Feature Article - April 2013
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Barks and Recreation

The Latest Dog Park Trends to Please Your Most Loyal Patrons

By Chris Gelbach

According to a recent national survey from the Humane Society, 39 percent of American households now own at least one dog. And as the nation goes to the dogs, so do its parks. America's 100 largest cities saw a 34 percent increase in dog parks from 2005 to 2010, according to USA Today.

As the dog-park movement continues uncurbed, recreation managers now have a variety of new products, features and operational approaches at their disposal to enhance these operations.

"As a profession, we've been designing parks since the mid-1800s, but we've only been seriously looking at dog off-leash areas for about 10 years," said Randy Burkhardt, the assistant director of parks, trails and building grounds for Colorado's Douglas County. "So there's a lot of new information out there, and the more we can share, the better."

Dog Park 101

As more recreation managers learn through experience, they are getting more adept at making dog-park choices that ensure smooth operation over the long haul. And no parks department has launched more dog parks than Portland's. The city is now building its 33rd dog park and leads the nation per capita with 5.7 dog parks per 100,000 residents.

"The two most important things are going to be where you put it and what kind of surface you put on it," said Ali Ryan, a program specialist for Portland Parks & Recreation, whose many responsibilities include heading the off-leash program. "We've found that by using a few basic criteria, we've been pretty successful in siting dog areas and spots that work."

Dog parks can often be launched most successfully when placed in spaces without a history or other current use, but sometimes this isn't possible. In Portland, nearly all of the dog off-leash areas had to be carved out of existing park space. To do this successfully, the city looks for spaces that are:

  • at least 5,000 square feet
  • relatively level, dry and irrigated
  • away from playgrounds, residential areas and heavy traffic
  • close to parking
  • evenly distributed throughout the city
  • not affecting fish and wildlife habitats or water quality
  • outside the main circulation of the park
  • currently seeing high off-leash use

In some areas, it can also be helpful to locate a dog park along a trail system to give pet owners more of an opportunity to walk their dogs to the park.

Portland has tested a variety of surface materials to determine what works best in the city's wet climate. Bark chips seem to do the trick, though Portland also has a few sites with sand or gravel, is building a new park with decomposed granite, and has some larger grass off-leash areas.

Budget, climate, park size and usage, and surrounding park amenities all have to be taken into account when selecting a dog-park surface. Thankfully, dog parks have more options to choose from than ever before, including new synthetic turfs with antimicrobial backing designed specifically for dog parks.

Grass remains most common in larger dog parks, though more recreation managers are choosing to rest or reseed this turf regularly because of the damage that dog paws and waste can do.

Burkhardt oversees two dog parks in Douglas County located in developed sports complexes, where irrigated turf was used to match the character of the rest of the park. "Douglas County is basically high desert," he said. "In our area, if you don't maintain that grass, it never has an opportunity to recover. So in about three or four months, you've basically destroyed it, and the only way you can get it to recover is to take the use off it."