Is it okay to take my kids to the dog park? Dog trainer and mum Mel Ritterman responds.

Video by MWN

I feel like this is a big topic for debate and one that I am very passionate about.

So, let me start out by saying, I take my kids to the dog park and I have since they were newborns, but I do it at my own risk and I’m not stupid about it.

Some people are dog people and some people are not. Some of us have kids, and some of us don’t. I am obviously a very big dog person, but I am also a mum, so I am really passionate about this topic and I understand it from both sides.

In the end, we all need to learn to be responsible for our kids and dogs and be respectful of one another. So, today I’m going to share with you some great tips and things to look out for both as parents and dog owners when it comes to dog parks.

Some general tips about dog parks.

An off lead dog park is a place for dogs to run off lead and have fun! They need to have brilliant recall and socialisation skills if you are letting them off lead with other dogs and children around. That is number one to remember here!

Dog parks can be dangerous at any time, even without children there. I have seen plenty of irresponsible dog owners at the parks. So you need to be aware of how the dogs are playing, especially big dogs.

For some reason, despite a dog park being huge, dogs often love to play at your feet. The last thing you want to do is get you or your child in the middle of rough play or a dog fight.

My mother in law very recently got knocked over at a dog park and broke her wrist. Hence why I say, do it, but do it at your own risk.

For those of you who take your dogs to off lead dog parks, ALL the time, here’s some food for thought for you too, I only take Cooper to the dog park a few times a week.

Although you might think that running around off lead is the best way to tire your dog, this isn’t always true! Taking your dog for a long on lead walk is often more mentally and physically stimulating and exhausting for them. Mix it up. It’s better for their bodies to not always be doing that crazy off lead play.

Now, for some specific advice for ‘dog people’.

First Rule: Make sure your dog has brilliant recall if letting them off lead.

The bottom line is, “official” off lead dog rules state that dog owners must have full and total control of their dogs at all times. It’s also wise to only let your dog off lead if they are well socialised around other dogs and people.

Second Rule: Know your dog and what they are like with children. 

I know it totally sucks…. you’re at an off lead dog park with your dog and you’re all having fun and then some children or toddlers turn up, and you’re not quite sure how your dog is going to react. “But I was here first” you might think, or “Why don’t those kids go and play somewhere else”.

This is where a lot of the debate comes in; who’s right is it to be there? In my view, it’s not about who’s right or wrong but more importantly it’s about how we all can enjoy this space safely together.

If you are at all unsure about how your dog is going to react with kids around, your dog gets too excited around kids or your dog doesn’t like children, the safest thing to do is put your dog back on the lead.

I know this sucks, you are in an off lead dog area, however, there are no rules to say that children are not allowed, so you need to be respectful of them.

As a puppy, until the age of about two, Cooper was incredibly excitable around toddlers. He would literally see them in the park and charge for them.

He did it in a totally friendly way, but as a responsible dog owner, I knew this behaviour was not on. Some children are frightened of dogs, especially big dogs and how are they to know that he is friendly when he’s charging at them?

So, when he was little if I saw young kids approaching in the distance, I would immediately put him back on the lead. It didn’t mean we would have to leave the park.

In fact, I knew we wanted to have kids in the near future so I made a big effort to try and use it as an opportunity to socialise him and get him used to young kids. I’d put him on the lead, walk him over to the child, get him to sit and see if the child wanted to pat him.

I’d reward him if he was calm and gentle. By the time we had our own kids, he had thankfully grown out of this.

Sorry to all the parents of fur babies, but they’re just animals. The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss. Post continues after audio.

Third Rule: Know your dog and what they are like with prams.

Some dogs absolutely love prams. Cooper is a big culprit of this one. He has learnt that prams equal food. So again, if he sees one in the distance he will often charge at it. I do the same thing as above.

Now that I know how he’s going to react, if I see a pram in the distance I pop him straight back on the lead and head over the pram. This way I can let him have a controlled sniff, I check there’s no food, let the parents know he loves prams, he just associates them with food and that he’s friendly.

Plus, we have had our pram peed on a few times. So not only do you need to keep an eye on your dog stealing food and toys from prams but also and to make sure they don’t pee on them, GROSS!

Fourth Rule: If you have an anxious or aggressive dog, always avoid the risk.

If you know that your dog can be anxious and/or aggressive around children, be smart about it, don’t put your dog under that stress or a child at risk, make a judgement call.

If the child is giving the dog space, maybe just warn the parents. But if the children are getting too close, put your dog back on the lead and head off, it’s not worth the risk.

I also have some advice for ‘kid people’ bringing their children to dog parks.

First Rule: Be aware of on and off lead areas in the park and be respectful that certain areas are designed for off lead dog play.


If you know you or your children are not dog people or don’t feel comfortable with dogs coming up to you, then please make sure you keep an eye out for signs for off lead spots in a park.

Please respect that there aren’t many places for dogs to run off lead and have fun, but there are plenty of places that you can take your children where you won’t be bothered by dogs.

If you’re a parent who doesn’t have a dog, please keep that in mind when getting angry at a dog owner whose dog comes up to say hello (yes, I have seen this happen plenty of times).

Second Rule: Scope it out first.

I usually walk Cooper and the kids to the park, so the kids are in the pram. Before I let them out of the pram at the park, we always scope out the dogs first.

If there are too many, my kids stay in the pram. Especially if there are lots of big ones playing quite rough. If there are dogs I don’t know, and I’m at a smallish park, I’ll often ask owners if their dogs are happy and friendly around children before I let the kids out.

Third Rule: Teach your children to ask before approaching and patting another dog.

My kids are obsessed with dogs (gee I wonder where they got that from?)

Because of this, it’s a big thing for me to have to educate them not to run up to every dog and pat them.

Not all dogs are as friendly and patient as Cooper. I have taught them that you can’t just pat any dog, you always have to ask. This is very important, so if you haven’t already taught your child this, please get onto it!

Fourth Rule: Picnics are not designed to be had in off lead area.

If you’re at a big park, where there are on and off leash areas, and you want to have a picnic, do it in the on leash area.

And if you do decide to setup a picnic in the middle of an off lead dog area, don’t be upset if a dog comes and steals your food! Yes, they are meant to have perfect recall, but in the end of the day, they are dogs!

Lots of dogs are just totally food driven. I’m embarrassed to say, Cooper has done this before. He even bolted from the off lead area into the on lead area where a responsible family was having a nice picnic. It was so embarrassing.

So now I’m on high alert for any park picnics, even if I see one in the distance I just put Cooper straight back on the lead. I guess this is where being understanding and responsible for your dog works both ways.

Always better to be safe than sorry. But it does always annoy me if a picnic is set up right in the middle of the off leash area, and there’s an on lead picnic area in the distance.

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Fifth Rule: Make sure your child does not have food.

If you are comfortable with your kids playing in an off lead area and they are good with dogs, please try and not let them bring food.

Always try and limit any risk. Just like what I said above, this is at your own risk based on lots of dogs being so food driven.

But please if your child has to eat at the dog park, please make sure they don’t have sultanas, grapes, chocolate, etc., things that can be dangerous for dogs, just in case.

Sixth Rule: Best not to change your child’s nappy in the middle of an off lead dog park.

Yes, this has happened before and the mother got upset when all the dogs swarmed around the baby.

Even just setting up a mat in the middle of the off lead area for your baby to lie on, is not ideal if you don’t want your baby getting trampled on. Just be smart and be careful!

And finally…

I can see and understand both sides! I am a mum with a dog and I want my kids to come with me to the dog park, they love it, Cooper loves it and so do I. However, we all need to be mindful.

Not all dogs love kids and not all kids love dogs. Be clever about it.

Always have an eye on your children and your dog. If you’re at all doubtful about your kids or your dog then don’t take the risk, pop the kids back in the pram or put your dog back on the lead. Be respectful of others and let’s all try to just have some fun!

You can read more from Mel Ritterman at her blog or follow her on Instagram or Facebook. 

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