Feature Article - March 2018
Find a printable version here

Dog Day Afternoons

Building Your Dog Park, From Start to Finish

By Rick Dandes

Crucial to Success

Success requires a public process, suggested McCabe. "Make sure that everybody knows that a dog park is going to be built. The second key element is to make sure that a community group 'adopts' the park, so to speak, and is willing to keep an eye on things. They could just be a couple of people or a large group."

Where McCabe lives, near Boston, "… we have a dog group and an off-leash area that is a combination of both the town's recreation department, as well as this community group that maintains it. They have an agreed-to schedule for maintenance and how often the trash gets picked up. They do annual cleanup. Having that community engagement between the group and the city is really good."

Grabler said one of the keys to their success in Provincetown is having two separate sections, one for small dogs, less than 25 pounds, and one general dog section. "Having two separate sections is I think essential in dog parks. Small dogs can go into the general dog section, but big dogs cannot go into the small dog section. We have double entry gates, so if they've never been to the park before, they can sit for a moment before they are unleashed. The double entry also keeps dogs from escaping; unleashed they might cut out and run into the street. A double entry doesn't allow for that."

Grabler tries to get users engaged, to make them ambassadors to the park. "The most important thing is when we educate our users, we hope they can pass that down—making them engaged in the sense that this is your park. We have rules so that we can sweep the hardscapes, pull a weed if they see it. Let them know if there is poop in the park and it's not yours, pick it up. Help us to keep it clean and safe."

A big issue that comes up is in a built-up area that has a lot of professional dog walkers. "You want to establish a limit on the number of dogs an individual can bring into an off-leash area," McCabe said. "Lean on the public agency and the groups like ASPCA, which have standards on how they'd like to see the human-to-dog ratios go. Use that as a way to create your standards."

Stakeholder Engagement

Having a great volunteer base is crucial to success, Melvin said. "We have friend's groups, which is a committee of volunteers. They give ideas and help with annual events, they help fundraise, they help promote the park. We involve the community in what we do. We take their input, we have them help us, we implement their ideas, we put their efforts, their fundraising back into the park."

"From what we see," added Greer, dog parks are most successful when they include shade, water and lots of space. "We have over 3,000 dog parks listed on BringFido and the comments we see most frequently are in regard to the amount of shade available to both dogs and their owners, access to water, whether it be for swimming, cooling off or just drinking, and a nice, clean space to run and play—no mud holes."

The most highly rated dog parks on their site, she said, are also completely fenced in, and often include separate areas for large and small dogs, and seating for their owners. Agility equipment, kiddie pools and other equipment are also huge bonuses.

What Can Go Wrong

If you are planning a pilot program to test the dog park's viability; McCabe suggests doing it in rotating areas. "Here's why: If you have a pilot, if you've created structures on the ground, and shading, it is hard to remove if you decide it is the wrong area."

That's exactly what the folks at Boston Commons, one of the oldest parks in America, had to do. Near the park are very wealthy communities, as well as a lot of universities. You get dogs large and small being walked. "People were bringing their dogs to the Commons and letting them off leash and they were jumping up on people," McCabe recalled. "People got scared. What was done was to develop a set of areas that could be designated as off-leash and they rotated through several areas seasonally. They put up temporary signage."

Meanwhile, not all dogs are suitable for a dog park, added Grabler. "Dogs can be territorial, or they may not have been properly voice-trained. People can come in, let their dog off the leash and immediately the dog runs away from them. The caveats are, know your dog, watch for signs. Not all breeds get along with each other. Know your dog well enough to look for signs of fear or aggression. We encourage people to stay close to their dogs, especially if they have never been to the park before. We have a park etiquette note in one of our kiosks that talks about that. You want your dog to not be in distress."

Make sure your dog park has plenty of trash and waste disposal areas, noted Greer, of BringFido. It should be convenient for visitors to clean up after their dogs. Keep clean dog bowls and fun items, like tennis balls or Frisbees for play in the park.

If the park isn't grassy, she said, use wood chips to avoid potential mud puddles, especially around water spigots. Encourage dog owners to pay attention and interact with their dogs. In signage, ask them to limit cell phone use while at the park.

It is important to have dedicated maintenance staff, Melvin added. "We have 23 restrooms in the park, and we clean those every day. We pick up excess waste. We clean the parking lot, and the creek on a daily basis, seven days a week in the summer months. We are dedicated to keeping the park as clean as it can be. We maintain the amenities meticulously.

"When you have well over 100,000 dogs and people every year as we do," Melvin said, "you need to keep it as clean as you can. It's not easy. But from a maintenance perspective, realizing how many people use it, and you can barely find a piece of trash at our dog park, and that says a lot about my crew, our organization and our volunteers."