Feature Article - February 2021
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Raise the Woof!

Incorporate Dog-Friendly Amenities

By Chris Gelbach


As the nation continues its struggle with a deadly pandemic, pet ownership has provided a refuge for many. One result has been a pet-adoption boom that has left some shelters temporarily out of adoptable animals.

Dog parks have likewise provided a haven for people and their pets to get some exercise while enjoying the relative safety of socially distanced (for the humans at least) time outdoors.

While statistics on American dog ownership can be a bit hairy, they shed light on the fact that many households have dogs. One 2016 study from the American Pet Products Association found that 68% of U.S. households owned a pet in 2016, including an estimated 90 million dogs. The same year, the American Veterinary Medical Association said that 57% of households had a pet, including 77 million dogs nationwide.

What is beyond dispute is that dog owners and their pets are among the most rabid users of park systems. Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota's suburban Hennepin County counts nine expansive off-leash areas among its offerings, in addition to a variety of dog-friendly trails. It offers day and annual passes for these parks and sees the trend firsthand.

"They're a great amenity for a lot of people," said Lynn Stoltzmann, director of facility services for Three Rivers Parks. "Our annual off-leash pass holders probably use their annual pass to the greatest frequency of any of our passholders within the park district. We have many users that come several times a week all year long in all kinds of weather."

Similar demand is growing even in many of the nation's most urban environments. "Dog runs [as a park amenity] are the trend that's taking over," said Sam Biederman, unofficial dog czar and assistant commissioner for community outreach and partnership development for NYC Parks. "Their numbers grow and grow and grow every year at a deliberate pace here, but I know we're not the only park system that every year sees an increase in demand for dedicated spaces for dogs."

Dog Parks Post-COVID and Beyond

As vaccination distribution proceeds, dog park experts don't expect the pandemic to usher in huge changes for the designs of new parks, though there might be some park features that become more focused on allowing touch-free and social distancing opportunities.

"We're getting more calls for things like touchless water fountains," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for a manufacturer of dog park products based in Everett, Wash. With social distancing in mind, more customers are also choosing alternatives to the standard six-foot bench. "People are ordering more benches or changing the quantities and doing two four-foot benches or an eight-foot bench where people have a little bit more room to spread out and still feel safe," VandenBerghe said.

The larger trend, however, is a greater focus on design and amenities in dog parks. "What we're seeing more than anything is more advanced design, which includes utilities," said John Sarver, director of design for an Indianapolis-based manufacturer of dog park products. "Five years ago, you didn't see a lot of water lines and electrical lines. Now we're starting to see lights, and we're starting to see water fountains at a better pace. We're also seeing more weather-related protection like shades and shelters."

Trends in Amenities

For dog parks not able to incorporate utilities, VandenBerghe is seeing more parks opt for solar lighting, which can be more cost-effective to install and maintain than traditional wired light. But Sarver cautions that it often doesn't provide the amount of light that electrical lighting does, so he sees it as an ideal option mainly for parks that are far away from utilities.

"Lighting is really important from a safety perspective," VandenBerghe said. This is because many users may not be able to get to the dog park until after dark in northern climates or may opt for after-dark hours in warmer regions where daytime temps regularly hit the 90s and 100s.

According to Sarver, these usage patterns can mean that lighting can play a big part in the success or failure of a dog park since people won't make the effort to go to an unlit park after dark. "If the park's not well-lit, then a lot of times people won't go," Sarver said. "You get to the park and there's no dogs there for your dog to play with, which is one of the greatest benefits of a dog park—having other dogs to play with and other humans to interact with."

In New York City, the lighting used for dog runs is similar to that used for other park areas, and discussions about its use are initiated in concert with the community and the police department. The focus is on answering three questions. "What are the needs for safety? What are the needs for wayfinding? And what are the needs to not create a disturbance for the surrounding community?" Biederman said.

Shade structures are becoming more prevalent too. Because they can be a bigger-ticket item, VandenBerghe often sees them specified in dog-park plans as something that can be added later. "A lot of times a park will be built without them and when their funding comes around or there's an off-leash group fundraising for park improvements, they're often added on basically as soon as they can put them in," she said.