I do not take my dogs to a dog park. Dogs that have never been introduced are let loose to "play" with each other, with no regard to size, breed and temperament. And dog owners tend to let their guard down because they're in a dog park — when they should do the opposite.
But the following letter from a reader explains better than I could the perils of dog parks, where all things are not equal:
"I got my Chihuahua-Lhasa Apso mix when he was 4 months old. He was my first dog as an adult, and I was very devoted to him. I walked him twice a day, taught him many tricks, including roll over, shake and beg, and took him to the doggy park twice a week.
"I had discovered a new doggy park close to my home, and we'd gone there four times. I took him last week, and within minutes of our arrival, he playfully approached a pit-terrier mix that was lying down with a ball in his mouth. I was about 30 feet away, and their playing quickly turned into a fight. The other dog's owner, who was right next to them, started to hit her dog with a ball catcher, and as I was running over to them, she finally grabbed her dog and pulled him off of mine. He had my dog by the back and was shaking him. We're talking a difference of at least 40 pounds between the two dogs.
"There were no puncture wounds, but he had two swollen masses, golf-ball size, on the side of his back. He bit me for the first time ever when I picked him up, as I'm sure I was unknowingly causing more pain to his wounds. I took him to the emergency vet an hour later, and they diagnosed him as having hernias. I paid for the surgery and said goodbye to my sweet boy, expecting to pick him up at 6 p.m. the next day.
"I got home about 1 a.m. and received a phone call at 5 a.m. reporting that he was in surgery and it was much worse than expected — he had two broken ribs, with damaged intestines, pancreas and kidneys. His chances were 50/50, with two weeks' recovery time minimum. We were talking $5,000 to $10,000 more than what I had already paid. So I opted to put him down.
"I'm just devastated by this and am wondering what I could have done differently to save him. He wasn't neutered, and he would often initiate the playing with big dogs and then back down with yelping because he felt overwhelmed. But he had never gotten into a fight.
"For his daily walks, I would walk him around the park behind my home and let him walk off-leash for about half the walk, as he was really good about staying with me.
"I guess what I'm asking is: If and when I decide to get another dog, should I get him fixed? Should I not take a small dog to a dog park? And was I wrong to let him walk without a leash in a public park? I'm just wondering whether I was too carefree with my little guy. I just wanted him to be a 'dog' and not completely on lockdown all the time. I'm a free spirit myself, and I'm missing him terribly."
My heart goes out to this reader for her sad loss. And in the hopes of preventing similar stories, I offer the following to all readers:
Get your dog fixed as soon as he is old enough.
Always keep your dog on a leash when he's not in your home or in your secured yard.
If you choose to use a dog park, do your homework. Find out whether there has been any aggressive behavior with any dogs there. Read the park rules, and try to find a park that caters to your dog's age, size and temperament. The extra investigation is worth the effort.
Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" © Creators Syndicate, Inc.