Feature Article - January 2010
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Barking Up the Right Tree

Tips & Trends From Today's Hottest Dog Parks

By Kelli Anderson

For Kelly Acree and her husband, tired of the dust bowls, mud pits and general discomfort of the dog parks in their Dallas, Texas, neighborhoods, the thought of creating an indoor dog park seemed like a good idea. The resulting success of their 50,000-square-foot indoor dream-come-true in March 2009, Unleashed, has proven that others think so, too.

"We researched all around the country and many parks lacked amenities," said Acree about their effort to identify the best and avoid the worst of many outdoor dog parks. "Although some are really trying—even having toy/treat vending machines—it's as much about the owner as the dog. You exercise your dog 30 minutes and go home in a traditional park, but our customers spend three or four hours here easily—some all day."

And there's a good reason why. With a 25,000-square-foot space dedicated for indoor freedom, dogs can romp with other four-legged friends monitored by trained attendants in a climate-controlled, comfortable space, while their owners can take advantage of free Wi-Fi, as they sip a cappuccino in the café, pick up a new toy at the pet center or relax in the lounge areas overlooking the main floor.

Describing itself as a new kind of amusement park, complete with waterfall, spa-like feel and a soon-to-be-completed outdoor park with splash area, it is ideally suited for the American family that more and more includes Rover as one of its core members. And it's not just about bells and whistles—although there are plenty. Attention has also been paid to the basics. As anyone who has been around dogs can attest, "tell-tail" signs of a doggie domain can be unsightly and smelly. However, thanks to a heavy-duty HVAC system, giant 20-foot ceiling fans and an anti-microbial artificial turf with a proprietary drainage system beneath the flooring, Unleashed has ensured that its environment smells fresh and stays spotless.

"We are really seeing an increase, week by week of new clients," Acree said of their recession-proof business that has registered more than 7,000 clients so far. "We had one customer tell us that she has decided to forgo eating out to come here. It says a lot about what people are willing to do for their companions."

Like the evolution of fitness and aquatic centers before them, successful recreational spaces for dogs and their owners—whether indoor or out—are offering space for fitness as well as comfort, community and creative fun that are good for the users and great for business.

And while Americans have always loved their dogs, something has profoundly shifted in our relationship to man's best friend. One has only to look at the booming pet industry of designer dog apparel, gourmet and organic dog food and TV shows like "The Dog Whisperer" to recognize that dogs have moved in from the traditional doghouse and into the family unit itself.

For many who now wait longer to get married and to have children, dogs become their first "family," which may explain why across the country so many community groups are clamoring for dog parks of their own. To date, an estimated 1,200 dog parks—many created in partnership with community groups and their park districts—are in use with hundreds more on the drawing board.