Pet Tales: Don't bring little kids to dog parks

When dog lovers yearned for parks where their pets could legally run free in fenced areas, elected officials gave them what they wanted. There are seven dog parks in Pittsburgh and one in each of the four parks operated by Allegheny County. 

Then-Pittsburgh Councilman Bob O’Connor was apparently the first politician to step up in 1998, advocating for what he called “off-leash exercise areas” in city parks. The city’s first dog park opened in 2000 in Frick Park in Squirrel Hill. Over the next 10 years, Allegheny County opened dog parks in South Park, North Park, Hartwood Acres and White Oak Park.

A number of suburban municipalities have followed suit. There’s no single central list of all of them, although internet sites such as publish lists of what they say are the best dog parks in Allegheny County. The newest, in Forest Hills, opened in May. It was financed with borough tax dollars, state money and more than $15,000 collected by the Friends of the Forest Hills Dog Park.

Educating people is a priority for people who are paid to train dogs. Maribeth Hook of Point Breeze, a trainer at Keystone Canine Training Club in Baldwin Borough, said her favorite parks for her own dogs include the city’s Bernard Dog Run in Lawrenceville and Riverview Park in Perry North.

When Bellevue Dog Woods opened in the North Hills in 2012, the posted rules raised a lot of eyebrows — and hackles, including these: no children under 12 years old, no food or treats for dogs or people, and no dog toys permitted.

“We researched dog parks nationally,” said Connie Rankin, publisher of The Citizen newspaper in Bellevue and one of six board members who oversee the park. “These rules weren’t new.”

All pertained to safety. Small children could be knocked down by big dogs running free. Food could start a food fight among the dogs. Dogs could become aggressive if the tennis balls and retrieving toys thrown by their owners were picked up by other dogs, Ms. Rankin said.

Bellevue Dog Woods is one of the best local dog parks, according to, with nearly 1 acre of running room and a swimming pond that is regularly tested and treated for bacteria. The park land is owned by Bellevue but located in Ross.

“There will always be incidents, and there will always be rule-breakers,” Ms. Rankin said. “But the regulars monitor and report back to us, and this summer we installed video cameras.”

After repeated reports of two dogs behaving aggressively, the owner was identified with the help of the cameras. The board has obtained a behaviorist who will evaluate the dogs and talk to the owner, Ms. Rankin said.

Dog trainer Penny Layne of Manor, Westmoreland County, agrees with the Bellevue Dog Woods rules. Education is a large part of what she does in her business. 

Owners at dog parks have to practice “active supervision” of their dogs the entire time they are in the park, she said. “That means no texting, no reading books” and no socializing with the other people while dogs are running around.

Toys, treats and food can start dog fights, and “half of all children under 12 have been bitten by a dog,” Ms. Layne noted.

Intact dogs — unspayed females and unneutered males — are more likely to spark a fight, she said, which is why intact dogs are banned at most dog parks. 

Ms. Layne and other dog trainers teach people to read the body language of dogs. Spotting the early warning signs of fear or aggression can stop a dog fight before it starts. At dog parks it’s important for people to “know when to leave,” she said. 

“If your dog’s tail is down and it’s cowering between your legs or under a bench, the dog is fearful and unhappy and it’s time to go home. If your dog is getting bossy or aggressive with the other dogs, take him or her home. 

Ms. Layne has two rather innovative tips for dog park safety:

• Every dog owner should have a whistle — a loud one that everyone can hear, not those silent whistles only dogs can hear. If a dog fight starts, blow the whistle loud and long. The dogs will be momentarily distracted, stop the attack and look for the source of the noise. Then call your dog, which brings up a related tip: Every dog should be trained to obey the recall command.

• Every dog park should have a fire extinguisher on site. Although there have been no local reports of a pack attack involving multiple dogs, it’s Ms. Layne’s worst fear. A fire extinguisher is the fastest and safest way to break up the fight, she said.

In her dog training business, Ms. Layne works with police and other first responders, teaching them how to read canine body language and how to handle dogs involved in fights or attacks. First responders have fire extinguishers in their vehicles, and she has urged them to use them.

City Councilman Corey O’Connor, who chairs the urban recreation committee, said dog parks “are very popular with dog owners who want dogs to run free. We get a lot of feedback” — both positive and negative.

Dog parks are a bit of a family tradition; Corey is the son of Bob, who served on city council for 11 years and was mayor for nearly eight months in 2006 when he died of cancer.

Complaints are often about people who aren’t following the posted rules, Mr. O’Connor said, including these:

• Owners must always keep their dogs in sight.

• Owners are required to have voice control over their dogs.

• Owners are required to remove all waste.

Social media abounds with accounts of people who have had unpleasant experiences at dog parks, including pets attacked and injured.

Mr. O’Connor said he can recall a half-dozen reports of dog attacks in city dog parks, including a puppy that was killed. In November 2014, a 7-month-old cockapoo was killed by a greyhound. A Post-Gazette story quoted a witness who said the small puppy was running off-leash in the area designated for large dogs, and the other owner was not watching the big hound.

“We now have park rangers, not to ticket people but to provide positive reinforcement” of proper behavior in dog parks, Mr. O’Connor said.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064 or on Facebook.