Feature Article - March 2019
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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."