Feature Article - March 2014
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Gone to the Dogs

Design & Manage an Effective Off-Leash Area

By Dawn Klingensmith

Looking at the array of dog park equipment on the market, as well as cutesy design features at existing parks, you might pause to consider if a great many of them appeal more to people than pooches, just as many toys appeal more to parents than kids, who often toss aside a toy in favor of the box it came in. The question might be worth pondering, Were dog parks designed for the sole satisfaction of our four-legged friends? But they're not—at least, not successful ones.

Tom O'Rourke knows a thing or two about operating a successful dog park. "It isn't about the dogs; it's about the customers," said O'Rourke, executive director of the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission in South Carolina.

By customers, he means people, of course.

"I think it's more about, while the dogs are having fun, are the people having fun with one another? It's about people socializing and interacting. You cannot forget that part of it," O'Rourke said.

A dog park has the potential to become "so much more than just a place to exercise your pet," said Stephanie Devine, vice president of sales and marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based recreation products manufacturer. "For many pet owners it's a place to meet new friends, relax and enjoy the outdoors," and to that end, they appreciate creature comforts and programmed events.

In popular culture, the potential to meet people and socialize in dog parks and the magnetic ability of dogs to bring folks together have driven storylines. In the 2005 film "Must Love Dogs," a man and woman meet for their first date in a dog park. He borrows a terrier for the occasion. A similar plan is hatched in the country song "Norma Jean Riley" to capture the attention of the titular love interest. In real life, O'Rourke knows of couples who met in dog parks.

Whether or not romance comes out of it, the key is to create a dog-friendly environment that encourages people to linger and mingle. That's not to say dogs don't have certain needs and predilections, but the best dog parks cater to people not only by incorporating design features for their comfort and pleasure, but also by implementing creative programming.

Dog Park Doings

The Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission operates three dog parks, all within existing large regional parks that have a gate fee. All three dog parks host events. And, all three have very different user groups. That dog owners are not a homogenous group is a point O'Rourke emphasized repeatedly. When planning events, it's important to consider user demographics, he said.

For example, two of Charleston's dog parks hosts periodic "happy hour" events with beer, food and music, but the event title and offerings differ by location to appeal to each target audience. Yappy Hour has a laid-back vibe and simpler food, whereas Yups, Pups and Food Trucks has an upscale feel, sophisticated fare and live local bands. Yappy Hour is held five times a year in warmer months, each attended by an average of 300 people in 2013. Last year's budgeted expense was $3,495, with revenues and sponsorship totaling $4,625 and $6,300, respectively. Yups, Pups and Food Trucks was held four times, each attended by about 100 people, with a budgeted expense of $3,600 and revenues and sponsorship totaling $4,500 and $1,800, respectively.