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A dog park is a facility set aside for dogs and their owners to exercise and play off-leash in a controlled environment. Parks vary in accoutrements, but a typical dog park is fenced; has separate, double-gated entry and exit points; a pond for swimming; hydrants for watering dogs; and tools to pick up and dispose of animal waste.
Like all recreation activities, certain safeguards need to be put in place before an off-leash dog park should be established. The first objective is to ensure that the location of the off-leash park is appropriate. The park should not be placed in environmentally sensitive areas, and it must be free of poisonous plants and dangerous topography such as steep cliffs. The second objective is to ensure that the park itself is safe for dogs, people, and wildlife. This generally will require the park to be a safe distance away from traffic, and always requires the park to have some sort of fence or barrier to ensure that dogs do not end up in precarious situations. A third objective is to make sure the size of the dog park is appropriate. Generally dog parks that are too big result in opportunities for dogs to learn and demonstrate anti-social, dominant behavior without swift intervention by their guardians.
Allowing dogs off-leash can be harmful to a dog’s socialization process. Many dogs are too shy, bold, or aggressive to roam off-leash, and many more dogs learn to react aggressively on-leash after roaming off-leash. Too few dog owners understand what good dog interactions look like, and even fewer feel empowered to intervene when poor interactions occur, leading to anti-social dog behavior outside of off-leash areas but caused by roaming off-leash. A particularly disconcerting problem is known as "predatory drift." Even highly socialized dogs can "drift" into a predatory attack mode, particularly when smaller dogs appear injured or yelp during off-leash exercises. When a dog enters a "predatory drift" episode, it attempts to kill the smaller dog that triggers the event. The problem is so severe that many adoption agencies such as the San Francisco SPCA refuse to place dogs into homes with existing dogs if the dogs differ substantially in size.
Dog owners must watch their dogs carefully and stay within a reasonable distance of their dogs so that they can intervene if the dog acts violently or anti-socially. Generally a smaller dog park makes it easier for dog owners to protect their dogs.
Pet ownership in the United States increased by over 1 million households between 1990 and 1992, up to 54 million, or 58% of all U.S. households. Of the pet-owning households, 38% included dogs. The number of dogs per dog-household was 1.5, totally 53.3 million dogs. (1) This trend is expected to continue into the new millennium.
While suburban and rural zones have traditionally been areas containing most of the pet-owning population, the urban environment has been undergoing an increase in pet population since the 1970s. This, combined with the fact that over the past 15 years urbanization has been taking over what was formerly considered to be suburban and rural areas, has resulted in a phenomenon called "urbananimalization." This, first of all, encompasses the recognition that animals are and will continue to be a "quality of life" aspect of urban society. Secondly, it recognizes that development must specifically provide for the inclusion of domestic animals in its growth plans.
As the dog companion population increases along with development, regulations need to be in place to promote responsible pet ownership, and facilities need to be provided to allow pet owners and their canine companions to exercise and play together. The provision of ample quality space for the human/dog companion recreation promotes the physical and mental well being of both dog and human.
Off-leash dog areas provide a social setting in which people can gather and interact in friendship. Off-leash dog areas are places where dog owners and nondog owners can delight in the entertaining and interesting interaction of dogs at play. Scientific studies have shown that people somehow find it easier to talk to each other with dogs as the initial focus, breaking down the usual social barriers that make people in our society perceive others as "strangers." Research has also shown that companion dogs improve people's health and increase resistance to disease by providing companionship, by giving people something to care for, by providing pleasurable activity, by providing a source of constancy in our changing lives, by stimulating people to exercise, by providing comfort with touch, and being a pleasure to watch. (2) The unconditional love of a companion animal is very beneficial.
The benefits to dogs is also well documented. Dogs that are highly socialized and exercised are healthier and happier. They make better neighbors because they bark and dig out of their enclosure less often. If they do escape, they are far less likely to be aggressive.
(1) "1992 National Pet Owners Study", Pet Business, August 1992
(2) "Pets and People: The Bonds Grow Stronger", Pet Business, February 1990
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