I have spent alot of time at dog parks; not so much with my own dogs but watching and photographing other dogs. I love to watch dog behavior, interactions between dogs and between dogs and humans. Being at a dog park is not a really natural thing for a dog to do. Packs as in wolf packs do not interact with their neighbors but we have now made it a common practice; which I think is a good thing for everyone involved.
Our dog parks here in SoCal are small compared to some of the rolling acreage parks you see in other states. The bigger the better when dog parks are involved, more room to run; a feeling of being able to get away is very important. The smaller the park; the more concentration of dogs which can lead to stress which in turn can lead to aggression. When you pack too many dogs into a park you always hear more conflict.
The best place I've been lately that is labelled as a dog park type setting is the beach. I got there around 9 for a shoot; and there was only a handful of dogs. No fights, no noise; just happy dogs running up and down the beach. It is off season so this is the best time to be there. Believe me it won't look the same July 4th and the stress level will be much higher.
Last week at the dog park; a gentleman came in with his extremely stressed out Golden. She was obviously not happy to be there but was doing the best she could seeing that she was now in the middle of it. Her Dad kept saying to her "it's okay, it's okay." Well it wasn't okay and he should not have put her in this situation.
It is very important that your dog have a good time at the park and by watching the behavior; many dogs have a great time. But if your dog is not one of them, settle for smaller playdates or beach walks. I believe it is extremely important to allow dogs to run off leash, it is the only true exercise for a dog. But if you live somewhere that the dog park is your only option for "off leash" then take is slow if you are just introducing your dog to a park. Less is better when talking about time at the park. Spending too much time at the park leads to tired, cranky dogs.
And like I always say "quit while you are ahead."