Leash-optional dog parks are a great place to take your dog. There is no need for the dog owner to worry about joggers, kids on bikes, inattentive drivers, elderly people and the disabled. Like any recreational area, however, dog parks are not free of risks. People and dogs get injured in dog parks throughout the United States. And dog parks cause other kinds of problems too. Here is an overview of the problems that stem from dog parks:
- Dog owners do not clean up after their dogs. In dog parks and on the street, dog owners are legally required to clean up after their dogs. Failure to do so can result in fines, can cause the spread of disease, and might prompt the civic authorities to close the dog park entirely. For example, a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is adjacent to a dog park commissioned a study of the bacteria in rainwater flowing down from the dog park, through the streets and into the public storm drains. The levels of harmful bacteria went off the charts. As a result, the neighborhood is exerting pressure on City Hall to close or restrict the dog park.
- Some dogs are inappropriate for a dog park. One of the most reported problems is that irresponsible dog owners bring the wrong dogs to dog parks. Unneutered male dogs and other aggressive dogs may prompt dog fights, with people and dogs being bitten. Overly aggressive, overly assertive, overly unruly, and undersocialized dogs to not belong in a dog park. Similarly, puppies and fearful dogs can be dangerous, because they might fight or bite as a fear reaction. When dogs fight in a dog park, people sometimes get bitten, and there may follow an altercation between the responsible owner and the irresponsible one.
- Injuries to people. There currently are no reported legal opinions about injuries to people that occur in dog parks, but some conclusions are possible. People who suffer bodily injuries or injuries to their dogs have most of the usual rights in dog parks that they have outside such places. Leash-optional parks are not zones of immunity for irresponsible dog owners and dangerous dogs. Basically, leash-optional dog parks merely are places where the city's leash laws do not apply. They are not, however, Wild West frontier towns where dogs can fight it out and attack people without fear of the Sheriff!
- Ambiguous waiver of rights / assumption of risk. Dog owners should carefully read the signs that are posted around dog parks. Warning signs might result in a waiver of rights or an assumption of risk. One of the problems here is exactly what risks are being assumed. For example, a sign that says Use the park at your own risk means what? Can such a sign deprive you of the right to be free of danger from a dog that was previously declared dangerous? Exactly which risks are you agreeing to accept? There have been no reported legal opinions about the signs at dog parks. (See the discussion below regarding Assumption of the Risk.)
- Inappropriate location of parks. Some city councils have placed dog parks next to playgrounds. Because it is foreseeable that dogs in dog parks might become over-excited and aggressive, parents have expressed the fear that that the placement of dog parks near playgrounds poses an unacceptable and unreasonable risk to the children in the playgrounds. Again, there have been no cases and therefore no precedents on the placement of dog parks.
- Canine professionals. There is a controversy about the appropriateness of allowing canine professionals to use dog parks. A dog walking service that brings in 10 dogs at a time, and uses the park 8 hours per day, might be seen as misusing the dog park. Some parks limit the number of dogs, and others require canine professionals to pay fees to use the parks.
Canine professionals need to respect the rights of ordinary dog owners in dog parks, or risk being banned from these parks.
If your dog is injured or killed in a dog park, the rest of this section will guide you as to your legal rights. For more specific advice, and pre-written legal letters and forms to help you get compensation, see When a Dog Is Injured Or Killed. To find dog parks, see the Links page of this web site.