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Dogs in the Park

Dogs are welcome in Fairfax County parks.
However, there are guidelines for dogs in the parks, just as there are for people. Since dogs don't know about the rules, guess who's in charge?

Dogs in TrainingDOG IMPACTS

Poop, safety, wildlife and leashes are the big dogs-in-the-parks issues, and they drive the reasons behind the rules.

It starts with the impact dogs have in parks. That impact is "not so big in heavily urban areas," according to Park Authority Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch Manager Charles Smith, but he's quick to point out that even leashed dogs have "a direct impact on wildlife species" within 300 feet of any trail. Off-leash dogs increase the area of impact.

Dogs have scent, including those of urine and feces. In nature's point of view, dogs are predators, even the ubiquitous, cuddly, furry white ones in suburbia. If wild animals smell a dog, they smell a predator and they change their movements in response. If they don't adapt, the impact of the dog can be fatal.

"We've found animals that we believe were killed by domestic dogs off-leash," Smith says.

Dogs that are off-leash may approach people. Although the owner may think the dog is tame around folks, pets can strike out at a stranger. Numerous media reports attest to that. Perhaps the dog feels it is protecting its owner, or perhaps the victim has not had a dog as a pet and does not know how to relate to them. The person being approached may not know the dog's temperament, and that could be an uncomfortable, even fearful moment for an adult or a child. Smith asks dog owners who don't use leashes, "Do you have the right to affect that person's park experience?" He points out that a dog running free has a "direct impact on every other park patron."


There are dangers to dogs in county parks, as well. Park Authority personnel remember a tragic story of a local man who pulled into a parking lot and let his dog run free into woods out of his sight. A short time later, the dog returned foaming at the mouth. It died due to a copperhead bite.

Dogs chasing geese can get into trouble. Geese may lead them out into a lake, far from shore.

This past March, a resident let his 65-pound dog run free in the woods at Burke Lake Park. The dog returned to the owner with a coyote in chase, and the coyote did not leave until the dog owner waved his arms and yelled at it (the right thing to do, by the way, if you see a coyote.)


Unleashed animals can disturb people and harm or kill wildlife. A dog can flush birds, small mammals or snakes. Cats catch and kill birds. Once you let a dog free of its leash, natural instincts can take over and you're not in charge, especially if the animal goes out of sight. Animals off-leash have an increased chance of becoming lost, running into traffic, burrowing into poison ivy or bringing home ticks.

Dogs at playSCOOP THE POOP

An animal off-leash can defecate wherever it wants. The park experience diminishes if a hiker or a parent has to watch out for dog poop. Cleaning up after a pet is the law, common courtesy and a safety issue. Animal feces can spread disease to people or other animals. Feces wash into waterways, spread bacteria, contaminate creeks, add nutrients that encourage weed and algae growth, and can turn clear water cloudy or green. If water quality drops, so may the numbers of fish and invertebrate life forms in the water. All it takes to prevent those problems is a scoop or a plastic bag and a couple of seconds of time. Drop the bag in the trash.


So bring your pet to the parks. Several have off-leash areas where you can let your dog run free. There's a video about dog camps on the Park Authority web home page. Parks are a great place to spend time together, and your dog will love the smells. All we ask is that you remember that you share the park with others.

There's more information in Section 41.1-2-4 in the county Municode, in the Park Authority's brochure Pets in Parks, available online and at park facilities with brochure displays.

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