What Dog Parks Can Learn From Amusement Parks

When my kids were younger, any trip to an amusement park started by making a beeline to the measuring station to find out which rides were safe for them. All theme parks I have visited have this sort of measuring station and it made me realize something dog parks can learn from amusement parks.

Sign at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN 

Amusement park rides have minimum height requirements established by the ride’s manufacturer to ensure guest safety at the park. A park employee will measure your child and then provide the child with some type of color-coded wristband to help identity which rides are safe for that child. Safety boils down to, “You don’t have the right wristband color.”  Can you imagine any parent of a 36” tall child trying to convince the operator of Cedar Point’s Corkscrew Roller Coaster to let the child ride? Of course not! It’s a roller coaster with a minimum 48″ height restriction which is needed because it inverts riders in three different corkscrew turns!

Dog parks can learn from this commitment to size as a way to keep dogs safe. The best parks have separate small and large dog areas.  But rarely have I gone to a dog park where these areas are being used exclusively for the right size dogs. It seems many owners view the different areas of the dog park as suggested recommendations on where the dogs should play.  It would be better if the size restrictions at dog parks were viewed as non-negotiable, minimum requirements to ensure safety.

Here are just a few of the reasons I think big and little dogs should be separated at a dog park:

  • Small dogs can get injured quickly by groups of large dogs playing.  Not every large dog is aware enough or agile enough to leap over a small dog who may accidentally get in the path of a tennis ball.  And not every small dog is fast enough to move away from two rambunctious large dog’s chasing one another. While we like to think a large dog will handicap her behavior to accommodate every small dog she meets, this simply doesn’t always happen.
  • Small dogs can look like prey.  No one likes to admit this, but it’s true.  As a species, dogs are known for chasing squirrels, cats, birds, or other small animals. Let’s face it, from a distance a tiny brown dog running can look like a squirrel!
  • Small dogs are more likely to be injured or killed in a fight with a large dog. This is not to say large dogs are more aggressive. It just means that in a fight between a large and a small dog, the large dog has the weight/size advantage.

Like an amusement park, a dog park can be a great way to have fun.  But dog parks themselves are inherently risky in the same way amusement parks are risky. They are filled with people who mean well and are trying to have a good time, but don’t necessarily pay attention to all the details of the park. So it’s best to have some basic parameters to keep everyone safe. Like an amusement park, the risks in a dog park can be minimized if owners adhere to the proper size restrictions.

Next time you go to the dog park, think of your dog as wearing the appropriate colored wristband at an amusement park.  And then do the safest thing and take your dog to the right area based on the dog’s size. If you find yourself wanting to take your small dog to play with the big dogs, or if your friends suggest your large dog would like the small dog area, just remember that your dog isn’t wearing the right wristband color. It’s not a an optional matter of convenience and it’s not just a recommendation on where your dog should play.  View it as a non-negotiable matter of safety.

Have you seen issues with dogs in the wrong play areas at your dog park?

Off-Leash Dog PlayIf you’d like to learn more about safe off-leash dog play, check out my book Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “What Dog Parks Can Learn From Amusement Parks

  1. I’m going to propose a somewhat different criteria here.

    Is size alone a good determining factor here? Yes, it can relate to the possible degree of injury during a fight and that remains a good point of yours. But I suggest the dog’s disposition and social skills are far more the determining factors. I’ve recently seen a Mastiff, Great Pyrenees, GSD, Rotti, St. Bernard, etc. and my little foster Chi was just fine. When some active medium sized dogs came in with poorer social skills I had to pick her up. Then a larger Chi came in & some of those dogs backed away from him. I’ve seen a scared Lab and a GSD who are just fine with small or calm dogs, but can’t handle active dogs who have poor manners, although they are considerably larger than most of them.

    I also have a hard time with a dog imagining a small dog as a squirrel. Yes, I’ve seen those who will attack small dogs, but that’s not nearly all that they will attack. The more common case is where they’re curious but don’t know how to behave with a much smaller dog and can hurt them. But those who have good social skills take the time to learn, adjusting to the small dog’s responses, the same way they learned with larger dogs.

    So that’s the division I see at one dog park here. Where the alternate area may have several small dogs together with a few Labs or others and everything is quiet and peaceful. My usual dog park only has one area, and the shy dogs often go over to the other end and aren’t bothered. Much of this, of course, is influenced by a good group of dog owners, and that’s what I most look for when picking a dog park to visit.

    And that’s the same approach we use running shelter play groups, looking at their energy level and social skills.

    • Hi Gerry, you bring up great points. Size alone is not at all the only determining factor. There are many things that go into establishing a safe off-leash play environment. However, as you mention, most dog owners don’t have the type of education you have, some dogs show up at dog parks with poor social skills, some dogs can’t tolerate other dogs, and many owners don’t pay attention to their dogs. Given the fact that I get emails and consult on numerous dog deaths in dog parks, I’d venture to say that the vast majority of small dog owners don’t know when to pick up their dog when larger dogs with poorer social skills come in the yard, as you do. Education in a wide range of areas related to dog behavior and play is important. But, given the realities, the point of the article was to highlight that one way we can start keeping dog safe is by keeping them in areas based on size. Thanks for your comments.

      • While I feel that either approach would be helpful the larger question is which one, if any, that the majority of dog owners might follow. Here, both size and activity are easily seen characteristics by typical owners. Provided, of course, that they care and think about it.

        While we could collect opinions from forums and groups the results may not be useful, as our sample would be skewed towards people who read the forums because they are more interested in their dogs. And statistics on injury or deaths in dog parks are also limited as they are isolated with no other categories or control groups for comparison.

        At my local dog park I know which way the morning group would go, as nearly every person there shows good knowledge and skills in managing dogs. They all work together whenever a new or shy dog comes in, of whatever size.

        The larger evening group is mixed and much closer to what you describe. The issues I see are not so much people who don’t care, as those who have distorted views on dog behavior and are not interested in learning, so education is problematic.

        I certainly don’t know the best answer here, but thank you for highlighting the issue.

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