Unleashed!

Basic Dog Park Elements & Beyond

By Deborah L. Vence

A dog park is a great environment for dogs to run around freely, get the exercise they need and mingle with other canines. Even dog owners have the chance to socialize with one another, and meet other members of their community.

Thus, the growth in dog parks over the past several years has been massive, in large part, because of the increase in pet ownership. In fact, research shows that there are millions of dog owners in the United States today, with many who consider their dogs as part of the family.

Today, there are more dogs living in U.S. households than children.

"Back in 2000, there were 68 million dogs owned, and as of 2017, it was up to 89.7 million. Recent statistics show 74 million children in the United States (under 18); so, a substantial gap there," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for an Everett, Wash.-based company that specializes in dog parks, and dog park design and products.

She added that she thinks the increase in the number of dog parks is just the beginning. "Folks with pets have historically been underrepresented in a parks system," she said. "Our perspective is that dog parks are parks for people with dogs, and as taxpayers, they appreciate open space to enjoy the outdoors with their pets and other members of their community."

Dog Park Growth

Dog parks are on the rise, and there is a good reason for that, said Mimi Marler, marketing manager for a company in Red Bud, Ill., which manufactures outdoor recreation products, including site amenities and dog park products.

"Pet ownership has drastically increased over the past decade, and the role that [a] dog plays in the home has gone from 'pet' to family member, in most cases," Marler said. "People love their dogs. They want to spoil their dogs with spa days and freshly baked treats from the doggie bakery, and communities have reacted by prioritizing these communal spaces where dogs and their owners can safely play and socialize."

Thus, the benefits that dog parks provide are "numerous," she said, noting how they "encourage physical outdoor activity," and that "the socialization aspect not only increases the bond between owner and dog, but brings neighbors together and helps build relationships, which lead to a happier and healthier community."

The growth in dog parks over the past several years has been massive, in large part, because of the increase in pet ownership.

What's more, dog parks are no longer just found in recreation parks. They also are found in "housing complexes, resorts, hotels, airports, rest areas, eateries, and the list goes on and on," she said.

Heather Steines, executive vice president of a pet wash system manufacturer in Garden Prairie, Ill., said "The sheer number of pets" is the reason why there has been an increase in dog park growth.

"According to statista.com [an online statistics, market research and business intelligence portal], as of March 2017, a total of 89.7 million dogs was estimated to live in U.S. households as pets," Steines noted. "And, more than ever before, pets are members of the family. Additionally, pet owners are more aware of dog parks. The presence of recreational pet parks has served to simply amplify the awareness and use over the past decade. What was once placed in the background, dog parks are now front and center, becoming an integral part of recreational facilities."

As far as the benefits of dog parks, VandenBerghe said they are "numerous."

"… They're multi-generational, so at any given point in the day, you'll see a diverse demographic—younger folks, seniors, families," she said. "Dog parks are also enjoyed year-round regardless of what Mother Nature has in store. You may not see a busy playground in the middle of winter, but you certainly see dogs with their people at their local dog park in all weather conditions."

Dog parks offer an ideal event space with a lot of programming opportunities, such as fundraisers for a local humane society or rescue, seasonal events, walk-a-thons and more.

"Dog parks are unique in that they provide multi-generational recreation. Whereas playgrounds are geared toward kids, ballparks and athletic fields toward those participating in organized sports, dog parks cater to anyone with a dog, whether they're guardians, dog walkers, pet sitters, etc.," she said.

Additional information from VandenBerghe's company revealed that "Dog parks also provide a much-needed social hub. For empty nesters, millennials, and the other nearly 50 percent of U.S. homeowners who have a dog, off-leash areas are a necessity. Creative programming ideas such as 'Bark in the Park' fundraisers, holiday-themed events, pet adoption festivals and more can all help to boost community engagement and sometimes even offset the cost of building or maintaining a dog park."

John Sarver, director of design for a company in Indianapolis that makes dog gyms and dog park products, said he thinks the "millennial effect has had a big impact on the increase in recognition of dogs."

"Dog ownership is on the incline," he said, "and there is also an increase in more humane treatment of animals due to television and social media exposure, which has resulted in a new vision of making animals more about our community than treating them as separate entities.

"Great people and companies have gotten involved in promoting the health and livelihood of dogs and how important they are to us," he said. "From the introduction of no-kill shelters years ago to more recently human-rated dog food and improved food options for pets in general, people realize we must make dogs more a part of our community as a positive impact.

"The next level of vision for this will be seeing our furry friends in restaurants, shopping malls, hospitals, schools and other places where they are not widely accepted," he added. "We are looking forward to seeing progressive visions on this and seeing more dogs in more places."

The Basic Needs

When it comes to the basic needs of dog parks, "adequate space and fencing" are two that are at the top of VandenBerghe's list.

"We always encourage folks to capture and utilize as much space as possible right from the start," she said. "This can help to prevent 'growing pains' down the road if or when additional space that was once available isn't any longer. Once the site has been established, a fence is absolutely necessary. Some parks don't require fencing, but from a safety perspective, we believe they are a must-have. Anywhere from 4 to 6 [feet] is standard, and we recommend a double-gated system along with separate entries and exits to help prevent overcrowding in those more compact areas."

In addition, she said that other basic needs are "accessibility, water, shade, adequate parking and surfacing."

Steines suggested that "The very basic needs of a pet park are quite simple. When considering a pet park installation, one should ensure that the very high-traffic areas of a dog park have artificial turf or wood mulch. This helps reduce the wear and mess that can come with wet, worn grassy areas. Gone are the days of a fenced-in field sufficing as a pet park. Dog park patrons expect more amenities."

What's more, "finding a key location that will be central or easily accessible for everyone within that community" is a basic item to consider, Sarver said.

Dog parks are unique in that they provide multi-generational recreation. Whereas playgrounds are geared toward kids, dog parks cater to anyone with a dog.

"The space should also be safe and environmentally friendly," he said. "Once you have picked out a good space, then you need to consider accessibility to the park, how people will get to the park and park or walking sidewalks, etc."

The size allocated for the dog park also should be appropriate for the amount of anticipated usage, he said, which is defined by how many dogs might be using the space each day.

"Once you have determined these items, then outfitting the park with various play features and accessories is determined by the planning and design team based on accomplishing the desired needs of the people using the park," Sarver said. "It is best to initiate a survey to potential park users to see what the demands are. You must also consider other variables such as lighting, fencing, grade of land and proper drainage of rain water, shade, accessibility to various utilities and overall landscaping of the park area."

What's more, a range of planning and design considerations should be taken into account in order to ensure that the dog park is meaningful to the community.

"First and foremost, adequate drainage and proper surfacing is critical for these spaces. Thoughtful selection of plantings, landscaping, exercise/agility training equipment and other site amenities will increase usability and comfort," Marler said.

"Moreover, choosing the right type of fencing, gates and access will further differentiate the dog park. After the dog park has been designed, a maintenance plan should be established for proper upkeep of the facility, and rules should be put in place to ensure cooperative and acceptable behavior from both dogs and owners," she said.

"Also, it is important to keep the dog owner's comfort and convenience in mind," she added. "Providing shade and seating areas [is] a great way to enhance their experience and keep them coming back to the park, and providing bike and vehicle parking provide a convenience factor that can't be overlooked."

Dog Park Features

When designing and outfitting a dog park, some key features and elements should be included, experts say.

"Just like playgrounds need swings, climbing structures and other fun things for kids to do and explore, dog parks benefit from agility activities," VandenBerghe said. "They help to get owners up and moving, and engaging with their pets. They also make for programming opportunities in that communities can hire a local dog trainer to do a demo of how to use the equipment and educate park users on the benefits agility training offers, such as building a dog's confidence, healthy exercise and an improved pet/guardian bond."


Other tips from VandenBerghe's company on agility equipment include choosing "components that offer a variety of activities like ramps, tunnels, jumps and weave poles to accommodate different skill levels of both dogs and their owners."

And, "Equipment can be in its own section, or integrated into the main play area. In a larger park, you can arrange components 10 feet to 15 feet apart, and 6 feet to 10 feet in smaller parks. If you don't have a recommended layout, just make sure everything is evenly spaced in a random fashion to allow users to create a different course each time they visit. These activities make your dog park more of an exciting and fun destination, and will increase the time users stay at the park along with how often they visit."

Dog parks often become social gathering spaces, so amenities for the two-legged park users are always a nice touch.

In addition, dog parks should have separate small and large dog areas.

"The play styles between different breeds and sizes can be vastly different, and allowing the smaller dogs to play safely without getting underfoot of the larger pups that might accidentally injure them helps to both keep the peace and ensure everyone enjoys their time at the park," VandenBerghe said, adding that waste pickup stations and trash receptacles are a necessity, too.

"Dog parks often become social gathering spaces, so amenities for the two-legged park users are always a nice touch. Seating, shade (whether natural shade through landscaping or installing shelters), restrooms, hand sanitizers, etc., are nice to have on site," she said.

Some current trends at dog parks include water features, including spray fire hydrants, pet/paw wash stations and unique agility components, such as a line of products by VandenBerghe's company that offers play activities that complement the natural surroundings.

"Every dog park should include a drinking water feature as well as a shade feature. It is important to provide these cooling amenities for the dogs," Sarver said. "A well-rounded park would also include play features for all sizes of dogs as well as some seating for people visiting the park. Providing lighting can also be a really nice extra for the park."

Steines added that "dog park patrons are looking for amenities.

"Drinking fountains for patrons and pets, a pet wash station, agility equipment, waste bags and depositories, ample lighting and long park hours are among the top sought-out amenities," she said.

In deciding on features for a dog park, Marler noted, "This is a question that primarily revolves around the community's budget and equally important the size of the space.

"Dog parks can range from just a small fenced-in area with a waste station to an all-out doggie theme park complete with splash pad, and extensive agility course," she said. "When you are planning your dog park, it is important to understand your budget, and then create a check-list of needs and wants for your community."



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