Canine Comforts

Implement Best Practices, Deploy New Ideas in Dog Parks

Last year, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimated the number of dogs in America to be 90 million. And while other groups have put that number closer to 77 million, one thing is certain: There are a lot of dogs out there!


The number of off-leash dog parks continues to climb as well. Since the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) began keeping track in 2009, the number of dedicated dog parks in the United States has grown by more than 70%. And a National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) poll last year revealed that 55% of park agencies have at least one dog park, and that 91% of Americans believe dog parks provide benefits to communities.

"With more young people holding off on having kids and a new generation of 'empty nesters,' the dog population in the U.S. has increased, along with overall spending in the pet products market," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for a Washington-based company that manufactures and sells dog park products. "So those people are using dog parks as their form of recreation instead of playgrounds or other adult recreation."

John Sarvis, director of design at an Indiana-based firm that sells dog park agility and play equipment, along with other dog park products, said he's excited that cities are starting to treat dog parks as a more mainstream amenity. "The trend we're seeing is slightly larger designs and more centralized incorporation into the rest of the park—closer to the rest of the amenities—whereas several years ago we saw the dog parks being more off center of the main park."

The Right Fit

VandenBerghe said they're designing more urban parks, pointing out that as green space becomes more in demand in larger cities, creating pet-friendly public areas is crucial, even if the footprint is smaller. "Something small with a pet waste station, a bench, a fire hydrant and one or two compact agility pieces is enough to make a statement and generate a lot of use without forcing folks to drive miles outside the city to a dog park."


"We see an increase in municipalities getting involved with even smaller 'satellite' dog parks to serve the smaller district areas or up-and-coming areas," said Sarvis, adding that this can cause problems with regular maintenance if they're remote from the main parks. "It just has to be planned out properly to make sure it's safe and in an area that can be part of the maintenance workflow."

Indoor dog parks are increasingly common, and can be good secondary solutions for cities, particularly those with harsher climates, according to Sarvis. He added that they're also nice for those who work late and can't get outside while it's still light. "We'd like to see municipalities increase public indoor dog space. This would allow people to plan consistent dog play time regardless of weather."

"With urban communities having to get creative when it comes to finding room for pet amenities, we've worked on some fun projects," said VandenBerghe, describing how they converted part of a parking garage into a pet park for a Connecticut customer and designed a park in California also utilizing garage space. "Some high-rise buildings have even put dog parks into units they decided to not rent out," she said, adding that they're also designing more pet-relief areas in airports.

Rooftop parks are also increasingly common, but VandenBerghe cautions that safety and proper perimeter security are huge considerations. "We believe rooftop parks should have at least a five or six-foot-high fence, and some customers have even installed two barriers—a shorter fence on the inside and a taller fence or wall around the edge." She adds that proper drainage and regular irrigation also need addressing to control odors.

Since most rooftops have restrictions due to special coatings and barriers for waterproofing, Sarvis points out that incorporating fencing and pet waste stations can be challenging. It can also be difficult to tie into the drain system to allow proper draining of potty areas. "Most new building plans accommodate for outdoor parks on rooftop areas," said Sarvis, explaining that these are much easier to design for than older buildings.

Inclusion & Equity


After helping to design Hugh Rogers Wag Park in Whitefish, Mont.—dubbed one of the country's top 10 dog parks in 2015 by USA Today—landscape architect Leslie Lowe has moved on to planning other parks in British Columbia and the United States. She mentioned inclusiveness as a major design consideration. "Dog parks span all aspects of our society, and a lot of times we don't put enough emphasis on providing spaces that are fully accessible."

There are approximately 500,000 service dogs in the U.S., and Lowe said they also need accommodations, which might mean providing separate areas. "There are rules that govern their behavior, but service dogs need to blow off steam too.

"If we can provide a social activity that draws the community together, then we start to build those interactions and connections between the varieties of our culture," said Lowe. "And in that way we can promote good dog ownership, good behavior, and it becomes a forum for education."

Along with inclusiveness and accessibility, there are also social equity issues tied to the development of dog parks, as these spaces are often scarce in non-white and non-affluent areas. For instance, there are many dog parks on Chicago's upscale North Side, and many of them fall in neighborhoods that are mostly white, though these areas make up a relatively small part of the city's overall geography. Meanwhile, the city's predominantly African-American South Side is considered a "dog park desert."

Making the situation more unequitable is the fact that tickets for off-leash violations—a $300 fine in Chicago—are disproportionately issued to South Side residents. These residents often don't possess the resources to build dog parks, as they're typically not funded through the city's parks department, but through Tax Increment Financing (TIF), Aldermanic menu, Open Space Impact Fees (OSIF) and community fundraising. These resources are often allocated through the political process.

On Chicago's South Side today, several new dog parks are in the planning stages as some residents are pushing for them. But complicating matters, some residents in underserved communities see amenities such as dog parks as unwelcome signs of gentrification. And with the scarcity of green space, they would rather have much-needed playgrounds or sports fields.


Park leaders in many cities are weighing the best ways to address the equity issues associated with dog parks and similar amenities. In affluent areas, residents view these spaces as basic infrastructure, but in other communities, park leaders may need to consider new ways of utilizing existing park space for dog-friendly areas.

The city of Raleigh, N.C., took a positive step by releasing their 2018 Dog Park Study, the nation's first comprehensive report on dog parks. Canine population there is expected to exceed 100,000 by 2023, and the report found that an estimated one-third of residents owned at least one dog.

The city attempted to engage the entire population of Raleigh for input, and did specific outreach in communities where responses were low, since they were predictably getting higher response rates from generally white and higher-income communities. They analyzed dog adoptions across Wake County, produced maps showing the density of dog-friendly apartment dwellings across the city, matched census-based household data with market intelligence (veterinary services, pet food purchases, etc.) and defined holes in the city's dog park coverage.

Some findings surprised city officials. For instance, despite having more than 200 public parks, many people only visit these parks to access a dog park, and therefore it's their only outlet for getting fresh air, exercise and meeting neighbors. Going forward, officials hope that the study will guide them to make equitable decisions and do what's appropriate for each neighborhood.

VandenBerghe explained that they consult with customers about these issues to help narrow down potential locations, and they feel that unless the area is especially unsafe or inaccessible, there really isn't a bad location. "Dog parks are a passive-crime deterrent; in addition to helping a community become safer, they foster relationships and can help improve compliance in relation to waste pickup in other areas within the community along with decreasing the number of dogs off-leash when and where they shouldn't be."

Ongoing Input


According to the latest ParkScore Index report issued by TPL, Madison, Wis., ranked eighth in the country when examining cities with the best dog park systems. The city currently maintains eight off-leash dog parks, and permits are required to use them, which can be purchased online or onsite, according to Ann Shea, parks public information officer for Madison Parks. "Rangers patrol the dog parks throughout the day and evening, and monitor access."

Shea said they have four landscape architects on staff who design the parks, and construction is typically bid out. "Our staff maintain the parks with the assistance of volunteers throughout the year. We host a Dog Park Cleanup Day in the spring and recruit volunteers specifically for this event."

The dog parks are popular and well-utilized, according to Shea, who said they frequently receive requests for more dog-friendly spaces. In 2016, the Board of Park Commissioners in Madison approved the Policy and Guidelines for Off-Leash Dog Park Service Area Standards. "The policy is intended to guide the Parks Division in planning new off-leash dog park areas and to set standards for responding to requests for the creation of off-leash dog park areas in the Madison Parks system." Shea added that extensive research and public input was conducted to create the Policy and Guidelines.

The creation of a "Friends" group is also encouraged in Madison where a fenced off-leash dog area is contemplated, and required when an unfenced area is contemplated. These groups help educate dog owners about rules, raise funds for amenities, police cleanup efforts, hold events and generally build community.

Back in Montana, Lowe said she often works with these nonprofit community groups, and they play a big role in how successful a park is. "They have specific mandates on why they want to build those dog parks. And with an active group of volunteers, they're out there monitoring, they're getting to know everybody in the park, and they get to know the dogs. I think there's a strength to that that can be missed in the 'let's just fence in an area' mentality." But she added that cooperation and support from the parks and rec department is part of the equation.

VandenBerghe agrees that volunteer groups can help parks function and run smoothly, and a city's maintenance budget will determine what responsibilities the group takes on, though they're typically still active in fundraising efforts. Historically, according to VandenBerghe, the initial build would be funded by a city or grant, covering fencing, surfacing, water lines, etc. while the "fun" items might be supplied by volunteers or sponsorships. "However, we're seeing a trend where the initial park design now includes agility equipment, water fountains and other amenities, so they're often being included as must-have items and not just future add-ons."


Surfacing is also a major consideration, and the most common choices include natural grass, engineered wood fiber (EWF), synthetic turf and gravel. Sarvis said each surface type has pros and cons, and selection depends on many factors including climate, budget, accessibility, number of dogs daily, shade, water and aeration. "We feel the most ideal surface is regular grass, but in some areas grass cannot stand up to the rigors of use or the climate challenges." For this reason, some parks rotate their off-leash areas to give grass a chance to recover.

VandenBerghe described a grass-stabilizing mesh they recently started offering that's getting a lot of interest. "For parks that would like to keep a more natural look, this really helps to sustain the grass, especially in high-use areas." She said that EWF is their most popular product, since it is low-maintenance and inexpensive. "It does need to be topped off, and most of our customers average about two years before that's necessary."

While more expensive, synthetic turf is also popular since it's low-maintenance and long-lasting, according to VandenBerghe. "We do encourage anyone looking for turf to install dog-park-specific turf, which has additional drainage and antimicrobial materials to help with odor control."

Back in Madison, Shea said their most recent renovation features synthetic turf, while their other parks are natural grass with concrete pad access.

Cater to Nature

When planning a park, Lowe said she considers how dogs in a natural setting explore the outdoors. She discussed her current project in Michigan, which is 40 acres, but even much smaller parks can offer features to keep dogs stimulated. "They like different textures, they want to climb on things, they like variety in terrain. They actually want to explore, so give them that opportunity. When I don't have a bored dog, I reduce the negative interactions."

Rocks, logs, tunnels—these are items that Lowe likes to incorporate. "Sometimes it's found stuff—a big tire or a concrete culvert—those are fun obstacles. Look what's in the maintenance yard; how can I utilize that? Is it safe and durable?"


She explained that she won't design a park without visiting the area. "I want to get a sense of the community, of the geography, of the architecture, and I want to start building a relationship with the parties involved, whether it's a parks department or a nonprofit group."

To avoid injuries and potential conflicts, everyone agreed that separating dogs by size is a wise idea. "We continue to see a strong trend in the public municipal sector where they separate large dogs from small dogs by offering different space for each," said Sarvis.

VandenBerghe added that the 30-pound range is a good baseline. "Space-wise, small dogs need less room to stretch their legs, so when designing parks, we typically allocate about 70% for large dogs and 30% for small. Some communities have a higher ratio of small dogs to large, so then a 50/50 split is recommended."

Some dog parks offer larger water features, like pools or ponds, and Lowe stressed that water quality is of utmost importance. "Monitoring and testing the water, proper aeration, drainage issues—and it's not just the water, it's the area surrounding it." She points out that fish and certain plants—like cattails—are beneficial in keeping the water clean. With artificial splash pads—which dogs love in warm weather—the water is filtered and recycled.

VandenBerghe said spray hydrants are popular, with options for spraying from the front or the top, activated by a push button. They're water-efficient and more cost-effective than maintaining a splash pad. Dog-wash stations can provide a place to clean up dirty dogs, and there are many options for drinking fountains with pet bowls and bottle fillers, as hydration is important.

Last Words

As far as considerations for those planning a dog park, VandenBerghe offers this advice: "The must-haves would be accessibility, dedicated small and large dog areas, along with a separate entrance and exit (both double-gated) to help prevent overcrowding and stress when entering and exiting the park, play equipment, waste pick-up stations, and amenities for the two-legged park users—adequate shade and shelter, potable water with a fountain, seating and surfacing that's ADA-accessible."

There are so many variables to consider when planning a dog park that Sarvis highly recommends getting an experienced planner involved as early as possible, "so the planner can even help with proper sidewalk designs and even proper placement and positioning of the park."

"We need to stop thinking about dog parks as just 'put up a fence,'" said Lowe. "We need to design a space thinking about how dogs interact, how people interact, and put the same thoughtfulness into our designs that we're seeing in playgrounds and everything else." RM