Feature Article - March 2014
Find a printable version here

Gone to the Dogs

Design & Manage an Effective Off-Leash Area

By Dawn Klingensmith

As one dog park equipment manufacturer states on its website, "A trip to the dog park is one of the very few multigenerational activities the whole family can enjoy, in a setting that is welcoming to everyone regardless of age or physical ability."

Although some dog parks don't allow small children, citing safety concerns, for older kids they provide "a great opportunity to get out and exercise and bond with the dog," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for the manufacturer, based in Everett, Wash.

The agility equipment her company offers helps facilitate bonding versus "just letting dogs off the leash and letting them run," she said.

Bill Airy, president and founder of the Poo Free Parks sponsored pet waste station program, frequents dog parks across the nation and sees agility equipment as something that appeals to people initially, but then gets ignored. "I've not seen agility equipment apparatuses getting used a lot," he said, adding that people seem to prefer walking trails or open spaces for exercising their dogs.

Devine countered that "it's important to give dogs a range of exercise so they don't get bored" while concurring that "one of the primary purposes for installing agility equipment is to add to the aesthetic appeal of the park in order to attract pet owners."

As a sport, dog agility is "growing in popularity, and dog parks provide a great place for people to see if their dog has an interest," Devine added. "In many communities there are clubs that will seek out locations to train and practice."

Keep in mind that dogs new to the sport need beginner or adjustable equipment, VandenBerghe said. Many manufacturers offer adjustable equipment with slip-resistant surfaces to safely accommodate different breeds and levels.

Where equipment is installed, "You still want to include open space for general play, for throwing a ball or Frisbee or just letting the dog run," VandenBerghe said.

Dog Park Basics

Before installing wish-list items, there are space and design requirements to take into account. Before opening Pilgrim Bark Park in 2008, the Provincetown Dog Park Association placed calls to more than 50 established dog parks in the nation to learn about minimum space requirements and other design factors. "The consensus is, you need at least one acre" for an off-leash dog park, Grabler said.

Besides ample space, "The most important part of an off-leash dog park is the fence," Devine said. Determining the fence's design, "some considerations include whether or not there will be both large and small dog areas, as well as the entrance to the park. There is typically a small fenced area, about 10 feet by 10 feet, that allows an enclosed space where the owner can attach and remove the dog's leash before exiting or entering the off-leash area."

This transitional enclosure, or "bull pen," is critical because "when a dog is attached to a leash, it's at a disadvantage to dogs that are not on a leash, so it gets defensive and aggressive, Airy said. "Separating on-leash and off-leash dogs is necessary to avoid confrontation" and prevent escape.

Material selection also is important, especially for surfacing and finishes. "A lot of people use wood chips, which can cause splinters; grass tends to get demolished; and coarse pebbles can cut up dogs' paws," Airy said.

Synthetic turf with good drainage in conjunction with an irrigation system for cleanup is a durable alternative to natural grass, VandenBerghe said.

Pilgrim Bark Park opted for a mix of pea gravel and sand, with cement walkways throughout for accessibility.

When choosing site equipment and furnishings, keep in mind that dog urine "is incredibly corrosive," VandenBerghe said. Her company switched from steel to heavy-gauge aluminum to combat rust and corrosion, she added.

Dog urine can also damage saplings and other plantings, so be sure to use a protective barrier until they are established.

Dog feces "is not fertilizer but a contaminant that can affect wildlife and our drinking water," Airy said, so every dog park should include a sufficient number of waste bag stations and receptacles as well as educational signage.

"If it's not convenient for pet owners to clean up after their pet, they're more likely to look the other way" after their pet does its business, Airy said. Moreover, "Plastic bags, particularly grocery store bags, are being banned in a lot of places, like California," he added, so parks may need to step up and supply bags for patron convenience.