The State of Public Dog Parks Across The United States

From 2009 to 2020, there was a 40 percent increase in the development of public dog parks. Designated spots for canine exercise have become commonplace in every major city — many pet owners won’t even consider renting an apartment that doesn’t have its own fenced-in pet area.

On the surface, public dog parks sound wonderful. Safe spaces where our dogs can roam freely, interact with their own kind, and come home tired? Sign us up!

In reality, though, these environments are a mixed bag. For years, Sniffspot has been educating about the limitation, drawbacks and dangers around public dog parks. Now Sniffspot has conducted a survey of dog owners across the country to better understand the state of public dog parks.

Here’s what to know.

Survey highlights

  • The common stereotype is that the east and west coasts are the most dog-friendly regions of our country — but survey results show that public dog parks in the coasts are actually the dirtiest and most dangerous in the country.
  • More than 1 in 7 dog owners report their dogs having been attacked in a public dog park!
  • We surveyed more than 1,000 dog owners in the United States.

General concerns with public dog parks

While the popularity of public dog parks has been skyrocketing in the United States, so has the number of professional trainers who caution against their use.

Here are some of the top risks associated with public off-leash spaces.

Irresponsible dog owners

26% of survey respondents reported that they feel other dog owners are irresponsible with their dogs in public. This is a common theme with public dog parks, where often there are a group of owners there with their dogs. It only takes one irresponsible owner to cause issues for other owners at the public dog park. Since public dog parks are open to the public, this limits the controls available there.

Public dog parks create an unnatural social environment

Many owners are drawn to public dog parks because they want to socialize their pets. We’re inundated with messages of the “perfect” friendly dog. Our social media feeds feature viral videos of animal best friends that echo the cutesy movies we loved as children — but they often show a false reality.

The truth is that while dogs are social mammals, it’s typically not natural for them to regularly engage in play with strangers. Dog sociability can be viewed as a sliding scale:

  • Some dogs are truly dog social. This means they genuinely enjoy interaction with almost every dog they meet! We tend to think these dogs are more common than they really are — they’re the ones we most see out and about because they can handle the widest range of environments.
  • Most dogs are dog tolerant or dog selective. They don’t often seek out new friends, but they can comfortably interact with other dogs when needed after a proper introduction process.
  • Some dogs are dog aggressive. They might live with or know a few specific canine friends, but they don’t generally enjoy being around their own species.

Ultimately: It’s perfectly normal for our dogs to not want to play with other pets outside of our families. What’s not normal is putting them into a confined environment with other canines and expecting everyone to get along perfectly.

Public dog parks can cause injuries and illnesses

We were surprised by how dangerous public dog parks actually are: 15% of dog owners report their dog having been attacked at a public dog park! Aside from the obvious injuries and deaths that come from dog attacks, even minor dog attacks can have a long lasting impact on the psyche of the victim, leading to future issues with reactivity.

Aside from actual attacks, there are additional risks. Canines can be mismatched in size or inadvertently break skin while wrestling with untrimmed nails. It’s also impossible to eliminate all infection risk, no matter how hard a city works to keep their parks clean. There’s no way to confirm that every dog entering an off-leash space has been fully vaccinated — and bacterial diseases like leptospirosis often thrive in muddy terrain.

Public dog parks are an important public service

Public dog parks, being free and open, do serve an important community service in cities. If choosing to use a public dog park, a dog owner can do a lot to manage the safety of their dog:

  • Make an honest assessment of the sociability of your dog. Is your dog one of the small portion of dogs that gets along with all dogs?
  • Make sure your dog is up to date on vaccines to protect them against any bugs that may be present in the park
  • Choose an appropriate public dog park. Make sure that it is large enough, fully fenced and free from hazards.
  • Assess the dog park and other owners before entering. Are there any maintenance issues in the park that could be a hazard? Is it overly crowded? Are there owners that are not keeping a close eye on their dog? Are there dogs that could be an issue for your dog or others?
  • Keep a close watch and be an active part of your dog's play.

When things go right at public dog parks, dogs can find benefits there:

  • Biological fulfillment. At their best, public dog parks provide an opportunity to fulfill our dogs’ natural canine instincts (running, sniffing, digging, etc.) without impacting others in shared public spaces. This can be especially valuable if owners don’t have a yard of their own or walking trails nearby.
  • Distraction training. Public dog parks can be an ideal place to practice advanced training, like recalls, around the distractions of other dogs, people, and nature scents.
  • Playtime. While most dogs don’t want to play with strangers, some particularly outgoing canines might enjoy playing with brand-new friends. A small percentage of truly “dog social” dogs are good candidates for public dog parks.
  • Owner connections. Many owners enjoy the human social aspect of the public dog park — and public spaces enable those relationships without the costs commonly associated with formal group training classes or dog sports practices.

Public dog park quality by region

Here are the United States’ regions ranked from worst to best public dog parks based on our survey.

#4: West

The West came in last place for their public dog park amenities.

  • 18% of respondents say their dog has been attacked at a public dog park. This is remarkably high — that’s almost one in five owners who have experienced an altercation in a space designated as a safe exercise area.
  • 17% feel their local public dog parks are unsafe.
  • 20% say they are dirty.
  • 30% say they are crowded.

Unfortunately, other options for dog exercise are limited in the West as well:

  • 29% of respondents say that local dog owners are generally irresponsible, limiting their ability to feel safe out and about.
  • 34% report often being approached by off-leash dogs outside of a public dog park context.
  • 35% report that their dog has been attacked in general.

Within the West, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico had the lowest public dog park safety scores. The Bay Area was a bright spot, however — none of the survey respondents there report feeling unsafe in off-leash parks.

#3: Northeast

The Northeast came in third place for public dog park safety. It scored slightly better than the West on most criteria:

  • 16% of respondents say their dog has been attacked at a public dog park.
  • 14% say their local public dog parks are unsafe.
  • 21% say they are crowded.
  • 29% feel that local dog owners are generally irresponsible.

There’s one exception the Northeast has going for it, though. Only 10% of respondents say they feel their public dog parks are dirty — that’s the cleanest report of every region we surveyed.

#2: South

The South’s public dog parks came in second place on our survey.

  • 13% of respondents say their dog has been attacked at a public dog park.
  • 12% say their local public dog parks are unsafe.
  • 14% say they are dirty.
  • 20% say they are crowded.
  • 26% feel that local dog owners are generally irresponsible.

#1: Midwest

Based on our survey, the Midwest has the best public dog parks.

  • 10% of respondents say their dog has been attacked at a public dog park.
  • 12% say their local public dog parks feel unsafe.
  • 12% say they are dirty — Midwest public dog parks are only seen as slightly less clean than those in the Northeast.
  • 18% say they are crowded.

Unfortunately, 22% of respondents — more than one in five dog owners who completed our survey — feel that local dog owners are generally irresponsible. Despite the better public dog park statistics, this reality can still make it difficult for pets and their people to safely get the exercise they need.

What does this mean for modern dog owners?

In order to accurately weigh the benefits and costs of visiting public dog parks, pet owners should carefully consider:

  • Their own dogs’ sociability
  • The size, shape, and terrain of their local off-leash areas
  • The general dog ownership culture in their regision
  • How much risk they’re willing to take on
  • What they’ll do if something does go wrong on a public dog park visit — are there emergency vets and trusted trainers nearby in case their dog requires some type of rehabilitation?
  • What potentially better options are accessible (private spaces, nearby trail systems, obedience or dog sports classes, and similar)

Ultimately, every owner should make their own decision about whether or not to frequent public dog parks. The more information available, the more thoughtful that decision-making process can be!

Our survey methodology

Sniffspot surveyed more than 1,000 dog owners nationwide about their perceptions of local public dog parks. These dog owners are not Sniffspot users; respondents were sourced using SurveyMonkey Audience.

We asked about their dogs’ sociability, if they’ve ever been attacked by another canine, how often they’re approached outside of public dog parks (like in neighborhoods and other leash-required spaces), and how they feel about public dog park safety and cleanliness overall.

About Sniffspot

Sniffspot’s mission is to make the world a more dog-friendly place. We understand that life in modern human society can be tough for our canine companions — on even a casual walk many pets are assaulted with unfamiliar noises, movements, other dogs, and people.

Public off-leash parks work for some dogs but cause problems for others. We believe every dog deserves the opportunity to have their needs met in a truly safe environment. That’s why we’ve created a community of private spaces for owners to explore.

It’s also why we’re committed to helping owners understand the risks and benefits of any activity we do with our dogs. The more we know before entering a public dog park, the better we can protect our pets.