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Can you go to a dog park without a dog?

Maybe.

Like many city-dwellers in their 20s, I don’t have a dog. Caring for a pup is expensive, time-consuming, and requires a level of responsibility I don’t trust myself to maintain at this point in my life. Despite these real-life barriers, though, I sometimes need to pet a dog. Whether I’m going through a tough time or have just been spending too much time looking at photos from the Dogist, nothing compares to the soul-cleansing action of scratching a mutt behind the ears.

Now that it’s summer in Chicago, the dogs are out and about on every corner. But where better to meet new hounds than a government-sanctioned canine hangout zone: The Dog Park?

Chicago’s inaugural dog park was Wiggly Field, situated at 2645 N. Sheffield Avenue in Lincoln Park. The park (which, to be clear, is simply a pun and not an actual field) began as an “experiment” by the Chicago Park District in 1995. It wasn’t met with universal applause; neighbors complained about the smell and the noise, even declaring its existence proof that the city cares more about dogs than children.

Today, we’ve got a whole slew of pooch zones, located mostly on the North Side, including Montrose Dog Beach, Grant Park Bark, the Hamlin Park Dog, and upwards of 18 additional official spaces.

This is to say, dog parks are made for dogs and their owners. But what about me? Is it socially acceptable for me, a dog-less dog enthusiast, to hang out at a dog park just to pet dogs? I made it my mission to investigate this highly pertinent matter.

Research and Findings

For the sake of investigative journalism, I spent time at a dog park. At Wiggly Field, I met a delightful Jack Russell terrier named Benny, watched a Newfoundland tenderly paw a little white froofy something, and overall had my spirits raised an estimated 90 percent. During my stay, my emotions ranged from feeling awkward to utterly delighted, but ultimately, I felt like I was stepping into a place that was not meant for me.

Through anecdotal evidence, I found that folks are either completely indifferent to this question—or adamantly against dogless folks at dog parks. No owners are exactly psyched to see the canine-less in this space; at best, they don’t really care. And the naysayers are a quite a passionate bunch. Maggie, the 28-year-old Old Towner and mother of goldendoodle Quincy (alias “Q”), told me, “Nope! That is weird... I’m pretty dog crazy and I would never consider going in to chill without having a dog with me.”

Analysis

Some dog owners feel you have to earn the right to soak up dog culture. The 6 a.m. walks, paying for kennel stays, scary late-night emergency vet visits where you’re told “Your Chihuahua ate a bunch of garbage and now he’s puking, he’ll be fine”—it’s all worth it, because you get to be a dog owner. Not only do you get to love your four-legged friend, you get access to the community of dogs and dog people, too. So, a non-pet owner to soak in all that puppy love at the dog park without having to handle piles of poop twice a day feels, to some, like having your kibble and eating it, too.

Conclusions

Yes, it’s weird to go to a dog park if you don’t have a dog. But assuming it’s a public space in a public park, hanging there dogless is neither illegal nor outright wrong. It just might weird out a few dog owners. You can exist dogless in off-leash zones so long as you know you’re guest in this space and act accordingly. Dog parks were created for canines and their owners, not as a community petting zoo. Sit on a bench and wait for dogs to come to you. Don’t expect any of them to want anything to do with you (though, they probably will, as dogs are perfect angels). And, of course, don’t overstay your welcome; 30 minutes is more than enough time for you to get your dog fix in.

Generally speaking, the larger the park, the more acceptable for you to be there without a dog. You’re more likely to draw weird looks in the postage stamp-sized Wicker Friendly Dog Area—an enclosed zone in Wicker Park—than you would at, say, Montrose Beach. Even tougher to pull off is nosing your way into a small dog area within a dog park, as the Logan Square Dog Park, Wiggly Field, and the Loop’s D’Angelo Dog Park all boast. Given its expanse and the business of the lakefront in the summertime, a casual stop-by at the Montrose Dog Beach is an acceptable place for the novice dog-viewer.

On that note, the dog-to-visitor ratio also matters. I’d recommend not going inside a dog park unless there are at least eight dogs already in there, so as not to draw too much attention to yourself. And if you’re worried about coming off as a loner, bring a buddy along.

Finally, be prepared to explain yourself. The first question most humans ask each other at dog parks is, “Which one is yours?” If you can’t look someone in the eye and say, “I don’t have a dog, I’m just here to look at yours—and maybe, if I’m lucky, get to throw a slobber-covered tennis ball,” you probably don’t have what it takes to hang out at a dog park. Own it.

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All that said, there are plenty of ways to get your pooch fix in Chicago without feeling like you’re invading pet owners’ personal space. Try going to a regular park early in the morning or in the evening; the 606 and the lakefront path are always bustling dog-sighting zones. Or even better, have a drink while you’re dog-watching at dog-friendly bars like Parson’s, Begyle Brewing Company, and dozens more.

Check in with PAWS and the Anti-Cruelty Society, which regularly host adoption events—if you’re strong enough to attend without bringing a new friend home. Both organizations also offer volunteer programs which include working with animals, helping with outreach, youth and family opportunities, and more.

Ultimately, a dog park is just like any other public space, like the beach or the L or Grant Park. It’s an amenity we share with our community, and in stepping into that space, we’re complying to a set of social rules. For the dogless, consider yourself a tourist in a dog park, and engage as you would (or should) in a new country or city or even unfamiliar part of town: Don’t take up too much space, don’t make it about you, and pet only when lovingly approached. If you can swing that at a dog park, you can swing it lots of other places in the world, too.

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