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

Special Events

A final factor Dog Fancy considers as it ranks dog parks are special events, including educational workshops and health clinics. Programming and events can be a huge success at dog parks, just as they are at other park properties. And people love pets—often even those who don't own them themselves—so including an animal option in larger park district or community events can be a great way to make sure everyone is involved and having fun.

At the dog park, consider developing some regular programs to build participation among local dog owners. Henderson offers dog obedience training at their dog parks and an introduction to agility class that shows dogs and their owners how to use the course. They also offer something called Rally, which is an obedience sport that involves dogs and owners completing a specially designed course together. "We also offer basic canine classes at our recreation center, but people are much more interested in taking them at the bark park," Becker said.

Friends of the Hermon Dog Park in Los Angeles host a monthly "yappy hour" at their dog park, which began as a fun way to let more people know about the park and has evolved into a great time for socializing among dogs and owners alike, Riser explained. They just put out a big bowl of dog treats, along with some punch and cookies, and let the fun begin. Or sometimes they go for a theme—Hawaiian luau, anyone? There's a doggie costume contest at "Howloween," which is followed by the Big Peanut Butter Lick-Off. "[Yappy hour] takes very little planning, but it's an opportunity to get material out to everyone about what's coming up," Riser said. They advertise the event with flyers at pet stores, veterinary clinics, restaurants, coffeehouses and other community gathering spots.

The Friends have also hosted three pet education seminars this year, which are held right next to the dog park, so people can bring their pets. They've covered topics from pet emergency preparedness to dealing with pet loss to basic obedience and training tips. They also host an occasional cleanup day at the park to disinfect benches and trash can covers, clean out the water area and organize the bulletin board. "Although, the park district does so well with maintenance that it doesn't take us much more than an hour," Riser said. Nevertheless, "it helps with buy-in and a sense of ownership" among those that use the space, she explained. "It's a way to reach different populations and get them to the dog park."

Riser also suggested hosting a periodic "puppy party" to teach newbies about dog park etiquette. "We're mostly teaching the owners," she said. "But we don't put it that way." During this event the Friends show new dog parents how to socialize their animals and how to recognize what behaviors are playing, as opposed to aggression.

Beyond the dog park, consider community-wide events that focus on dogs, or include a furry component in an already-established local celebration. Even those who don't own dogs may enjoy an opportunity to interact with the four-legged members of the community.

Residents of Fargo look forward to the Hot Dog Walk each summer, which includes complementary hot dogs to munch, as well as a "hottest dog" competition, stupid pet tricks, a costume contest and an owner-dog look-alike competition. This summer Petco and several local pet stores donated prizes. There were homemade dog biscuits for sale, and the agility club in town set up a temporary course for dogs and their owners to test out.

If your town has a zero-depth entry pool, consider opening it up to canine swimmers before you close it for the season (because you'll be disinfecting it then anyway). See sidebar for more on how this sort of event might work.

In Los Angeles, at the city-wide holiday parade, dogs and their people form the Santa Paws Squad. They dress in their holiday finest and walk the parade route to the delight of all. Provincetown's Nagle suggested holding a pet appreciation weekend with canine games and a dog parade, and you might even consider kicking off the event with a fundraising dinner to support the local dog park or animal shelter. Fargo features the Furry Friends Walk, which begins at the dog park and winds its way through town via the walking trails. There are stops for food and prizes at the city's fitness centers, and the fee to participate raises money for Adopt a Pet in Fargo, which assists abused and abandoned animals.

Animal ownership is not only big business, it's probably the key to the hearts of a good portion of your community, as pets are beloved and full-fledged members of many a family these days. So, as you seek to serve your constituents, don't forget those who love their dogs. Reach out to them, find ways for them to be involved along with their pets, and you'll likely find them participating in activities they might not otherwise think to attend. Who knows what they'll discover once they're there. Remember, not only does a dog park enhance the neighborhood around it, your attention to the needs and interests of this part of your population can bear fruit across the community.