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Parks Gone to the Dogs

Planning & Programming a Park for Pooches

By Dave Ramont

Even the staunchest homebodies occasionally like to get out and socialize—visit the local coffeehouse or watering hole, bump into old acquaintances or just simply be around other people. Well, your dog feels the same way; they would love to get out, see some old pals and have a sniff around. Lucky for Rover, there's probably an off-leash dog park nearby, as they're now the fastest growing type of park—expanding by 89 percent since 2007. Dog ownership is growing across all demographics, with well over 70 million dogs in the United States. So let's see how the experts weigh in when it comes to designing, opening and maintaining a successful dog park.

What's On Site?

Susyn Stecchi, founder of DogParks USA, advises and assists municipalities and private entities in developing dog parks. She explained that "Site selection is the number one make-or-break success factor for a dog park," with most consulting requests pertaining to site rating and selection.

John Sarver, who works in design and development for an Indianapolis-based dog park products and design company, said that other initial considerations when developing a dog park include public facilities such as bathrooms, water supply and drain lines, lighting, sun and shade options, ease of access, and parking. "Traffic and parking need to be considered when planning the flow of people and pets coming to the park and getting out of their cars safely," he said. He also feels it's important to provide some open, off-leash running space for dogs to chase balls and Frisbees, adding that benches provide a place for two-legged visitors to relax while their dog gets some off-leash time in.

Mimi Marler, marketing manager for a manufacturer of site and dog park furnishings based in Red Bud, Ill., and Ines Palacios, director of recreation for the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based parent company, which operates a complete family of brands with the aim of advancing play through research, education and partnerships, agree that it's important to keep the dog owners' comfort in mind, and providing shade and seating areas will enhance their experience and keep them coming back.

Dog ownership is growing across all demographics, with well over 70 million dogs in the United States.

Another consideration they strongly stress is having adequate drainage. "If you're in an area where it rains a lot, your park will be really muddy," they explained. "Leveling the area so that it doesn't have pockets is extremely important." Drainage is also critical if you plan on having a dog wash station or other water features.

They also point out that a common myth is that dog parks need to encompass a large area. "With appropriate design, a small space can go a long way and effectively serve as a perfectly good dog park."

All Around & Under Foot

Next up is choosing proper fencing and surfacing. Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for an Everett, Wash.-based designer and manufacturer of dog-friendly products, said that standard fencing is anywhere from four to six feet in height, with separate double-gated entrance and exits for added security. And, ideally, no 90-degree angles where dogs could possibly get cornered.

"For surfacing, we always recommend grass if maintenance is feasible. If not, synthetic dog park turf—which has anti-microbial materials in both the grass and backing—is a popular solution, as is Woof Fiber, an engineered wood fiber," VandenBerghe said.

Sarver added that the surface where dogs play is of utmost importance, and if it's artificial turf or natural sod, "it requires a water and irrigation system so the surface can stay healthy."

Wood chips made up the original surface at Schuylkill River Park Dog Run in Philadelphia, but their use led to a muddy mess, as well as to the growth of different fungi—including mushrooms—that dogs might eat. Complaints from users led the Parks Department to apply K9 Grass, a turf constructed from soy materials and nylon designed specifically for dogs. The turf addresses a number of concerns regarding other surface materials, including the dust and paw stress from quarry fines and decomposed granite, the flea and pooling problems from pebbles, the mud and fungal problems from mulch and woodchips, and the difficulty growing natural grass in a heavy-use urban park. Staff found that K9 Grass drains well, is durable, easy to clean, cooler than asphalt or cement, and is smooth on dogs' paws.

Can't They All Get Along?

As far as providing separate areas for large and smaller dogs, most agree it's a good idea—if space allows. "Dogs have different playing styles, and keeping them separated by size is imperative to help keep dogs safe, and also helps keep the peace with their guardians," according to VandenBerghe. She said that smaller dogs have a tendency to get underfoot when playing with larger dogs, and for a bigger dog with a strong prey drive, a particularly small canine may trigger that desire.

"Another consideration is to have a dedicated space for shy or elderly dogs who may not want to run, but just meander about and quietly explore their surroundings," she added.


Sarver agreed, suggesting that you plan to have a shaded, soft area for senior dogs to also have a place to be part of the park experience.

Sarver also suggests asking patrons to get a letter from their vet to make sure the dog has a friendly, park-like temper. "It's important to keep the small dogs and large dogs separate, but it's also very important to make sure there are no aggressive dogs in the park, and having the dogs pass a local temperance test might be a good idea." He said that dogs have many different personalities, and some large dogs can be more aggressive to the smaller dogs. "They could do a lot of damage really quick if something got out of control, so it's advisable to keep them separate." He also recommends that owners stay close to their dogs if there are questionable or unfamiliar dogs in the park.

Doggie Playtime

And now (if you're a dog), the fun stuff! Agility equipment is very popular for modern dog parks, with many preconfigured agility courses available, depending on the size of the park. And many of the features are adjustable, including jump bars, hurdles, beams, A-frames and other types of ramps, as well as wait tables, flexible weave poles, hoop jumps and tire jumps. There are agility walks, crawls, tunnels, barrels and teeter-totters. Popular lately are the various nature lines, so dogs can crawl, jump and balance on realistic-looking logs, boulders and stumps. And of course there's the classic fire hydrant, which is "typically the most popular spot in the dog park, creating a fun, social hangout that is super adorable," according to Palacios and Marler.

Have a dedicated space for shy or elderly dogs who may not want to run, but just meander about and quietly explore their surroundings.

"When we're designing the agility areas, we believe it's best to cluster the equipment in a separate area to leave adequate room for running, ball throwing, etc. You also want to ensure safe spacing between each component," VandenBerghe said.

Make sure components are rust-proof and walking surfaces are slip resistant and free of perforations. "Most dogs are not experienced in agility, so making sure the ramps are extra wide with a safe incline and adjustable jump components to accommodate all sizes and abilities is important to us, as it's likely their first introduction to agility," she added.

Sarver explained that "Dogs dissipate most of their body heat through their tongues, so when a dog starts to get hot, it's important for them to have drinking water as it helps keep them cool."

There are many types of water fountains available, servicing both dogs and their humans. VandenBerghe said there are many options to customize the fountains, such as leash hooks, freeze-resistant valves, custom plaques, dog treat bins and hose bibbs. There are also various water spray amenities available, such as fire hydrants that spray a mist from the top or sides by pushing a button, some with adjustable timers.

Dog wash stations are becoming more popular, too. "This is growing immensely—they range from a slab of concrete with a hose and a drain to a fancy wash station with shampoo stations and much more," Palacios and Marler explained, adding that these are great if your pup gets muddy or needs to cool off.

VandenBerghe said multi-function units are popular, where the wash option is integrated into a fountain. And dual wash stations feature a leash hook and a set of metered valves that allow for two users at once.

In areas that have extreme winters, stand-alone dog wash buildings are great, according to Sarver, since they "have heaters and water heaters to make washing the dog comfortable even during winter months. The canopy-style outdoor stations are good, but do need winterizing in areas that require winterizing of water systems." He said these stations can be self-service or offer vending options where the machines accept credit cards and cash/coins. There are even K9 dryers available.

There are also a myriad of benches, tables, shade shelters and signs available. And, of course, pick-up or waste stations—a must at every dog park. "We just launched a new customizable waste station that includes some cutesy and funny signage options, and also a new waste station with hand sanitizer that we think will be really popular," Palacios and Marler said.

Keeping Things Clean

Speaking of cleaning up after pets, some parks are trying new approaches, since pet waste is not only an annoyance, but a health hazard, too. At Central Bark Park in Carmel, Ind., users must become members by paying $10 per month per dog, plus a $40 registration fee, which covers a DNA test. Owners provide two cheek swabs from their pet, which are sent to PooPrints, which manages each dog's genetic profile. If pet waste is discovered at the park, samples are collected and submitted to PooPrints for processing, with pet owners fined accordingly. Since opening in 2015, the park has issued three fines. Matt Whirley, recreation services assistant manager for Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation, said the program has been a huge success—the park is waste-free, and members are very satisfied.

Whirley explained that in the planning stages of the park, they created a detailed operations plan to avoid pitfalls other organizations had experienced. "We gathered national benchmark data from comparable parks agencies. We also completed an analysis of local dog parks in the Indianapolis metropolitan area to gather information on membership fees, ID requirements, park size, rules, amenities, maintenance standards, sponsorships and obstacles they experienced."

Speaking of cleaning up after pets, some parks are trying new approaches, since pet waste is not only an annoyance, but a health hazard, too.

Through this research, they determined they'd open the park to 300 dogs. They initiated an application process and now have a waitlist in place. Each member gets a key fob that gains them access to the park. "We were looking for a balance of serving the community while ensuring park maintenance standards could be met," Whirley said.

Indeed, everyone agreed that maintenance—and clearly posting dog park rules—is critical. "Parks require daily and regular maintenance and cleaning—make this part of the business plan up front," Sarver said.

VandenBerghe explained, "Maintenance tends to be one of the most challenging aspects of managing a dog park. From users who don't pick up after their pets, to maintaining the grass and keeping waste stations well stocked, these problems can often be alleviated by partnering with or developing a dog park committee or off-leash group." She said these folks can make a big difference—acting as park advocates and helping to take some of the load off as far as basic park maintenance. "Posting clear and enforceable dog park rules and/or requiring a tag for entry can also help to keep issues like these to a minimum," she added.

Be People-Friendly, Too

Dogs require exercise—without it they're prone to obesity, joint disease and other health problems. But dog park operators also understand that attracting humans is good for business, and many offer events and activities to do just that. Palacios and Marler offered the Charleston County Dog Park in South Carolina as an example. Every month from May to October, they host a Yappy Hour for a small fee, with live music, beverages and food. They've also held Oktoberfest, Santa Paws and Dog Day Afternoon. Pet Fest offers exhibits, demonstrations, experts and entertainment.

VandenBerghe said they encourage parks to partner with their local humane society or shelter to offer adoption events, with trainers to host dog-training workshops.

Sarver said that regular events such as a Halloween costume contest, cutest pet contest or events that tie into utilizing the agility equipment have proven successful. He also pointed out that other social groups may congregate during regular times, with the dogs becoming familiar with each other and the owners also becoming acquainted. "These parks are great places for both dogs and people to develop friendships," he said.

Besides charging membership fees, there are other creative ways for parks or municipalities to fund their park. Sarver suggests working with local scout troops or schools to help with fundraising, adding that these groups sometimes get involved with servicing the park as well. Other ideas include dog walks, dog washes and bake sales. VandenBerghe said that veterinary clinics or pet stores are often willing to help. "Also, look for dog park companies that offer the ability to customize amenities with park donor or sponsor information," which allows parks to add amenities while offsetting the cost.

Cosmo Dog Park in Gilbert, Arizona features a Brick Memorial, where about 1,400 bricks were installed and available for purchase by users who wanted to memorialize a lost furry friend.

Start Planning

As urban areas are getting denser and green space is becoming scarcer, rooftop dog parks are becoming more popular. More millennials are becoming dog owners, and apartment managers have noticed—using rooftop parks to lure tenants. But Sarver points out that these parks present challenges that need to be professionally planned, including a system for drainage and flushing of the waste. "It's also more difficult to put up a fence system since it has to anchor into the concrete without affecting the integrity of the rooftop waterproofing barriers," he said. Shade and UV light planning are also important considerations.

Airports are another great location for dog parks—for those travelling with pups, according to Palacios and Marler. "We're also seeing more hotels and RV parks catering to their K9 guests," they added.

VandenBerghe mentioned the repurposing of un-utilized spaces, such as the I-5 Colonnade Park in Seattle, located under the freeway and offering a dog park and bike trails. "It's less than ideal for other recreational offerings, but with its steep slopes and protection from the elements, it makes a great dog park," she said.

DogParks USA offers a comprehensive online dog park development training series called Fido University. One thing they strongly recommend is considering ADA requirements when designing your park. "It's important that parks plan for ADA or accessible considerations on the sidewalks, fountains, bathrooms, entrances, parking, surfaces, etc.," Sarver said.

That certainly includes dog parks in military communities, which is a growing trend. VandenBerghe said she really enjoys working on the military projects. "My husband served and dogs are so important to service members and their families as they provide a sense of stability," she explained.

Dog parks come with relatively low construction and maintenance costs, and they're truly multigenerational. Their numbers and popularity will continue to grow, and man's best friend thinks that's the cat's meow.



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