. I’m not speaking of roughhousing or improper dog handling; these undesirable encounters, more often than not, involve children.

This is a touchy subject. Read nearly any blog or online article regarding the presence of children at dog parks, then skip directly to the comments. You’ll find extraordinarily passionate, highly conflicting views. It seems the inflammatory remarks generally stem from two groups — parents of dogs only, and parents of children. I’m not going to propose either is right or wrong.

I frequent a beautiful, vast dog park that’s primarily off-leash. My dog, Rocket, can leap through the tall grass, smell things that create a near-euphoric response (some of which I don’t find the least bit pleasant), and most importantly, greet and play with new dog friends without harboring the responsibility of protecting me. He’s free, not only from the confines of a leash (and the responsibility he feels this entails), but I believe mentally. The dog park is neutral ground, and one of the only places he can receive the exercise he requires.

For various reasons, this park also includes areas that require dogs to be on lead, pertaining to wildlife conservation, protection of indigenous plant life, and dog safety near the parking area. I follow the rules. It’s my job to not only keep my dog safe, happy, and healthy, but to respect the safety of other living beings and the sanctity of my environment. This is the unwritten waiver I mentally signed the day we adopted Rocket at the shelter.

I have mixed feelings when I see kids at the dog park — especially toddlers. On one hand, if the parent is accompanying the child and a dog, I think it’s lovely their family can enjoy the amazing park together. I secretly hope because the child is being introduced to their kind family dog early in his/her life, the child will grow up, potentially, with the same love and respect I hold for canines. The whole scene gives me warm fuzzies. But not every dog at the dog park currently resides in a household alongside a child. And not every dog is comfortable with a toddler who, by nature, moves erratically and awkwardly, utters high-pitched sounds, and, in my experience, frequently carries an object in their hands — more often than not, a stick. To many dogs, this is confusing: Who is this shrieking creature? Why is it running toward me flailing its arms? I’ve been abused before with an object that looks like that long thing that creature is holding, and this is bringing back really bad memories. This is super creepy. Not every dog is the family Golden Retriever, who patiently endures horsey rides or is awakened by a building block tossed at his head. And even though a child “loves dogs,” my pooch, unfortunately, is really freaked out by most kids.

I’ve also been in close proximity with parents who have brought their children to the dog park, and are enjoying a leisurely stroll in the off leash dog area — with no dog in tow. I can count on more than all of my fingers, the number of times a parent has been conversing on a cell phone, while their child is aimlessly running through the off-leash area. I witnessed a situation that involved one of these unattended, stick-grasping children, running full-blast at a dog. Luckily, as the child approached the dog, the owner reacted quickly enough to physically restrain her dog, who, with teeth exposed, lunged toward the child. She wrapped her forearm around his neck, and flipped her own dog onto his back in the grass. Simultaneously, the child’s mother, who had been having an in-depth conversation on the phone, finally realized her youngster was outside of range. She began frantically screaming at the dog’s owner, accusing her of having a “vicious dog.” Needless to say, this situation could have ended much worse. God forbid if this child was bit. But due to the fast-acting response of the dog’s owner, who had expected to simply enjoy a fun day at her local off-leash dog park, both the child and the dog are safe. The child could have been hurt, which would be nothing short of tragic. Yet had that woman’s dog snapped at the unattended child, the dog may have then been required to be put down. A dog bite is generally considered to be the fault of the dog and his owner.

I take my responsibility as a dog owner seriously. I don’t allow my dog to run willy-nilly through the streets. I don’t dismissively proclaim, while trotting down the sidewalk with my unrestrained dog, “Oh, it’s okay, my dog is friendly,” as Rocket proceeds to jump up on strangers or the backs of other dogs. No. For one, maybe the other human isn’t comfortable with my overly friendly dog. And even though my dog is friendly, perhaps another dog might not be at ease with being approached, or perhaps the other dog isn’t quite so friendly. In addition, it would never even cross my mind to take my dog to run free at a children’s playground.

I want my dog to be happy and carefree, but certainly not at the expense of others, or while risking my own dog’s safety. It would just be really nice if everyone could manage to responsibly coexist, while treating each other (and our dogs) with the care and respect we all deserve.