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Dog Day Afternoons

Building Your Dog Park, From Start to Finish

By Rick Dandes

Off-leash dog parks in both large cities and small towns are among the most popular neighborhood amenities, and they are one of the fastest-growing segments of public parks, according to an April 2015 report from the Trust for Public Land.

According to TPL's Charlie McCabe, director, Center for City Park Excellence, there are 736 dog parks listed in the 100 biggest cities in America, and that is growing by 40 to 50 a year. But even that doesn't account for the thousands of municipalities, both large and small, that have approved use of public land for dog parks. BringFido.com, a website for travelers looking for dog-friendly destinations, hotels, and yes, areas with dog parks, lists more than 3,000 dog parks in its database, said Lauren Greer, BringFido's social media manager.

Dog parks are in many ways a microcosm of a community, McCabe said, because you usually have a very active community group that is interested in helping to maintain the dog park in an ideal situation. "You need to have a real stakeholder sense in the community amongst both the people that bring their dogs there and, at the same time, a good working relationship with the community's park and recreation department that is responsible for the sites. All this leads to a shared level of experience or a shared level of responsibility between both the community group and the public agency that operates it."

The way dog parks are built often begins with an interested community group coming to the municipality or public agency with the request. "What that should trigger," McCabe said, "is a very public, community-based process in which you have a series of open meetings and a call for nominations to make sure that when you do eventually find a dog park, you are putting it in a place that is going to meet the needs of both dog owners and non-dog owners."

Startups: Perspectives, Large and Small

Three women started the Pilgrim Bark Park in Provincetown, Mass. "We all had the idea that a dog park was long overdue in Provincetown, which is such a dog-friendly town," said Debbie Grabler, president and co-founder, Pilgrim Bark Park. "When we first had the idea, we realized that the complexion of the political system around here was not in our favor. So, we waited until the timing was right politically to approach the town manager.

"What we did first was to get community support," Grabler said. "We had a petition. We went to a lot of the town boards like disability, council on aging, tourism, and let them know we were trying to build a groundswell for a dog park. Once we got enough signatures, we went to one of our town meetings, got on the agenda, and they were amenable to giving us a piece of land."

The dog park exists on one acre of town owned land. It's a partnership with the public, even though the town does nothing but provide the land. Grabler and her group have a user agreement with the town. They are a private, nonprofit entity, totally separate from the recreation department.

"In order to raise money, we became a 501 and the town said, look, we can provide you with this land for the specific designation of a dog park, but we can't give you anything else," Grabler recalled. "They said to please not come back to us and ask for money. Show us that you can raise money, and we did—$10,000. Ten years ago [when the park idea started] the Stanton Foundation was not available for grant money. So, we hit the phones, called up corporations and the wellness foundation, Purina, and got a couple of grants from them. We did naming rights: Wellness bought some benches, and then we did what everybody does—we sold bricks and T-shirts. We worked the room. We were barking for dollars. Endlessly."

Off-leash dog parks in both large cities and small towns are among the most popular neighborhood amenities.

There was less of a startup problem in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Bear Creek Dog Park, named by USA Today as one of the 10 best in America. The dog park is 25 acres, and Bear Creek runs through it. It is a beautiful setting, with Pike's Peak on the horizon.

"The community really embraces dogs," said Kyle Melvin, central district park supervisor. The park exists as part of the community services department with El Paso County. "You hardly run into a person around here who doesn't have a dog," Melvin said. "There was a need for a dog park, a want for it, and El Paso County fulfilled that need and provided the public with this 25-acre enclosed dog park that is the biggest one I know of."

When McCabe, of TPL, worked in Austin, Texas, he observed a joint effort between the parks department and the animal control division at the city, as well as the ASPCA and other groups. "They would say, 'Here is what we know. There are a lot of dogs in one area that may not be walked a lot. Over here is an area where we know we have dog bites. Here is where we pick up a lot of strays. Here is where we know there are a lot of people in multi-family units that don't have a lot of yard or property.' And they figured out how to serve and meet the needs of those groups."

That was really cool, McCabe said, " because we also had animal control groups doing educational efforts about how to do dog training."

The integrated approach between multiple city agencies, as well as community groups can really work well. It takes a lot of time, but it's worth spending that time invested before you get something off the ground.

Crucial to Success

Success requires a public process, suggested McCabe. "Make sure that everybody knows that a dog park is going to be built. The second key element is to make sure that a community group 'adopts' the park, so to speak, and is willing to keep an eye on things. They could just be a couple of people or a large group."

Where McCabe lives, near Boston, " we have a dog group and an off-leash area that is a combination of both the town's recreation department, as well as this community group that maintains it. They have an agreed-to schedule for maintenance and how often the trash gets picked up. They do annual cleanup. Having that community engagement between the group and the city is really good."

Grabler said one of the keys to their success in Provincetown is having two separate sections, one for small dogs, less than 25 pounds, and one general dog section. "Having two separate sections is I think essential in dog parks. Small dogs can go into the general dog section, but big dogs cannot go into the small dog section. We have double entry gates, so if they've never been to the park before, they can sit for a moment before they are unleashed. The double entry also keeps dogs from escaping; unleashed they might cut out and run into the street. A double entry doesn't allow for that."

Grabler tries to get users engaged, to make them ambassadors to the park. "The most important thing is when we educate our users, we hope they can pass that down—making them engaged in the sense that this is your park. We have rules so that we can sweep the hardscapes, pull a weed if they see it. Let them know if there is poop in the park and it's not yours, pick it up. Help us to keep it clean and safe."

A big issue that comes up is in a built-up area that has a lot of professional dog walkers. "You want to establish a limit on the number of dogs an individual can bring into an off-leash area," McCabe said. "Lean on the public agency and the groups like ASPCA, which have standards on how they'd like to see the human-to-dog ratios go. Use that as a way to create your standards."

Stakeholder Engagement

Having a great volunteer base is crucial to success, Melvin said. "We have friend's groups, which is a committee of volunteers. They give ideas and help with annual events, they help fundraise, they help promote the park. We involve the community in what we do. We take their input, we have them help us, we implement their ideas, we put their efforts, their fundraising back into the park."

"From what we see," added Greer, dog parks are most successful when they include shade, water and lots of space. "We have over 3,000 dog parks listed on BringFido and the comments we see most frequently are in regard to the amount of shade available to both dogs and their owners, access to water, whether it be for swimming, cooling off or just drinking, and a nice, clean space to run and play—no mud holes."

The most highly rated dog parks on their site, she said, are also completely fenced in, and often include separate areas for large and small dogs, and seating for their owners. Agility equipment, kiddie pools and other equipment are also huge bonuses.

What Can Go Wrong

If you are planning a pilot program to test the dog park's viability; McCabe suggests doing it in rotating areas. "Here's why: If you have a pilot, if you've created structures on the ground, and shading, it is hard to remove if you decide it is the wrong area."

That's exactly what the folks at Boston Commons, one of the oldest parks in America, had to do. Near the park are very wealthy communities, as well as a lot of universities. You get dogs large and small being walked. "People were bringing their dogs to the Commons and letting them off leash and they were jumping up on people," McCabe recalled. "People got scared. What was done was to develop a set of areas that could be designated as off-leash and they rotated through several areas seasonally. They put up temporary signage."

Meanwhile, not all dogs are suitable for a dog park, added Grabler. "Dogs can be territorial, or they may not have been properly voice-trained. People can come in, let their dog off the leash and immediately the dog runs away from them. The caveats are, know your dog, watch for signs. Not all breeds get along with each other. Know your dog well enough to look for signs of fear or aggression. We encourage people to stay close to their dogs, especially if they have never been to the park before. We have a park etiquette note in one of our kiosks that talks about that. You want your dog to not be in distress."

Make sure your dog park has plenty of trash and waste disposal areas, noted Greer, of BringFido. It should be convenient for visitors to clean up after their dogs. Keep clean dog bowls and fun items, like tennis balls or Frisbees for play in the park.

If the park isn't grassy, she said, use wood chips to avoid potential mud puddles, especially around water spigots. Encourage dog owners to pay attention and interact with their dogs. In signage, ask them to limit cell phone use while at the park.

It is important to have dedicated maintenance staff, Melvin added. "We have 23 restrooms in the park, and we clean those every day. We pick up excess waste. We clean the parking lot, and the creek on a daily basis, seven days a week in the summer months. We are dedicated to keeping the park as clean as it can be. We maintain the amenities meticulously.

"When you have well over 100,000 dogs and people every year as we do," Melvin said, "you need to keep it as clean as you can. It's not easy. But from a maintenance perspective, realizing how many people use it, and you can barely find a piece of trash at our dog park, and that says a lot about my crew, our organization and our volunteers."


Celebrate Your Success: Special Days

Most pet parents will jump at the chance to attend dog-centric events, Greer said. It's a great chance to socialize and meet other dogs and owners within the community, as well as give your pup a day out.

End-of-summer dog days at local pools are always a huge hit, she said. "Most dogs love water, and what better way to let them cool off? Charity walks are another way to get the community involved. If there is an American Cancer Society chapter nearby, their annual Bark for Life events are fun for everyone. You can also host a Mutt Strutt or Dog Days in the Park event.

"Recreation centers are a great place to hold dog classes, or even events like Paint Your Pup Night, if there is a local paint party company. Pet CPR and First Aid classes are also a good idea," Greer said. "Of course, social contests and involvement are important. Ask followers to post photos of their pets enjoying the dog park, hiking local trails and attending park events and use a common hashtag. Dog parents are always excited to share photos of their furkids."

At Bear Creek Park, Melvin said there are a number of special events: "We try to have fun events in the park. We do a costume thing around Halloween, where people dress up their dogs and we have a costume contest. We have a fashion show for dogs, where dogs are walked on a runway."

During the holiday season, Bear Creek offers taking pictures with Santa Claus. "We host several annual events to clean up the park: April Stools Day, where volunteers pick up excess dog waste; we also pick up the trash, clean out the pools. We have another event called Stools and Ghouls, we do that around Halloween and several other cleanup events during the year."

In the future, Melvin said, " we are going to do an event called Woofstock, a community event with family-friendly concerts and things you can do with your dog."

McCabe suggests having a dog adoption day if you are working with an ASPCA or a public shelter. "They are always going to have dogs available, and having days where they can showcase the dogs, like a meet and greet. Dog agility days is a popular program. You can find trainers that do demonstrations. It is usually only a few hundred dollars for someone to come in and do a demonstration and then give a short class." You can also have dog obedience training days in the off-leash area.

"I like the idea of the doggy dips," McCabe said. "More and more areas have water as a feature, especially in the southern United States. One of the first ones was in Billy Bush Park in Houston, where they have two pools and a big open area. It is in western Houston so it has a lot of space to run. It attracts all kinds of dogs, large and small."



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