When it comes to dogs, there's definitely no shortage of topics that will spark a lively debate, and here's one more: Children in off-leash dog parks.
Children aren't likely to be a problem in the dog park if they stay at their parent's side, remain calm, and don't attempt to interact with strange dogs. However, there are enough occurrences of children acting inappropriately within dog parks to cause concerns about the safety of the children and the liability for dog owners.
The Purpose Of The Park
The purpose of an off-leash dog park is to provide dogs with the space and freedom-of-movement to exercise and socialize in an unrestrained manner. In other words, it's intended to be a playground for dogs... not for children.
Even so, each dog owner remains responsible for the conduct of his or her dog within the park, and must be vigilant to ensure their dog's conduct is appropriate. To then add the responsibility of supervising children certainly complicates things.
A Dynamic Environment
The energy level within the dog park is very dynamic and it can change dramatically from moment-to-moment depending on who is in the park.
As an example, during a visit to my local dog park there were a total of six dogs, all of which were getting along fine with each other. Two were playing ball, another pair were following their noses around the park, and another pair were flitting back and forth visiting with the various people and the other dogs. All was peaceful until an excited new dog entered the park, and then the overall dynamic changed in the blink of an eye.
Within seconds of the new dog's arrival, all of the dogs entered into a high-speed chase with no awareness of who or what might get in the way. Several people were crashed into as the dogs bolted back and forth in their manic chase. The energy and behaviour was getting to a level where I felt a dog-fight could easily erupt, so I encouraged a couple of the owners to round up their dogs and we eventually managed to instill some calm back into the park.
Even if you feel this example might be an uncommon occurrence, it does illustrate how quickly things can change within the park and the risk it would pose to children and adults alike.
Running and Yelling: Animated behaviour such as running and yelling could stimulate some dogs to give chase, and might cause a fearful reaction in other dogs. Naturally, having children running around and making noise is especially concerning for dogs that are not well-socialized with children.
Lack of Socialization: I've seen far too many dogs approach children in the same way they approach strange dogs... in an intense investigative fashion... very alert, tense, tail up. This is an unpleasant incident waiting to happen, and full responsibility is on the parents or guardians of children to ensure they are not at risk.
Approaching Strange Dogs: Many children are not taught the appropriate way to behave around a dog, which includes not to approach a strange dog. As already mentioned, not all dogs have had an opportunity to be properly socialized with children and, accordingly, the approach of a child may trigger a fearful or anxious state within a dog.
Most dogs will provide warning signs that they are ill-at-ease with the approach of the stranger but, again, most children won't understand the various subtle warning signs a dog will give prior to actually growling or biting.
Wanting To Participate: Often times children will want to participate in ball play or treat-giving to their dog when at the park, but this can make a child the center of attention for every dog in the park.
Being surrounded by strange dogs can be a very intimidating experience for a child and, depending on the behaviour of the dogs, this could be an unpleasant incident just waiting to happen.