Guest Column - November 2014
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Dog Parks

Thinking About Building a Dog Park?
First, Learn About Dogs & the People Who Own Them

By Roseanne D. Conrad

If you ask recreation and park managers what new feature they would like to add to their facility, a high percentage would answer without batting an eye, "A dog park!" Dog parks are by far one of the leading features on the wish list of municipal and community parks. Even though dog parks are not necessarily a new trend, their popularity continues to grow. There are many reasons for this, including the prosperous projection for the pet industry, which equates to community demand, low startup cost and the ongoing trend itself (everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses).

I have read countless books, articles and websites about dog parks over the years that, for the most part, cast dog parks in a wonderful light. Dog parks can be wonderful additions to a community, whether as an inclusion to an existing community park or as a stand-alone, dog-specific park. People who are thinking about building a dog park should be aware that there are many pitfalls to be encountered along the way.

It's About the Dogs & the People Who Own Them

If you are thinking about adding a dog park to your existing park or if you are a part of a group who would like to build a dog park independently or encourage your municipality to add one, I would like to share a little advice. Although important and necessary components, building a dog park is not just about the business plan or the architectural illustrations. It is not just about that perfect parcel of land you want to use, the type of fencing you will install or the unique sign you want to place at the entrance.

Now here's the advice: Before you do anything, learn about your market, learn about dogs and the people who own them.

Several years ago I initiated the idea of building a dog park in my community. I assembled a committee of people who, like me, thought a dog park would be the most wonderful thing. Our volunteer group of off-the-chart dog lovers could not wait to get started on the project. Like many dog park startups, we struggled with overcoming some negative community assumptions, zoning restrictions and land development issues. We worked hard to raise money and to find volunteers with particular skill sets to help keep costs down (engineers, attorneys, bankers and such). Most on the planning committee had been involved with dogs our entire lives but, oddly, we didn't even talk about the topics that have proved to be the biggest issues during the process and in day-to-day operation—human and canine behavior. Most of our effort went into planning and building the park itself, but not about the market we were going to serve. So we learned as we went along and made more than a few mistakes and a lot of important discoveries. Our first priority has always been about safety for the dogs and their owners, but today we are absolutely vigilant about it.

Safety Through Supervision

To have a safe park, you must have rules and make sure they are adhered to—you must have a supervised park. I'm not suggesting that someone has to be standing guard at the gate at all times, but there should be people there to make sure the dogs and their owners are safe and that the park stays clean. This is a great job for trained volunteers. Of course, there also has to be someone to train the volunteers in the first place.

While many who use dog parks may be experienced dog owners who realize they still have a lot to learn about dogs, a lot of people are first-time dog owners who think they know everything. Many have never had experience with any type of puppy, socialization or obedience classes and may not think they need them. This is truly scary, as they may not understand about dog behavior, prey drive in certain breeds or even that dog parks may not be for their dog. Dogs have to be interested in being social in the first place for them to have a positive experience at a dog park. Shy dogs and aggressive dogs are not good dog park candidates. Dogs that are annoying and those that are easily annoyed by other dogs are not good dog park candidates. It is sometimes difficult to explain these things to the know-it-all newbies when they are laughing at their dog humping a dog that is obviously annoyed.

People are all wired differently, and their thoughts or expectations about a dog park may not mirror those of another person. Most people realize that they need to supervise their dog at all times—to be engaged in their dog, play with their dog and clean up after their dog. Many people, however, bring their dog to the park, pull up a chair or bench and zone in on their cell phone or a book, oblivious to their dog's antics. So, their dogs may poop and the poop does not get picked up. Their dogs may annoy another dog to the point where tempers flare and a fight may ensue. While most owners are on their dogs within seconds, you may encounter a person who is not jolted by a dog fight and will continue to sit and read and let the dogs work it out on their own.

Each dog comes from a different background. Some may be purebred, coming from respected breeders and having backgrounds where they were handled extensively since birth and trained from an early age. Some dogs, unfortunately, come from puppy mills or backyard breeders where they may have had little or no attention. Still others were rescued from abusive situations or have histories that are unknown to the current owner. Imagine mixing all these dogs into an off-leash environment? You really never know what will happen, so it's imperative to have supervision.