Feature Article - March 2014
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Gone to the Dogs

Design & Manage an Effective Off-Leash Area

By Dawn Klingensmith

To generate revenue and in some cases simply to sustain themselves, dog parks "have to be operated with the same passion and creativity as a waterpark, athletic complex or community center," O'Rourke said.

Other creative programming ideas include:

  • A pet festival and expo with performing dogs and other entertainment along with booths for local pet businesses and nonprofits including vets, groomers, trainers, rescue groups and adoption center.
  • Volunteer cleanups, such as an annual April Stools Day event after the spring thaw.
  • Easter egg hunts and spring bonnet parades for both kids and dogs.
  • Pet and people portraits with the Easter Bunny, Santa and other seasonal celebs.
  • Dog-themed movies in the park.
  • Barktoberfest celebration with a Halloween costume contest and parade.
  • Mutt Strut walk/run events.
  • Classes (obedience training, dog park "petiquette," dog nutrition, canine body language, make your own pet toy).
  • Pet talent shows.
  • Birthday parties for dogs.
  • Community outreach activities, such as assembling care packages for K9 military units.

Some parks, or the agencies that oversee them, hold annual or biennial park "mayoral" elections to generate buzz and in some cases proceeds for park maintenance and improvements. The Fort Woof Dog Park in Fort Worth, Texas, plays dirty politics every two years, when dog owners nominate their pet for mayor and campaign to raise money for their "pawty." The canine candidate that raises the most cash for the park wins. Organizers joke that "it's the only election you can legally buy," albeit for a good cause. Candidates are posted on the park's website alongside donation buttons. A donation counts as a vote, and people are encouraged to vote early and often.

Charleston holds a "Top Dog" contest each year to select an agency mascot. People campaign for their dogs on Facebook and by other means, driving friends to the commission's website to vote. The website includes finalists' bios. "These are often rescue dogs so there's that feel-good aspect," O'Rourke said. "It causes so much stir in this community."

Perks for People, Pooches

Providing benches and shade is the easiest ways to make dog parks comfortable for people, Devine said. Other people-pleasing amenities include walking trails, water fountains, restroom facilities, picnic tables, rentable or reservable pavilions, leash posts, dog wash stations, and waste bag stations and receptacles.

Every dog park should include ample waste stations with consistently replenished, biodegradable bags and a waste receptacle to ensure the park stays clean and sanitary for patrons. "It's a good idea to provide multiple waste stations to avoid overflow," Devine said. "It's also important to make sure there are plenty of bags stocked in each waste station because not all pet owners will bring their own."

Depending on the market and budget, aesthetics may be an important consideration. The Provincetown Dog Park Association in Massachusetts had local artists create or decorate seating, shade structures and other site furnishings, as well as outdoor sculpture for the privately funded Pilgrim Bark Park. The park also hosts periodic art installations, said Debbie Grabler, park president and co-founder.

Landscaping is one of the park's larger maintenance bills, addressing the community's concerns that a barren corner lot enclosed by a chain link fence "would look like a prison yard," Grabler said. "We promised to beautify the space," and groomed landscaping is part of that promise.

Some dog park features are wag-worthy as well as applause-worthy, pleasing both pets and their guardians. Freedom Bell Park in Lowell, Ind., has a butterfly garden and prairie grass area open to four-legged snoopers. Other parks boast sandy beaches.

"One piece of equipment that is offered for dog parks is a faux fire hydrant. Dogs immediately determine its purpose in the park, and owners appreciate the humor of its inclusion in the setting," Devine said.

And then there are features and amenities that are solely for the delight of dogs. Freedom Bell Park has a sand bunker digging area. Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Ada, Mich., boasts Doggie Mountain, a giant sand pile for climbing and digging. Beau's Dream Dog Park in Lancaster, Pa., has custom-designed splashpads for large and small dogs. (For a scaled-down version, there are hydrants on the market that spray dogs just enough to cool off.)