Going to the Dogs

Best Practices & Design for Today's Dog Park Boom


It's not your imagination. The number of dogs in our neighborhoods, parks and homes is at an all-time high and projected by the American Veterinarian Medical Association to grow from 85 million in 2020 to more than 100 million by 2030. If trends continue, they say, the number of canine households in America will pass 50% within the next 10 years. That's a lot of kibble.

As a result of America's new love affair with man's best friend, business intel from IBIS World say there is an especially rosy future for the dog park industry. Individuals and communities now realize "properly designed dog parks have a myriad of positive effects on the dogs, individuals and the surrounding community," IBIS reports. Not surprisingly, the demand for quality dog parks is on the rise.

Gone are the days when a dog park could consist of a grassy plot and a fence. To create a great dog park there are design dos and don'ts and smart management practices to help ensure it will succeed.

"Operating or managing a dog park is like any other significant amenity, it requires a significant commitment of daily upkeep, maintenance and cleaning," said John Sarver, president for a manufacturer of dog park products based in Indianapolis, Ind. "The most important aspect when putting together a dog park is that it is safe and that you are hopefully minimizing any health or safety risks at the park. The safety aspect of the park can be affected by these factors: the location of the park, the size and design of the park, the strict enforcement of the necessary rules, daily maintenance, cleaning and inspection of the park and its elements."


Whether it is an enormous dog park in the mountains of Vermont or one of the growing number of smaller community dog parks proliferating around the country, it takes good design, carefully selected amenities and dogged oversight to make these spaces work for pooches and their humans alike.

Cities like Boise, Idaho, winner again (three years in a row) of the Trust for Public Land's national ranking for dog parks per capita this year, are leading the pack in applying consistent strategies, along with some innovative ways to incorporate dog parks into existing neighborhood parks.

"A dog park is an activation for the neighborhood and why we have them in our communities," said Doug Holloway, director for the City of Boise Parks and Recreation, about their commitment to providing these important recreational and social spaces. "We are strategic. We place them where people can go for their dogs and for a sense of community for their neighborhood. It's important in all cities really, to focus on that, to give people a place of ownership to visit and enjoy."

Sniffing Out the Right Location


As with any recreation project, placement is key and soliciting community input should be part of the initial process. For Boise, placing off-leash dog areas in existing community parks where owners can easily walk from their homes is a regular practice.

Keeping it local enhances community relationships and fosters ownership and pride of place to maximize cooperation with rules and mutual accountability to enforce them.

But how to accurately assess the need? Rather than rely on dog licensing numbers, which can underrepresent dog populations, the park district surveys people living within a half-mile of an existing community park to better assess interest in adding an off-leash dog park to a public space. In all but one scenario, the answer in each polled community has been a resounding "Yes!"


Adding a place for dogs and their owners to play within existing parks has many built-in benefits: It offers easy visibility in the community for patrons using a park's other attractions; it takes advantage of existing (and otherwise costly) utility installation like plumbing and electricity; it allows pet owners with children to potentially keep an eye on both of their "babies" at the same time if a child's play area is located nearby; and takes advantage of parking access (always a perk for the mobility-challenged or those with young children looking for easy access).

Another key consideration is safe terrain. Parks placed in dry areas a safe distance from retention ponds and swampy sites where mosquitos and other pests can become a problem are safer and more comfortable. Keeping a safe distance from toxic plants is important too. "Make sure there is no dangerous foliage like sabal palms in Florida," said David Canning, CEO of a dog product manufacturing company out of Orlando, Fla. "Sometimes parks are placed near palmettos that are poisonous if chewed. Give some thought about what is dangerous that could hurt the dog."

Finally, space is an important factor. While not every park can be tens of acres, it is important that it provides enough space for dogs to run unimpeded by agility features or other play structures. If space is spare, however, one option is to place agility or play structures on one side of the park so at least the other half is open space for running and a game of fetch.

Destination Sensation


While keeping dog parks accessible to neighborhoods is a worthy goal, not every successful dog park is nestled within a local community. Do it right and a dog park can become a destination sensation all on its own. Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, Vt., listed in USA Today's "Top Ten Places to Visit" is a dog park like no other. With 150 acres of open spaces and forested mountain trails complete with its own Dog Chapel and farmhouse-turned-art gallery housing original folksy wood cuts by its founder and artist Stephen Huneck, this dog park is off the charts in charm and popularity.

"It's so unique because of many elements," said Pam McCann, general manager of the park, which has drawn visitors from around the world. "It's about an artist and his work and an old farm renovation with the farmhouse's art gallery and a barn that was a production studio with 15 artists working there in its heyday. It's a real treasure in the community to have private space open for use."

With scenic hiking trails, a dog pond, snowshoe trails in winter, wildflower meadows in summer and many events, concerts and "dog party" attractions, the dog park has managed to keep its focus on its founder's vision to provide a free place to the public where dogs are the ultimate guests of honor.

Best in Show


But a dog park doesn't have to have 150 acres with an artist's legacy behind it to be best in show. Just differentiating in some way from dog parks nearby (adding a water feature or agility course) can be all it takes to set you apart.

"Our first dog park didn't have any water features," said Nicholus Villarreal, aquatics manager for the parks and recreation department in Edinburg, Texas, who also oversees the dog parks in the city. "Our second and third, however, we added a fire hydrant with a pedal you activate and it shoots up water. Everyone seems to love it."

Other trends in water play include spray pads that eliminate the problem of standing water, and spray stations where dirty paws can be rinsed off before going home. Of course, providing a drinking fountain, probably the most important water element of all, can even become a special attraction with some of today's combination human/canine designs.


Larger water features can be especially inviting if managed well. "If you provide water to swim in? Now that's a real home run, even if they aren't water dogs," said Holloway, about Dog Island, one of the most unique and popular of Boise's dog parks located in the middle of Ann Morrison Park that is surrounded by water.

"You would have thought we cured cancer. People just love it. It's three to four acres in size where people can throw balls in the water and dogs can swim and enjoy time in the water in addition to turf." However, he cautions, be warned. Such water features come with a price: popularity.

"If you build it," observed Holloway, "they will come and stay," which has certainly been the case at Dog Island, where on any given day—even in downpours and inclement weather—people still come to the park to play with their dogs. It is never unused. Or unloved.

Sit, Stay


As with all good park design, there are just some elements that should never be overlooked. Shade from summer's glaring heat and enough seating for patrons to relax while their pets play should always be included. Whether mature trees are part of the landscape or a sheltered pavilion is provided with picnic tables, opportunities for socialization for humans, not just their dogs, is part of the recipe for success.

Keeping dogs safe with fencing (5-foot chain link is often recommended) and providing sectioned off areas for dogs of different sizes (often 35 pounds and up for large breeds and under 35 for smaller), or to keep puppies out of harm's way, or to provide a separate space for older or less energetic pets are all important considerations when thinking about elements that will best fit the needs of your canine and human community.

A double-gated entrance/exit is also strongly encouraged to prevent dogs from accidently escaping by providing a buffer zone between those entering and exiting.

Providing kiosks for the exchange of information or even online chat rooms where people can arrange playdates for their puppy-pals are all great ways to encourage socialization and, ultimately, strengthen the community's commitment in caring for these special parks.

Signage, too, will make following the rules of the park easier for everyone and can make life much easier on managers ultimately responsible for its upkeep. Make sure, however, that rules are clearly displayed, especially with regard to pet waste disposal, along with plenty of trash receptacles and doggie waste stations so compliance is easy for everyone.


Howling Success

Having a large budget, of course, always makes life easier. Who doesn't want to add a new feature or two every year to keep a dog park feeling new and interesting? But when budgets are tight, there are other ways to make it work.


Many parks offset the cost of maintenance while adding local flair with creative signage sponsored by local businesses, or advertising statuary created for the site by local artists. Amenities like seating, or themed paw-print pavers can be monetized as memorials to beloved pets or even family members.

"Having sponsored plaques by local vet clinics and pet stores can help offset the costs," said Amanda Sorely, marketing manager with a pet products company based in Houston, Texas. Grants, too, like Bark for Your Park, which offers 13 grants each year to existing and new parks, can be an enormous help.

Fundraisers are another way communities are doing double duty, raising much needed cash while also providing community-bonding fun. "We do fundraisers and have phenomenal donors. The whole city is involved," said Ray Boksich, board member of Whitefish Dog Park in Whitefish, Mont., which has helped to add continuing improvements to this amazing park with its scenic Rocky Mountain walking paths and popular swimming pond supplied by an artesian well. "With 61 nonprofits in a month of fundraising, we were able to raise $63,000."


Armed with an expanded budget for next year, they plan to build an attractive three-sided kiosk and to address a water problem near the entrance with creative landscaping.

Having committed volunteers doesn't hurt either. "We have a lot of help," he said. "We have a 15-person board, which oversees the park, and friends of the park who do things to make it attractive and safe," he explained, including management of waste stations, weeding and snowblowing in winter to keep pathways clear.

"People were cautious about why do you need a dog park? I was one of them," confessed Boksich. "But as I became more involved, it's phenomenal. It's not just a dog park but a part of our city for people with and even without dogs." RM

Kelli Ra Anderson