Barking Up the Right Tree

Tips & Trends From Today's Hottest Dog Parks

By Kelli Anderson

For Kelly Acree and her husband, tired of the dust bowls, mud pits and general discomfort of the dog parks in their Dallas, Texas, neighborhoods, the thought of creating an indoor dog park seemed like a good idea. The resulting success of their 50,000-square-foot indoor dream-come-true in March 2009, Unleashed, has proven that others think so, too.

"We researched all around the country and many parks lacked amenities," said Acree about their effort to identify the best and avoid the worst of many outdoor dog parks. "Although some are really trying—even having toy/treat vending machines—it's as much about the owner as the dog. You exercise your dog 30 minutes and go home in a traditional park, but our customers spend three or four hours here easily—some all day."

And there's a good reason why. With a 25,000-square-foot space dedicated for indoor freedom, dogs can romp with other four-legged friends monitored by trained attendants in a climate-controlled, comfortable space, while their owners can take advantage of free Wi-Fi, as they sip a cappuccino in the café, pick up a new toy at the pet center or relax in the lounge areas overlooking the main floor.

Describing itself as a new kind of amusement park, complete with waterfall, spa-like feel and a soon-to-be-completed outdoor park with splash area, it is ideally suited for the American family that more and more includes Rover as one of its core members. And it's not just about bells and whistles—although there are plenty. Attention has also been paid to the basics. As anyone who has been around dogs can attest, "tell-tail" signs of a doggie domain can be unsightly and smelly. However, thanks to a heavy-duty HVAC system, giant 20-foot ceiling fans and an anti-microbial artificial turf with a proprietary drainage system beneath the flooring, Unleashed has ensured that its environment smells fresh and stays spotless.

"We are really seeing an increase, week by week of new clients," Acree said of their recession-proof business that has registered more than 7,000 clients so far. "We had one customer tell us that she has decided to forgo eating out to come here. It says a lot about what people are willing to do for their companions."

Like the evolution of fitness and aquatic centers before them, successful recreational spaces for dogs and their owners—whether indoor or out—are offering space for fitness as well as comfort, community and creative fun that are good for the users and great for business.

And while Americans have always loved their dogs, something has profoundly shifted in our relationship to man's best friend. One has only to look at the booming pet industry of designer dog apparel, gourmet and organic dog food and TV shows like "The Dog Whisperer" to recognize that dogs have moved in from the traditional doghouse and into the family unit itself.

For many who now wait longer to get married and to have children, dogs become their first "family," which may explain why across the country so many community groups are clamoring for dog parks of their own. To date, an estimated 1,200 dog parks—many created in partnership with community groups and their park districts—are in use with hundreds more on the drawing board.

Best in Show

Most dog parks have been designed over the years to give dogs a simple and secure space to run and play, yet have often overlooked a key user of this recreational space: the people. But today, dog parks that win "best in show" are those that go beyond the simple fenced enclosure with a list of rules posted at the gate. They are spaces that recognize and are responding to the changing relationship owners have with their pets and the desire they have to create community with others in a safe, regulated environment.

"People see the benefit of exercising their dogs and themselves, and are willing to pay for a safe, regulated park," said Pam Stanley, owner of nationally award-winning Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. "A lot of dog parks, especially city dog parks, don't temperament-test the dogs or make sure they are vaccinated. We're strict on that and require all vaccinations and temperament-test the dogs on site. People appreciate it—it's a healthier and safer place."

Stanley is quick to point out, however, that most city parks have a more difficult time regulating their parks without the kind of funding needed to do so.

However, for the very popular dog parks created by the park district in Indianapolis, keeping dogs and owners safe and dog parks more regulated has proven to be not only possible but revenue-generating as well.

"The initial push for a dog park came from our user groups," said Kent Knorr, manager of revenue and special facilities with the parks and recreation department of the city. "Broad Ripple Dog Park was our first and a major success. We sold passes that were available in January and were sold out by spring. It's become such a phenomenon that people are always asking how to get them in their own communities."

To date, Indianapolis has built two other larger dog parks and is in the process of planning more. What Knorr appreciates about their system is that it not only generates much-needed revenue through a variety of passes that can be purchased on an as-needed or annual-membership basis, but their system also allows the city to regulate the parks' users and their safety.

Dog owners who provide proof of updated vaccinations and pay a fee are given reader cards that activate the magnetic gate system at the city's dog parks. Discounts are given for those with more than one dog or for those buying passes late in the season to further encourage people to abide by the rules and participate in the program. Because so many people now use Indianapolis's growing number of dog parks, they have recently instituted a VIP ("Very Important Pooch") option that allows users to access all their dog parks instead of specific ones, as in years past.

Another benefit of issuing membership passes and charging even a modest fee is that it imbues the members with an even greater sense of ownership. User groups that usually invest a large amount of time and energy to create dog parks are typically motivated to see to it that their parks are well kept; issuing passes makes it even more so. "Members really treat it like it's theirs," Stanley says of her park's clients. "They're part owners and are very good about picking up after themselves. We found that they'll even pay it forward and pick up after others who miss theirs."

Knorr agrees, indicating that in his 10 years of dog park experience, people are good to clean up after their pets. It is a non-issue.

Paws for Thought

Making sure that a dog park is well designed and maintained, however, is a first step that is essential to success. Today's most-lauded dog parks are careful to address issues of safety, comfort, aesthetics and amenities. Like most good projects, it starts with good planning.

Ten years ago when Martha Burgess, landscape designer for Judith Heinz Landscape Architects in New York City, completed one of the city's largest dog runs at the Theodore Roosevelt Park in Manhattan, she knew careful planning was essential to solve the existing park's many, many problems.

"When the project began we had to work with the history museum, the Parks Department, seven different community groups and the architects—and we had to appease everyone," Burgess explained about the four-year-long process. "The planning and design process had to be done early and up front. It can't be an afterthought—you can't just slip it in."

Taking an existing city park and revamping its dog run meant addressing issues of erosion from its sloping site, unpleasant smell from years of mismanagement, bothersome noise (barking) for nearby residents and aesthetics to meld the area seamlessly into the larger park space.

Changing the location from a slope to a well-drained, flatter area of the park was an enormous step in the right direction. Susyn Stecchi, founder of DogParks USA and author of So You Want to Build a Dog Park: A Comprehensive Guide for Municipalities and Private Entities says that adequate drainage is essential to prevent the mud pits and bog-like areas that plague so many existing dog parks.

Likewise, having adequate space for dogs to not only run and play, but also to prevent the wear and tear on a natural surface, is important. "Our first park took a real beating on the turf at first," Knorr said. "We look for locations now that allow a bigger area. Our two newer parks are 3 to 4 acres total, and we are able to divide them into two sides to rest half of the property as needed. We've found it extremely important for maintenance."

Other essential elements Stecchi recommends in all dog park designs are shade for both dogs and their owners, water, safe fencing and especially safe gate designs that will keep dogs from getting out as others come in. Providing doggie waste bags, scoopers and adequate seating are just some of the features that make these spaces more user-friendly and clean.

Keeping their dog run clean and low-maintenance was certainly a high priority for the Theodore Roosevelt Park project. Although considered a large dog run by city standards at an estimated 1,500 square feet, it was not large enough to maintain turf. The solution was a carefully chosen gravel surface that would be gentle to paws but easily washed down each night with an automated irrigation and drainage system to keep the area clean and fresh.

But whether it's providing a cleanable surface or providing sufficient space to maintain turf, making sure that there is a way to rid the space of dog waste via receptacles, baggies and scoopers is a must.

And while dogs don't particularly care how their parks may look, owners and the community certainly do. Well-chosen plantings can soften the look of a fenced area around a park's perimeter, trees within the space offer much-needed shade and interest, and whimsical additions like a colorful fire hydrant add an affordable element of fun.

In the case of the Theodore Roosevelt Park, an aesthetic touch also proved to be practical: Climbing ivy along an adjacent apartment building wall not only looks good but absorbs some of the sounds residents feared would be a problem.

Dogs Rule...

One of the keys to any dog park's success is making sure there are clearly understood and posted rules. The following list of minimum dog rules as prescribed by Susyn Stecchi, founder of DogParks USA and author of So You Want to Build a Dog Park: A Comprehensive Guide for Municipalities and Private Entities, is a good place to start. While Stecchi provides a longer comprehensive list in her newly revised edition of the book, along with countless other tips and strategies for creating a great dog park, here are 10 should-have rules from her guidebook:

  1. Clean up after your dog.
  2. All dogs must have current rabies shots and other vaccines as required by law.
  3. Female dogs in heat are not allowed.
  4. Please remove your dog for a time out to calm down if it displays aggressive behavior, or leash the dog and leave the park if necessary.
  5. Dogs must have an owner with them at all times.
  6. Do not bring rawhide chews or other dog foods into the dog park.
  7. Small children should not be brought to the dog park.
  8. Agility equipment is for dogs only.
  9. Puppies under 4 months of age are not allowed.
  10. Watch for dogs on the other side of the entry gate when entering or leaving to prevent escapes.

Bow-WOW Factor

What ultimately sets a good dog park apart from the pack are the amenities that make the recreational experience more comfortable and fun for all involved. Sandy digging pits and agility courses are just some of the added features that don't cost a lot to create and add great play value.

Just as aquatic recreation (think spray parks and swimming pools) is an irresistible magnet for kids of all ages, dog ponds, spray features and swimming holes are equally fun for person and pooch alike. Even more appreciated are the cleaning stations that some parks provide to give the owners a place to rinse off their dogs before jumping into an upholstered car seat or to use as a regular alternative to the sudsy bathing mess washing Fido can create at home.

Where many dog parks are really hitting it on the nose is the recognition that dogs are social creatures—and so are their humans. Adequate seating in shaded space and gathering spaces like a coffee shop or doggie supply store or station are all special features that encourage people to relax, create a sense of community and enjoy the exchange of ideas with those who share their love of all-things-canine.

Even those limited by space are not letting their desire for a dog park deter them. According to Stecchi, newly constructed upscale apartments and condos are offering rooftop dog parks for their dog-owning residents. Even shopping malls are beginning to offer indoor dog parks to lure their patrons to linger longer.

Dog Teams

The good news is that because this growing demographic is so invested in caring for their dogs, there is much to be gained from their enthusiasm—volunteering, for one. For many communities eager to have dog parks, a happy partnership between park district and user group has evolved.

"If they (the park district) can provide the land and assist with the infrastructure (running water to it from the city line for example), then the dog park citizens group can work together to get donations or equipment and services, raise funds, sign up volunteers and so forth," Stecchi said. "A very resourceful group might be able to get the land donated too—there are endless possibilities on how to make it happen."

That partnership has certainly been an integral part of Indianapolis's success. "We have to be open to user groups and their suggestions and to work with our community to come up with a product that's meaningful to them," Knorr said. "We meet annually to see what's working well and have an open line of communication during the year."

And while Knorr acknowledged that some of their users have begun to turn their attention and spend their dollars on more expensive and elaborate private dog parks in the area, he believes that the park district provides a balanced, affordable option for those users who just want a dog park well done. It's not about competition. "If something becomes important to our users," Knorr said about the district's commitment to serve the community, "we'll work with them with partnerships and a team effort to make it happen."

Sit, Spot. Sit.

A relative newcomer to the recreational scene, the dog park, like other recreational spaces before it, is also expanding its role and tapping into the public's interest to do more. Offering classes ranging from puppy training and etiquette to teaching new dog games and sports like flyball or agility training is a win-win for both the individuals and the community at large.

Studies show, for example, that well exercised, trained dogs are not only better-behaved companions, they also make for a safer community. Dogs deter criminal activity; those parks with dog parks generally have less crime.

"I see programming for dogs as a new thing," said Larry White, superintendent of the park district in Oak Park Terrace, Ill., whose district has only just started to offer dog obedience classes for beginners. "It's better for everyone. If a dog is uncontrollable, it's not good. You have to train them to be a good citizen. You want everyone to be safe. In our last class the dogs ranged from 5 months to 3 years and had had no previous training at all. And for the people who stuck it out—their dogs were a heck of a lot better."

White also sees the recreational benefits of dog training for the people of his community. "If you can get people out to have fun with their dogs, the dog not only behaves better but you are getting people outdoors, too."

And Oak Park Terrace's foray into recreation for dog owners and their dogs doesn't stop there. This past Easter they hosted two egg-hunting events: one for children and one for dogs. The park district used the canine event to showcase local pet businesses and to further educate those who attended about the rewards and benefits of having a well-trained pet.


End-of-season pool parties for dogs and owners, Mother's Day celebrations or birthday parties, pet parades and festivals that feature local pet vendors, games and events are just some of the creative ways other communities are including those who count canines as part of their family.

At Shaggy Pines Dog Park, the special event has been known to do double doo-ty. "We have April Stools Day," Stanley explained about their playful combination of fun and practicality. With 14 acres of open space, hiking paths and play areas, they need all the help they can get. "We have a poop and pizza party after the spring thaw to help clean up the park." The members get to enjoy the pizza and camaraderie of fellow dog lovers; the park gets volunteers to clean up for the spring season. There's no denying this is a dedicated demographic.

For those just warming up to the idea of creating a dog park and the many opportunities it offers, it pays to think it through carefully with the help of an architect and the involvement of user groups to get it right. For those dog parks already in existence, however, there's even more ways to improve on a good thing. "There are endless possibilities on how to make it happen but it will involve work—lots of work," Stecchi said. "It's worth it, though, to get a dog park in your community. How could you not when dog is your best friend?"

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.