Raise the Woof!
Incorporate Dog-Friendly Amenities
As the nation continues its struggle with a deadly pandemic, pet ownership has provided a refuge for many. One result has been a pet-adoption boom that has left some shelters temporarily out of adoptable animals.
Dog parks have likewise provided a haven for people and their pets to get some exercise while enjoying the relative safety of socially distanced (for the humans at least) time outdoors.
While statistics on American dog ownership can be a bit hairy, they shed light on the fact that many households have dogs. One 2016 study from the American Pet Products Association found that 68% of U.S. households owned a pet in 2016, including an estimated 90 million dogs. The same year, the American Veterinary Medical Association said that 57% of households had a pet, including 77 million dogs nationwide.
What is beyond dispute is that dog owners and their pets are among the most rabid users of park systems. Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota's suburban Hennepin County counts nine expansive off-leash areas among its offerings, in addition to a variety of dog-friendly trails. It offers day and annual passes for these parks and sees the trend firsthand.
"They're a great amenity for a lot of people," said Lynn Stoltzmann, director of facility services for Three Rivers Parks. "Our annual off-leash pass holders probably use their annual pass to the greatest frequency of any of our passholders within the park district. We have many users that come several times a week all year long in all kinds of weather."
Similar demand is growing even in many of the nation's most urban environments. "Dog runs [as a park amenity] are the trend that's taking over," said Sam Biederman, unofficial dog czar and assistant commissioner for community outreach and partnership development for NYC Parks. "Their numbers grow and grow and grow every year at a deliberate pace here, but I know we're not the only park system that every year sees an increase in demand for dedicated spaces for dogs."
Dog Parks Post-COVID and Beyond
As vaccination distribution proceeds, dog park experts don't expect the pandemic to usher in huge changes for the designs of new parks, though there might be some park features that become more focused on allowing touch-free and social distancing opportunities.
"We're getting more calls for things like touchless water fountains," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for a manufacturer of dog park products based in Everett, Wash. With social distancing in mind, more customers are also choosing alternatives to the standard six-foot bench. "People are ordering more benches or changing the quantities and doing two four-foot benches or an eight-foot bench where people have a little bit more room to spread out and still feel safe," VandenBerghe said.
The larger trend, however, is a greater focus on design and amenities in dog parks. "What we're seeing more than anything is more advanced design, which includes utilities," said John Sarver, director of design for an Indianapolis-based manufacturer of dog park products. "Five years ago, you didn't see a lot of water lines and electrical lines. Now we're starting to see lights, and we're starting to see water fountains at a better pace. We're also seeing more weather-related protection like shades and shelters."
Trends in Amenities
For dog parks not able to incorporate utilities, VandenBerghe is seeing more parks opt for solar lighting, which can be more cost-effective to install and maintain than traditional wired light. But Sarver cautions that it often doesn't provide the amount of light that electrical lighting does, so he sees it as an ideal option mainly for parks that are far away from utilities.
"Lighting is really important from a safety perspective," VandenBerghe said. This is because many users may not be able to get to the dog park until after dark in northern climates or may opt for after-dark hours in warmer regions where daytime temps regularly hit the 90s and 100s.
According to Sarver, these usage patterns can mean that lighting can play a big part in the success or failure of a dog park since people won't make the effort to go to an unlit park after dark. "If the park's not well-lit, then a lot of times people won't go," Sarver said. "You get to the park and there's no dogs there for your dog to play with, which is one of the greatest benefits of a dog park—having other dogs to play with and other humans to interact with."
In New York City, the lighting used for dog runs is similar to that used for other park areas, and discussions about its use are initiated in concert with the community and the police department. The focus is on answering three questions. "What are the needs for safety? What are the needs for wayfinding? And what are the needs to not create a disturbance for the surrounding community?" Biederman said.
Shade structures are becoming more prevalent too. Because they can be a bigger-ticket item, VandenBerghe often sees them specified in dog-park plans as something that can be added later. "A lot of times a park will be built without them and when their funding comes around or there's an off-leash group fundraising for park improvements, they're often added on basically as soon as they can put them in," she said.
The Large and Small of It
VandenBerghe noted that one approach to save on shade structures in dog park designs is to create a single shade structure spanning the fence between separate large- and small-dog areas. "That way, with one shade structure you're able to provide shade for seating on both sides of the park," VandenBerghe said.
When space permits, creating these separate large and small dog areas is advisable to increase the safety and comfort level of the dogs. Harris County Precinct 3 manages several dog parks in Houston and nearby areas and includes parks like Bill Archer Dog Park and Millie Bush Dog Park that are often featured on lists of the nation's top dog parks.
"All of our dog parks have large and small dog separations," said Greg Wyatt, a park manager for Harris County Precinct 3 who manages Bill Archer Dog Park. The cutoff for the small-dog areas is 20 pounds, the rationale being that the size ratio between a 3-pound dog and a 20-pound dog corresponds to that of a dog over 20 pounds and large dogs of more than 100 pounds. Wyatt said that one of the most common complaints his team hears about are complaints about the weight limit. "You're never going to make everybody happy on that weight limit," Wyatt said.
But creating the separate areas can help avoid the serious injuries that can occur if a larger dog does become aggressive with a much smaller animal. And the other complaints his team most commonly deal with relate to aggressive dogs.
"When we have those issues, we normally either send in law enforcement to either talk to the people or there's times that I've asked people to either leave the park or keep their dog leashed because it's being aggressive," Wyatt said. "You just have to enforce it. We make the phone number to the constable and to our park office visible so when there's a problem, we react. We try to deal with that issue as soon as it arises."
Education is key to reduce these kinds of conflicts and to just make sure that pet owners have a good understanding of whether their dog is even a good fit for a dog park. At Three Rivers Park District, Stoltzmann's team recently put together an FAQ section for the district website that assists with this effort.
"One of the things that we really want to make sure of is that when people are coming to an off-leash area, they are bringing a dog that is appropriate for an off-leash area," Stoltzmann said. "We have some guidelines around that to try to make it a safe and positive experience for everyone."
According to those guidelines, dogs appropriate for dog parks should be:
- Over 6 months old and vaccinated for rabies.
- Healthy and in good physical condition.
- Reliably and promptly willing to come back to the owner when called away from the home environment and when playing with other dogs or focused on something else.
- Able to exhibit appropriate dog relationship skills (not constantly dominating or completely submissive).
Warning signs that can make dogs inappropriate for off-leash areas include dogs that:
- Exhibit a strong prey drive toward other dogs.
- Intensely focus on another dog that cannot be redirected.
- Are possessive of toys or foods.
- Are unfriendly with strangers.
- Disrespect other dogs' boundaries.
- Will not back off and/or can't be called off.
- Are anxious or fearful.
- Cower or continuously tuck tail around other dogs.
Three Rivers is fortunate to have many large areas, a benefit that can also contribute to increased safety. "I do think that having a larger amount of space definitely gives users a safer experience," Stoltzmann said. "And if dogs can be split apart a little bit and you have more opportunity to do that, it creates a safer environment."
That being said, for some dogs, playing closely with other dogs is one of the great perks of a dog park. "Most dogs love chaos, and if you spread them out too much, there's not that playful chaos that they can get when the park's a little bit more tight," Sarver said.
Even in those situations, Sarver sees good design of the preferably double-gated entrance area as key to minimize conflicts. "You want the dogs to be able to enter the park without a small area that the dogs tunnel to because generally dogs like to greet dogs at the entrance gate," Sarver said. "So you want to make sure that the design of the park is one that allows the dogs to go left or right or straight and not be boxed in."
For larger parks, Sarver is also seeing some customers opt to include a solo dog run or two that abuts the main dog-park area. These are typically smaller areas around 20-by-30 feet that can be safely used by an individual puppy who is not quite ready for the dog park, an older or nervous dog, or a dog that may be aggressive sometimes.
"That little kennel area will allow them to visualize how things happen but maybe they can integrate into the main dog park at some time," Sarver said. "And maybe not. Some dogs are just happy being in the kennel … But it's a good thing to consider in the large parks for sure."
Whenever possible, as Harris County and Three Rivers Parks have experienced firsthand, larger areas can be better because they offer more opportunities to provide running space for dogs. They also still allow room for smaller spaces within them featuring amenities like agility equipment and closer quarters for more sociable dogs to interact.
And while dog parks are sometimes located in out-of-the-way spots where they are less likely to disrupt other users, Sarver noted that it can also be very advantageous to have the park close to existing power, water and amenities. "Sometimes they can put the dog park close enough where they can share the restrooms with the other amenities within the park. Which is a really positive situation," Sarver said. Locating the park near an existing water supply is also ideal. "We think every dog park should have a water fountain, but unfortunately in some cases it's just not possible because of the distance between the park and the nearest water supply."
It's generally good to keep agility equipment in a dedicated section of the park, while keeping most of the space open. "We always want to make sure in a dog park that the majority of the space is really just allocated for ball throwing, running, just having open space for dogs to stretch their legs," VandenBerghe said.
Sarver also recommends selecting a dry area with a good mix of sun and shade, and a common path of egress if it's in a larger park so that people using the larger park don't have to go out of their way to use the dog park.
It can also be ideal to have the dog park located off a trail system, so the dog can play at the park and then the human and dog can get some quality on-leash time walking together afterward.
But it's also important to work with what you have. In Harris County, several of the dog parks are in flood-prone areas and feature ponds that the dogs can swim in. Some also feature washing stations so pet owns can wash their dogs before they head back into the car for the trip home.
Several of the Harris County dog parks are also built within another park, and feature walking trails—some in the off-leash area. "That's convenient for people when they just want to take a stroll and turn their dog loose to play," Wyatt said. "It's just an additional feature so you're just not standing out there watching the dog play." The trails, along with other features like shade structures, help create an experience that's more rewarding for the people bringing their dogs. "You can get comfortable, you can get exercise while your dog plays, so it just draws people—you have multiple aspects to the dog park," Wyatt said.
At the Three Rivers Park District's 29-acre off-leash dog area at Elm Creek Park Reserve, there is a wetland pond for the dogs in the middle of the fenced off-leash area that is also fenced. "So you can make the choice whether you want your dog to go into that pond area or not, and it is a very big space," Stoltzmann said.
In New York City, several dog runs include water features, from a wading pool at Sirius Dog Park in Battery Park City to a dog beach at Prospect Park in Brooklyn to canine sprinklers at the East River Esplanade Dog Run in Lower Manhattan.
"No dog is going to turn down a wading pool," Biederman said. "And in the dog runs without dedicated wading pools, you will often find that somebody will have dragged a blow-up pool into those parks during the summer."
The East River park also features lots of color and some sculptures that dogs like to play on, including raised elements like a large metal squirrel on a pedestal. "If there is topography, the dog will try to be the top dog. They will try to find the highest point and then push each other off and it's hilarious," Biederman said. "I highly recommend if you are designing a dog park to give the dogs something to play top dog on."
New product options like modular turf and smaller, more portable agility equipment are also making nontraditional sites like rooftop dog parks an increasingly attractive option. This allows users to move the turf around for cleaning or to move the agility pieces around for variety. "It also allows them to remove the equipment if they want to have an event like a yappy hour," VandenBerghe said.
Extending Opportunities for Dog Owners
Three Rivers has also expanded its opportunities based on community demand by recently opening its turf trails to on-leash dogs, whereas previously only the paved trails allowed dogs. All trails require dogs to be on a six-foot non-retractable leash. Forbidding the retractable leashes that can sometimes be 10 or 12 feet long helps to minimize conflicts with other trail users. And opening the turf trails to dog owners has also led more pet owners to choose to walk in these more natural environments, creating fewer conflicts with other users like bikers and rollerbladers on the paved trails.
New York City, meanwhile, not only regularly adds to its offerings of dog runs throughout its park system, but also offers off-leash hours in some of its parks. Prospect Park, for instance, offers hours of green space that allow dogs to roam off-leash from 5 to 9 a.m. and from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. "A bigger park usually makes for a better park when it comes to identifying a site for off-leash hours," Biederman said.
Off-leash hours can be a great way to accommodate dog owners while minimizing interference with other park users during peak times. But communicating these rules is also key. Over the past few years, NYC Parks has undertaken an effort to re-sign every park in the system. "The standardization of these signs include information about off-leash hours so that anyone entering the park gets a clear heads-up that this is something they might encounter," Biederman said.
Good communication and proper maintenance are essential for creating a pleasant experience for all users. At Three Rivers, Stoltzmann uses both popup events and social media updates as ways to keep users up to date about and invested in the spaces. The district also has staff that regularly frequents and checks in on the off-leash areas.
In Harris County, Wyatt likewise views a strong focus on ongoing maintenance as key to the dog parks' success. "As soon as we know that something's broken, we repair it. We maintain it. We mow it. We weed-eat it," he said.
NYC Parks, on the other hand, creates its dog runs and off-leash hours in response to community demand—and requires the commitment of a dedicated volunteer group for ongoing maintenance before any new dog run is established.
"We really do rely on the volunteer groups that run these dog runs in partnership with us," Biederman said. "And those nonprofit groups or those volunteer groups are the main determinant as to how the run is going to look, how it's going to be operated, and whether or not it succeeds. This is not something we do on our own. It cannot be a top-down effort."
In the end, whether it be through dedicated park maintenance or a more volunteer-focused approach, a commitment to ongoing maintenance is key. "It's just my experience that with any park, the more pleasant the experience as far as it being maintained, the happier the user is going to be," Wyatt said. And when it comes to dog parks, that's the case whether the patrons have two legs or four. RM