Guest Column - January 2021
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inPERSPECTIVE / DOG PARKS

2020: The Year of the Dog

By Nora VandenBerghe


According to the Chinese zodiac, 2020 was supposed to be the Year of the Rat, but as it turns out, it's really the Year of the Dog. While many of us have adjusted to working remotely and relying on Zoom for our face-to-face meetings all while homeschooling, trying to squeeze in some healthy activities and everything else we manage on a daily basis, dogs are living their best quarantine lives. Spending all day with their people getting extra treats, walks and attention? Could be worse! It seems likely the only family members to come out of this year unscathed are our pets.

That being said, the normalcy of going outside or visiting a dog park has been an important self-care strategy for many folks during the pandemic. Physical activity with our pets provides both companionship and stress relief, which is critical to our well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and other studies, the health benefits our pets provide include physiological measures like lowered blood pressure, cortisol and cholesterol levels, along with an improvement in overall mental health. Pets help ease feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression, all of which have statistically increased since March.

With the recent boom in pet adoption and fostering, it is clear people are using pets to help them through this challenging year. The Washington Post likened the puppy craze to the buying frenzies of Cabbage Patch Kids in the 1980s, and for the first time ever, many shelters in the United States were empty due to the demand. That leads to more people needing recreation even when resources may be stretched thin. Historically, dog parks have been one of the more cost-effective forms of recreation in a parks system, and now there are some additional perks to consider.

Touch Points: Apart from gates, dog parks fortunately have minimal touch points. Consider installing hand sanitizing stations near your entry and exit areas, and be sure to keep them filled. Another option is to encourage park users to bring their own pet waste bags to eliminate congregation around the pickup stations. Compared to playground equipment where everything is very hands-on, dog agility components require almost no touching of the equipment itself. Your off-leash area enthusiasts can safely enjoy the exercise and bonding experience with Fido hands-free.

Social Distancing: A typical dog park is designed to encompass as much open space as possible—a huge plus when park users should be standing at least six feet apart. New signage might be helpful to confirm the park is open and to remind folks to spread out. This is also a great opportunity to add additional seating, as people are less likely to share benches now than prior to COVID. If your community's dog park has a dedicated off-leash group, they may be helpful in fundraising for new benches or potentially building something themselves.

If you manage smaller parks, consider setting a capacity limit to better allow for social distancing or dedicated park hours for seniors and those who may be at higher risk.

Keep It Clean: Even with few touch points, park users may be concerned and hesitant to utilize the play equipment. If you are keeping your dog park open and have adequate staffing or a volunteer group who can help, a regular cleaning/disinfecting schedule may offer park users peace of mind. An effective nontoxic and environmentally friendly (yes, they exist!) cleaning and sanitizing product will do the trick. Be sure to allow adequate time for the equipment to dry completely, and be sure to post signage so folks know the components are safe to use.

Encourage Responsible Behaviors: Transparency is key in helping to keep your parks open and safe; share current information with clear signage and reminders of park rules. Aluminum signs are both affordable and durable, and many companies offer custom options so you can design to suit your own needs. In addition to the hand sanitizers, some manufacturers are now offering hybrid water fountains that include a hands-free wash station. They feature a battery-operated sensor to allow for quick touchless rinsing.

If your park currently has a single entrance and exit, considering temporarily converting a maintenance gate so you have separate access points and help prevent crowding in those smaller, high-use areas.

DIY Park Kits: To help keep off-leash areas open, encourage park users to pack and bring their own dog park survival/success kits. These are items most people have readily available and may include: hand sanitizer, a small towel, waste bags, potable water and a collapsible bowl.

It's also a good time to remind folks to leave toys at home; things like tennis balls may be picked up numerous times by both people and dogs. Though COVID transmission from dog to dog has not been identified, there is a low risk of human-to-dog transmission.

While we continue to navigate these new waters and wait patiently for a vaccine, making thoughtful and responsible choices can make all the difference, and ultimately may shift how we use and manage dog parks in the long term. In the meantime, stay safe, healthy and kind. RM



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nora VandenBerghe is a managing partner of Dog-ON-It-Parks and lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, a rescued Pit Bull mix and two Great Danes.