Feature Article - March 2018
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Dog Day Afternoons

Building Your Dog Park, From Start to Finish

By Rick Dandes

Off-leash dog parks in both large cities and small towns are among the most popular neighborhood amenities, and they are one of the fastest-growing segments of public parks, according to an April 2015 report from the Trust for Public Land.

According to TPL's Charlie McCabe, director, Center for City Park Excellence, there are 736 dog parks listed in the 100 biggest cities in America, and that is growing by 40 to 50 a year. But even that doesn't account for the thousands of municipalities, both large and small, that have approved use of public land for dog parks. BringFido.com, a website for travelers looking for dog-friendly destinations, hotels, and yes, areas with dog parks, lists more than 3,000 dog parks in its database, said Lauren Greer, BringFido's social media manager.

Dog parks are in many ways a microcosm of a community, McCabe said, because you usually have a very active community group that is interested in helping to maintain the dog park in an ideal situation. "You need to have a real stakeholder sense in the community amongst both the people that bring their dogs there and, at the same time, a good working relationship with the community's park and recreation department that is responsible for the sites. All this leads to a shared level of experience or a shared level of responsibility between both the community group and the public agency that operates it."

The way dog parks are built often begins with an interested community group coming to the municipality or public agency with the request. "What that should trigger," McCabe said, "is a very public, community-based process in which you have a series of open meetings and a call for nominations to make sure that when you do eventually find a dog park, you are putting it in a place that is going to meet the needs of both dog owners and non-dog owners."

Startups: Perspectives, Large and Small

Three women started the Pilgrim Bark Park in Provincetown, Mass. "We all had the idea that a dog park was long overdue in Provincetown, which is such a dog-friendly town," said Debbie Grabler, president and co-founder, Pilgrim Bark Park. "When we first had the idea, we realized that the complexion of the political system around here was not in our favor. So, we waited until the timing was right politically to approach the town manager.

"What we did first was to get community support," Grabler said. "We had a petition. We went to a lot of the town boards like disability, council on aging, tourism, and let them know we were trying to build a groundswell for a dog park. Once we got enough signatures, we went to one of our town meetings, got on the agenda, and they were amenable to giving us a piece of land."

The dog park exists on one acre of town owned land. It's a partnership with the public, even though the town does nothing but provide the land. Grabler and her group have a user agreement with the town. They are a private, nonprofit entity, totally separate from the recreation department.

"In order to raise money, we became a 501 and the town said, look, we can provide you with this land for the specific designation of a dog park, but we can't give you anything else," Grabler recalled. "They said to please not come back to us and ask for money. Show us that you can raise money, and we did—$10,000. Ten years ago [when the park idea started] the Stanton Foundation was not available for grant money. So, we hit the phones, called up corporations and the wellness foundation, Purina, and got a couple of grants from them. We did naming rights: Wellness bought some benches, and then we did what everybody does—we sold bricks and T-shirts. We worked the room. We were barking for dollars. Endlessly."

Off-leash dog parks in both large cities and small towns are among the most popular neighborhood amenities.

There was less of a startup problem in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Bear Creek Dog Park, named by USA Today as one of the 10 best in America. The dog park is 25 acres, and Bear Creek runs through it. It is a beautiful setting, with Pike's Peak on the horizon.

"The community really embraces dogs," said Kyle Melvin, central district park supervisor. The park exists as part of the community services department with El Paso County. "You hardly run into a person around here who doesn't have a dog," Melvin said. "There was a need for a dog park, a want for it, and El Paso County fulfilled that need and provided the public with this 25-acre enclosed dog park that is the biggest one I know of."

When McCabe, of TPL, worked in Austin, Texas, he observed a joint effort between the parks department and the animal control division at the city, as well as the ASPCA and other groups. "They would say, 'Here is what we know. There are a lot of dogs in one area that may not be walked a lot. Over here is an area where we know we have dog bites. Here is where we pick up a lot of strays. Here is where we know there are a lot of people in multi-family units that don't have a lot of yard or property.' And they figured out how to serve and meet the needs of those groups."

That was really cool, McCabe said, "… because we also had animal control groups doing educational efforts about how to do dog training."

The integrated approach between multiple city agencies, as well as community groups can really work well. It takes a lot of time, but it's worth spending that time invested before you get something off the ground.