Rover might be your best friend — but do you really know how he’s affecting your favorite park and its wildlife when you let him off leash there?
Trick question — because nobody really does. Even though dogs-in-parks research has become a hot topic over the last decade, a recent Environmental Management study reviewing 133 such studies finds we still have big knowledge gaps about what free-roaming dogs mean for the ecology of open spaces. Even though some park managers regard dogs as “a major management challenge,” say the authors.
What we do know: Dogs can kill park wildlife directly through predatory action, disrupt normal wildlife behavior and transmit disease to them (as well as humans). No surprise: These bad things happen more frequently when dogs are running loose. (Studies also show many dog owners exhibit “low compliance” with park leashing regulations.) Another non-surprise: Dog owners and non-dog owners usually disagree on restricting dog activity in parks.
Where we need more info, say the authors, is in management-relevant areas like: what else dogs mean for park ecologies; how dogs are being managed effectively in parks (and what’s driving those decisions); behavior differences between dogs in developed- vs. developing-country parks; and why dogs vector more disease in some countries (e.g., Turkey) than others (e.g., Australia).
“Recreation with dogs is a major reason many people visit parks,” says The Nature Conservancy’s James Fitzsimons, who is a study coauthor. “So managing parks that allow dogs is going to require much better understanding of these questions.”