Feature Article - January 2012
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Getting the Most From Your Dog Park

Play Areas for Pooches Provide Gateways to Greater Gain

By Jessica Royer Ocken

A few years back, the president of the park board in Fargo, N.D., went off to a conference and came back all full of big ideas, recalled Fargo Director of Recreation Clay Whittlesey. She wanted to build dog parks. "We laughed at her a little," Whittlesey admitted. "But it's one of the most positive things we've done. We're now adding a third."

This is not a story about how to get dogs to use your dog park. Once built, a dog park most often seems to be a place with no shortage of participants. Sometimes it's a challenge just to keep the grass growing! But, what may be missing (whether you've built it yet or not), is a strategy that maximizes the dog park's potential. Although canines are certainly beloved members of the community, it would be tough to say they're your primary target audience—even at the dog park. It's their owners you're really seeking to serve.

So, what would they like? Answering this question is a great place to start. And, once you get the discussion going, you'll likely find all sorts of ways to engage dog lovers in park district and community happenings and special events, as well as get their suggestions for how to make your parks the best they can be. After all, sometimes things begin with a trip to the dog park, but those dogs' people have exercise and entertainment needs as well.

Read on for our tips on how to get everyone, with two legs or four, out there and enjoying life!

Get Groups Involved

Many of the very best dog parks across the country are partnerships between cities or park districts and nonprofit organizations or community volunteers. If you're considering building a dog park, or if you'd like to have some programming at the one you already have, why not see if pet owners might be interested in taking charge?

In the Los Angeles area, the Hermon Dog Park (one of the country's top 10, according to Dog Fancy) is supported by the Friends of Hermon Dog Park (a 501c3 organization), but it's on park district property. "We're very proud of it and our great relationship with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks," said Wendi Riser, co-president of the Friends of Hermon Dog Park. The Friends work closely with the area maintenance division from the park district, she explained. Whether they need a gate opened, graffiti removed or an electric box turned on for a special event, "if we have security or maintenance issues, they're on it right away," Riser said.

And no wonder—what a deal for the park district! This well-loved, award-winning space is managed almost entirely without their in-house resources. Furthermore, in Provincetown, Mass., the Pilgrim Bark Park (another Dog Fancy top-10-ranked park) is run by the Provincetown Dog Park Association Inc. (PDPA), which is another nonprofit. They have a public-private partnership with the town (because the town owns the dog park's land), but the only service Provincetown provides is trash removal, according to Candace Nagle, president and co-founder of the PDPA. The park itself is privately funded by the PDPA. It opened in 2008, but they just put the final touches on this fall.

In contrast, the dog parks in Fargo are operated solely by the park district, but Whittlesey said there are still plenty of groups involved. "[The dog parks] provide an opportunity for recreation for those who don't play sports or go to the pool, including the elderly," he said. "I've also met young people who've gotten married after meeting at the dog park. People at the parks are friendly, and their dogs give them something in common." He said he "sees the same five or six people there all the time" at the dog park near his home, and sometimes there are as many as 30 or 40 gathered.

Even if there's not a formal support organization for the dog park, you can still reach out to interested parties, noted Kim Becker, communications and marketing supervisor for Henderson, Nev., Parks and Recreation. She suggested contacting not just those who'll be neighbors with the dog park and those likely to use it, but those who are experts in the field.

"We know how to build a dog park, but we didn't know how people would use it," she explained. "We do the same thing with our skateparks. We ask the pros how it will be used."

The Henderson Park District reached out to local breed clubs (German shepherds, cocker spaniels), those who have show dogs, veterinarians and pet industry professionals. As a result, they have well-designed parks with a fantastic assortment of programming, so there's something for everyone, poodle or Rottweiler.