Bringing Toys to the Dog Park – A Good or Bad Idea?

I used to think that taking toys to the dog park was just a recipe for trouble.

I am no longer quite so definitive or absolute on that idea.

I mean, sure, you may run into that super-possessive or obsessed dog that could start a fight if it doesn’t know how to share toys, but I’d say that realistically that’s a small minority of dogs, and I’d like to hope owners of those dogs would have enough foresight to avoid the park in the first place. (Rational self reminder: you know what they say about common sense.…)

But recent trips to the dog park over the holidays have really made me wonder if that no-toy policy is maybe a bit too rigid?

There were tonnes of people playing fetch with their dogs and I saw no such melee.

In fact, maybe toys can be a good thing.

Toys sure are a great distraction – a good way to get a dog into a socializing environment where other dogs aren’t the only things to focus on.

Playing fetch also keeps dogs moving – quickly and at great distances. This way, large, tight groups of dogs and people don’t congregate in one specific spot in the park; those always make me nervous.

And it’s a great way to provide exercise and play, with a little bit of structure, rather than just letting dogs run amok at the park and not interact with them.


Way, way back: Practicing fetch with puppy Moses. (Forgive the ridiculous outfit – all fashion rules are forgotten during dry suit diving surface intervals.)

Granted, this won’t change whether or not I bring toys to the park.

I will continue not to.

Neither Moses nor Alma is a reliable enough retriever for my frugal self to put dog toy investments at risk.

Bonus puppy Moses photo from the archives - same day as the above, curled up with our scuba gear

Bonus puppy Moses photo from the archives – same day as the above, curled up with our scuba gear

Moses won’t fetch anything that is thrown particularly far away. He won’t even budge. He’ll just look at you, his expression saying “that was silly – you had it right here and now it’s WAY over there – what are you planning to do about that?”

A rare Moses retrieve

A rare Moses retrieve with Alma bouncing in the background

And if you lob it short enough that Moses is motivated to fetch, it’s just once and then he wants to find some snow (winter) or shade (summer) and gnaw on whatever it is that you threw. Or he’s happy to play tug with you. But fetch is not his game.

Moses, frisbee-gnawing

Moses, frisbee-gnawing

Alma is similarly unreliable. She likes to run and will occasionally fetch, but her philosophy is very grass-is-greener.

If another dog is there providing competition for ball or frisbee, she’ll fetch with approximately 90% consistency. The other 10% of the time she’ll fetch and then drop the object far away from where she got it, but also far away from the other dogs and whoever discharged it.

If she’s alone (or with Moses), there’s no real competition for her, and after a handful of throws she’s done with retrieving. She may still run to the frisbee, but then sniff it and walk away nonchalantly. Then, when you go pick it up, she feigns interest again just up until you throw it again. I think this is her way of getting us to fetch.

Alma returning a big stick - both Newfs' successful fetching rates increase drastically if water is involved

Alma returning a big stick – both Newfs’ successful fetching rates increase drastically if water is involved

Needless to say, I won’t bother carting toys – toys that I’m likely to end up fetching myself – to the dog park.

If on the move, Moses likes to carry the frisbee

Besides, I see the dog park as valuable socialization time and training time – the dogs get to meet and play with other dogs and we all get to work on our obedience skills in a high-distraction environment.

But there are still lots of people who bring toys to the park, and that’s maybe perfectly okay if the dog – and the dog’s human – is good about it.

I say human because I’ve come to realize that maybe dogs aren’t the real issue I should be concerned about when it comes to toys and parks.

Maybe it’s the people.

This became vastly evident when we were looking after Crosby and I took her to the park.

Crosby LOVES fetch!

She will happily fetch each and every time you throw something. She brings the ball right back and patiently waits for you to throw it again. And if another dog beats her to it, she hurries back to politely wait for the next throw.

"Throw it again!" - Crosby

“Throw it again!” – Crosby

The thing with Crosby is… very infrequently do dogs beat her to it.

That canine is quick!

She can overtake labs and collies from behind to make first contact. For a Newf owner, this speed is bewildering and impressive.

Crosby beats the competition

Crosby beats the competition

So this means that when another owner throws something for their dog, even if Crosby is late on the draw, she can get that ball first and very likely will.

Of course, not being familiar with the other owner who threw it, she takes the toy and runs – towards a familiar human – to have it tossed again. In other words – she is a perceived Ball Thief.

This can make some people irrational. “Your dog stole my ball!” “ Your dog retrieved our ball!”

Like some malicious intent is read into a dog’s natural inclination to chase and capture a fast-moving object.

It’s bizarre. And wildly off-base.

Even if the protesting isn’t verbal, you can see the frustration in the furrowed brow of the toy-owner as you sheepishly return their stuff.

Like it’s a pain-in-the-ass interruption that ruined their dog park groove.

To that I say two things:

1. Don’t bring toys to the park if you’re unwilling to lose them.

If you bring expensive balls to the park, you need to be prepared to leave without them. Fetch-induced losses happen all the time – balls are often lost in perfectly innocent, non-theft incidents. It’s dog park force majeure – outside of anyone’s control. Besides, I hear from other toy-bringers that there’s a sort of dog-park toy karma: one day you may lose one, the next day you may find two. Like looking for lost balls on the golf course. Someone should track this phenomenon – I’d like to see some statistics.

2. Don’t be an idiot.

Dogs are dogs. Like a squirrel, an in-flight frisbee is irresistible. Even Moses will be interested in an ariel object if it’s headed in his general direction/aimed right at his face (and if you think for a second about giving me the stink-eye because Moses got your toy slobbery, I highly recommend you reconsider that thought or keep it to yourself).

There is no nefarious intent when a dog retrieves a toy that wasn’t thrown “for” them; they have no concept of property ownership. Relax. The other owner will do his/her best to return your item. Just keep in mind a dog with a newly retrieved toy is certainly more likely to play keep-away if all of a sudden there is an unusual increased interest (by both their owner and this new stranger) in them and their loot.

Crosby fetches, with Alma in hot pursuit

Crosby fetches, with Alma in hot pursuit

Perhaps this is the real reason I don’t actually go to the dog park that often – sometimes other dog owners are just nuts.

Now I wonder if this sociological observation is just my own experience.

What’s your policy on bringing toys to the park? Have you lost or gained in personal toy count as a result? Have you seen toy-related tension between dogs and/or humans at the park? Are you a crazy person who gets all bent out of shape because some other dog retrieved the ball intended for your dog?

About ThatJenK
Writing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 90% pictures of my dogs; 10% miscellaneous opinions nobody asked for.

32 Responses to Bringing Toys to the Dog Park – A Good or Bad Idea?

  1. If the dark park is empty, I will take Torrey’s frisbee so can get exercise.Other wise no. I tried that recently and another dog got it and played keep away from everyone, even the owner.

  2. Kate Obrien says:

    We don’t go to the dog park very often and neither of my dogs like fetch (weird for Labs!). But is used to bring toys for our Sally when we took her to the dog park. Of course that was 15 years ago and they were a bit saner and not free-for-alls like they are now. It all comes down to the humans – if they are paying attention, toys can be fine…if the aren’t (too frequently the case) toys can be a recipe for disaster.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Good points. We go to the park infrequently, and I pick our times and locations strategically based on the quality of other owners who seem to attend.

  3. Mr. N likes to chase after dogs that have balls. He doesn’t want the ball, he just likes chase. We’ve had a few incidents where the other dogs get snarky and snap at him or shove him so I try to keep him away from ball playing dogs now… We were at the off-leash park once and there was a woman with a new dog who didn’t want her dog interacting with other dogs. At the off-leash park.

    • Kristine says:

      That drives me crazy! There are plenty of on-leash parks – granted, many people let their dogs off there too – and if your dog can’t handle the chaos of a dog park, you as the owner should make the decision not to go. Dog parks are free for alls, everyone knows that. If your dog doesn’t like strange dogs approaching him, don’t bring him there. Ugh.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Wow! A dog park is not the place to be if you don’t want to interact with dogs! People amaze me.

  4. Nailah Bone says:

    We would take our flying squirrel (a soft Frisbee) to the park on occasion but stopped when dogs kept stealing and trying to destroy it. I wouldn’t mind letting other dogs play with the toy but I did have an issue with them running off with it and trying to tear it to shreds.

    • ThatJenK says:

      If by some stroke of rare luck Moses was able to get another dog’s toy that’s exactly what it would look like he’s doing – heading off to gnaw on the toy! I might know that Moses is famously kind to his toys (still has his very first toy ever and it’s in good shape), but others don’t know that, so I could understand their disapproval. But you know the solution: no toy brought = no toy lost or destroyed. Our nice Kong frisbee mostly stays home for this reason, too.

    • Beverley Harris says:

      I always take 2 balls to the park so I can keep my Aussie moving… she will never bring it right back. I don’t care if another dog takes her ball but I don’t like it if the the dog chews it while the owner is right there. They know it isn’t their ball because they didn’t bring any.
      From now on cheap tennis balls…

  5. Anna says:

    Never been to a dog park with no toy rule… but we haven’t been to one in years anyhow. I used to bring a squeaker cuz ball for Luna to parks, she was taught to drop the toy if I told her to so we could avoid conflicts with the possessive dogs. Eventually we got the toy back. Everyone enjoyed when luna would get the toy because she is a master at enticing a game of chase with the dogs. With the right group it was all fun and dandy, but we did run into quite a few possessive dramatics.

    Overall we stay away from dog parks, my girl is really picky and doesn’t do well with dogs without manners… and clueless owners attached. Some really great looking parks out west, east coast seems to be lacking.

    Oh and Luna often has the mentality of Moses.. too far or too often means I get to go fetch. Wyatt will always pick up her slack and will fetch till you decide to stop.

    • ThatJenK says:

      I haven’t seen any parks with a no toy rule, but that might not be a bad idea. We’re lucky in our city with lots of off leash areas – a few could easily be made no-toy with little consequence, I would think.

  6. 2browndawgs says:

    We don’t go to “dog parks” but we do train in parks all of the time with our bumpers and sometimes ducks, (ssh don’t tell). We have rarely had the issue with other dogs going after the things our dogs were retrieving. Of course we keep an eye out and if it looks like we will have an issue we wait until the other dog has moved on, or we move.

    Chessies can be possessive of their things, but I was really happy to see all three of mine give up their toys when we were playing in the yard the other day. I worry about the two males, but Thunder was fine giving up the toy to the more demanding Freighter. Still I would not put them in that position with dogs they don’t know and we watch them like hawks.

    Loved the pictures of baby Moses….oh so cute!

    • ThatJenK says:

      Yeah I don’t think I’d be hitting up the off leash park to try to do some structured competition training – way too much distraction and chance the whole thing just gets interrupted and derailed. Even when doing some obedience stuff (sit, down, stop), I get the 3rd degree from other owners: “What are you doing? Why? How does that work? My dog is pretty good as it is – he doesn’t need training. Come here, Fido! Fido! Fido, come here! COME HERE. FIDO. NOW.” (And then they usually storm off after their dog.)

      • 2browndawgs says:

        LOL Oh we get that too. All of the time. They want to stop and chat and usually we have limited time and the dogs are going nuts waiting for their turn.

        That is why we joined a private training ground last year and will probably do it again this year. Peaceful training.

  7. Mel says:

    I am of both minds on this one. We have been to both kids of parks, but prefer the one without toys. Jasper is sometimes a resource guarder with tennis balls when it comes to other dogs, but he is getting better (with training). I think my bias against the ones that allow toys is that they tend to be the ones with the most irresponsible owners. The ones who don’t watch their dogs and control them when trouble starts. The regular attendees at our dog park are more responsible and we have park sheriffs that patrol the lot.

    I think you make somre great points though.

    • ThatJenK says:

      If I could choose a toy-free park, that would probably be my selection every time.
      Alma used to resource guard when we first adopted her, but she’s come a very long way. If a dog is showing an overly intense interest in a toy, she’s okay with dropping it and not causing an issue.
      Park sherifs are also something I’ve never seen (heard rumours of the odd bylaw officer patrolling the off leash), but would welcome whole-heartedly.

  8. Clowie says:

    Keep-away is much more fun than fetch! I will sometimes fetch once, but I make sure they know I’m doing them a huge favour. Bipeds shouldn’t throw it away if they want it!

  9. Kristine says:

    Agree on all counts, especially with the first rule: don’t bring toys to the dog park you aren’t willing to lose. That’s just dumb.

    Shiva is a thief as well. Sometimes I think she finds it more fun to play with another dog’s toy than her own. Since she doesn’t fetch very well her stolen balls and discs often get lost in trees, mud, and lakes. I refuse to feel bad about this. Okay, that’s not true. I do feel bad but I shouldn’t. This is a dog park. A dog park for dogs who do dog-like things.

    I am not a fan of toys at dog parks for this reason. Because Shiva likes to steal and there are some dogs out there who don’t take kindly to her swiping, she has been involved in an incident or five over the resource. Granted, this can happen even without the toy as another dog has freaked out at her over a stick she swiped, but I like to minimize the possibilities. While Shiva isn’t a resource guarder, she will never back down from a fight.

    Great topic, by the way!

    • ThatJenK says:

      Alma and Shiva definitely have that in common: refuses to back down from a fight! It’s my greatest anxiety with her, because even though I can be pretty sure she won’t start anything, I know she’ll try to finish anything started by another dog – and it’s the other dogs who are the unknown factor. A reason my trips to the park with Alma are incredibly infrequent – my stress isn’t a good element to add to the situation.

  10. I have not given a lot of thought to bringing toys to a dog park or not but that is because Chester and Gretel aren’t interested. I have seen some dogs become “ball thieves” but never seen anyone on the receiving end of the thief get up in arms about it….although they may not be particularly thrilled. One I am conflicted about is bringing dog treats to parks. Many of our off-leash dog parks prohibit food. I totally understand people food. However, I am not one to believe that your dog should be 1000% predictable and calm around other dogs to bring your dog to the dog park. Gretel is good 95% of the time but still has some anxiety issues. For the 5% of the time that she freaks out on another dog, I need a treat to get her attention again (she is VERY food motivated). I understand the thought that bringing dog treats could cause a skirmish among “stranger” dogs if they are also very food motivated but I’ve never had an issue beyond the occasional moocher (and I ALWAYS ask the owner if they dog can have a treat before I give it to them). Generally I am an obeyer of rules but I break that one often.

  11. Toy or no toys is similar to the dog park or no dog park question. It can go badly or well and it’s important to be alert to what’s happening with your dog.

    Our dog park has toys laying around–mostly tennis balls and a few frisbees. But Honey can play fetch anywhere. She can only chase other dogs at the dog park.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Yeah I think Moses’ favourite part of the park is the ability to go pee on anything and everything – a luxury he doesn’t completely get on an on-leash walk.

      You make an excellent point – everything about the off leash park boils down to acknowledged and accepted risk.

  12. lexy3587 says:

    Gwynn is pretty much like your guys – “oh look… you threw that thing all the way over there… you should, like, go and get it or somethign? i’ll come with!”. Except when it comes to a game of fetch anohter dog is in the midst of playing. Then he’s interested. I don’t mind other dog owners bringing their toys to the park – it gets Gwynn running, and he’s got no problem bringing the toy back – though I do feel a bit frustrated at the people who dislike having another dog join fetch. your dog runs, my dog runs… sometimes your dog doesn’t get the ball. meh.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Now that I think about it, maybe Moses keeps/carries the frisbee to prevent me from throwing it again. He must think I have some sort of awful arm spasm or something!

  13. Despite my experience at dog parks, I do believe toys should be allowed and those of us with dogs who can’t share should find other places to take our dogs. I have.

    My dog is toy possessive, but he’s never hurt another dog. He has been hurt, enough to warrant a vet visit. That sucked.

    As you stated, it’s so important for us to know our dogs and to assess the situation. We no longer go to the dog park, but when I take our dogs on trails, I go the opposite direction of the families playing fetch, because I know my dogs. 🙂

  14. Pingback: Treats at the Dog Park? | Back Alley Soapbox

  15. Hey Guys

    I don’t bring my toys to the park as I’m really not into the whole fetch thing! Unlike my buddy Alfie, he’s obsessed with the game, but it worked out well, as he would chase the ball and I would chase him, now that game I love! 🙂

    I hope you’re having a fun day,

    Your pal Snoopy 🙂

  16. Sherrie says:

    I have a young GS that is obsessed with anything that is thrown. Unfortunately she is one that has possessive aggression tendencies. I watch her body language closely and will tell people who are throwing toys that she is obsessed. Some are smart and pick up the toy until there’s distance between us. Others, not so much. They will throw the ball right in front of her. If she gets it first she will become possessive and has started fights when other dogs try to get the ball back.
    Doing that is irresponsible dog ownership as well. That’s like putting 50 kids in a park with one soccer ball for them to share. There will be fights there too.
    Just as much as dog owners need to be aware of their dogs behavior, NO DOG OWNERS SHOULD THINK EVERY DOG IS FRIENDLY ALL THE TIME. They’re dogs, they can be unpredictable and they may fight. I believe there should some parks in every city that ban such toys. There are more breeds than not that have high prey drives. Bringing toys to the park is asking for trouble.

  17. Michelle Koch says:

    My dog enjoys fetch, but she will defer to all ball thieves rather than engage in confrontation. Then she looks to me to throw her another ball, but first I have to go in search of the ball that the other dog dropped in exchange for my dog’s ball. Then, as soon as I find it, that other dog is right there, ready for me to throw it again, having dropped my dog’s ball somewhere else. This is irritating because I came to play fetch with MY DOG, not someone else’s. Now I’ve started taking TWO balls, just to serve as a decoy for the other dog, so my dog can actually get her ball while the thief dog is busy going after the decoy ball. I juggle the three balls in this manner while the other owner is oblivious, busy visiting with other humans. I’ve started avoiding the park when that dog is there so my dog can fetch in peace.

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