Feature Article - January 2010
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Barking Up the Right Tree

Tips & Trends From Today's Hottest Dog Parks

By Kelli Anderson

Best in Show

Most dog parks have been designed over the years to give dogs a simple and secure space to run and play, yet have often overlooked a key user of this recreational space: the people. But today, dog parks that win "best in show" are those that go beyond the simple fenced enclosure with a list of rules posted at the gate. They are spaces that recognize and are responding to the changing relationship owners have with their pets and the desire they have to create community with others in a safe, regulated environment.

"People see the benefit of exercising their dogs and themselves, and are willing to pay for a safe, regulated park," said Pam Stanley, owner of nationally award-winning Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. "A lot of dog parks, especially city dog parks, don't temperament-test the dogs or make sure they are vaccinated. We're strict on that and require all vaccinations and temperament-test the dogs on site. People appreciate it—it's a healthier and safer place."

Stanley is quick to point out, however, that most city parks have a more difficult time regulating their parks without the kind of funding needed to do so.

However, for the very popular dog parks created by the park district in Indianapolis, keeping dogs and owners safe and dog parks more regulated has proven to be not only possible but revenue-generating as well.

"The initial push for a dog park came from our user groups," said Kent Knorr, manager of revenue and special facilities with the parks and recreation department of the city. "Broad Ripple Dog Park was our first and a major success. We sold passes that were available in January and were sold out by spring. It's become such a phenomenon that people are always asking how to get them in their own communities."

To date, Indianapolis has built two other larger dog parks and is in the process of planning more. What Knorr appreciates about their system is that it not only generates much-needed revenue through a variety of passes that can be purchased on an as-needed or annual-membership basis, but their system also allows the city to regulate the parks' users and their safety.

Dog owners who provide proof of updated vaccinations and pay a fee are given reader cards that activate the magnetic gate system at the city's dog parks. Discounts are given for those with more than one dog or for those buying passes late in the season to further encourage people to abide by the rules and participate in the program. Because so many people now use Indianapolis's growing number of dog parks, they have recently instituted a VIP ("Very Important Pooch") option that allows users to access all their dog parks instead of specific ones, as in years past.

Another benefit of issuing membership passes and charging even a modest fee is that it imbues the members with an even greater sense of ownership. User groups that usually invest a large amount of time and energy to create dog parks are typically motivated to see to it that their parks are well kept; issuing passes makes it even more so. "Members really treat it like it's theirs," Stanley says of her park's clients. "They're part owners and are very good about picking up after themselves. We found that they'll even pay it forward and pick up after others who miss theirs."

Knorr agrees, indicating that in his 10 years of dog park experience, people are good to clean up after their pets. It is a non-issue.