Feature Article - January 2022
Find a printable version here

Going to the Dogs

Best Practices & Design for Today's Dog Park Boom

By Kelli Ra Anderson

It's not your imagination. The number of dogs in our neighborhoods, parks and homes is at an all-time high and projected by the American Veterinarian Medical Association to grow from 85 million in 2020 to more than 100 million by 2030. If trends continue, they say, the number of canine households in America will pass 50% within the next 10 years. That's a lot of kibble.

As a result of America's new love affair with man's best friend, business intel from IBIS World say there is an especially rosy future for the dog park industry. Individuals and communities now realize "properly designed dog parks have a myriad of positive effects on the dogs, individuals and the surrounding community," IBIS reports. Not surprisingly, the demand for quality dog parks is on the rise.

Gone are the days when a dog park could consist of a grassy plot and a fence. To create a great dog park there are design dos and don'ts and smart management practices to help ensure it will succeed.

"Operating or managing a dog park is like any other significant amenity, it requires a significant commitment of daily upkeep, maintenance and cleaning," said John Sarver, president for a manufacturer of dog park products based in Indianapolis, Ind. "The most important aspect when putting together a dog park is that it is safe and that you are hopefully minimizing any health or safety risks at the park. The safety aspect of the park can be affected by these factors: the location of the park, the size and design of the park, the strict enforcement of the necessary rules, daily maintenance, cleaning and inspection of the park and its elements."

Whether it is an enormous dog park in the mountains of Vermont or one of the growing number of smaller community dog parks proliferating around the country, it takes good design, carefully selected amenities and dogged oversight to make these spaces work for pooches and their humans alike.

Cities like Boise, Idaho, winner again (three years in a row) of the Trust for Public Land's national ranking for dog parks per capita this year, are leading the pack in applying consistent strategies, along with some innovative ways to incorporate dog parks into existing neighborhood parks.

"A dog park is an activation for the neighborhood and why we have them in our communities," said Doug Holloway, director for the City of Boise Parks and Recreation, about their commitment to providing these important recreational and social spaces. "We are strategic. We place them where people can go for their dogs and for a sense of community for their neighborhood. It's important in all cities really, to focus on that, to give people a place of ownership to visit and enjoy."

Sniffing Out the Right Location

As with any recreation project, placement is key and soliciting community input should be part of the initial process. For Boise, placing off-leash dog areas in existing community parks where owners can easily walk from their homes is a regular practice.

Keeping it local enhances community relationships and fosters ownership and pride of place to maximize cooperation with rules and mutual accountability to enforce them.

But how to accurately assess the need? Rather than rely on dog licensing numbers, which can underrepresent dog populations, the park district surveys people living within a half-mile of an existing community park to better assess interest in adding an off-leash dog park to a public space. In all but one scenario, the answer in each polled community has been a resounding "Yes!"

Adding a place for dogs and their owners to play within existing parks has many built-in benefits: It offers easy visibility in the community for patrons using a park's other attractions; it takes advantage of existing (and otherwise costly) utility installation like plumbing and electricity; it allows pet owners with children to potentially keep an eye on both of their "babies" at the same time if a child's play area is located nearby; and takes advantage of parking access (always a perk for the mobility-challenged or those with young children looking for easy access).

Another key consideration is safe terrain. Parks placed in dry areas a safe distance from retention ponds and swampy sites where mosquitos and other pests can become a problem are safer and more comfortable. Keeping a safe distance from toxic plants is important too. "Make sure there is no dangerous foliage like sabal palms in Florida," said David Canning, CEO of a dog product manufacturing company out of Orlando, Fla. "Sometimes parks are placed near palmettos that are poisonous if chewed. Give some thought about what is dangerous that could hurt the dog."

Finally, space is an important factor. While not every park can be tens of acres, it is important that it provides enough space for dogs to run unimpeded by agility features or other play structures. If space is spare, however, one option is to place agility or play structures on one side of the park so at least the other half is open space for running and a game of fetch.