Dog Parks 2.0

Taking America's Dog Parks to the Next Level

By Daniel P. Smith

Todd Reubold, a regular guest at the Minnehaha Dog Park in Minneapolis, calls the expansive setting a "doggy oasis in the middle of the city."

Tucked alongside the west bank of the mighty Mississippi River, the park features a half-mile-long sandy beach juxtaposed against wooded trails, inviting idyllic adventures when Mother Nature smiles upon the Twin Cities. In winter, frozen waterfalls make the park a winter wonderland for humans and dogs alike.

Minnehaha, however, is but one of six dog parks scattered throughout Minneapolis, with many residents able to walk to the parks with their canines in tow before taking off the leash and letting Fido run wild. Across the country, dog parks such as those in Minneapolis serve as an important amenity for canines and their owners, providing the opportunity for dogs to exercise and socialize off-leash. They are a particularly important public resource for disabled and elderly handlers who often have companion animals yet sparse opportunity for those dogs to interact with their four-legged friends.

"The socialization and exercise aspect available at the dog park is different than in any other environment," said Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board spokesperson Dawn Sommers. "It's a place for dogs to be off-leash, socialize, exercise and have fun in a safe and free environment."

While any dog park—most generically defined as a fenced-in area allowing dogs to run about—is a welcome community amenity, a number of parks around the nation go well beyond the norm. Some integrate dynamic natural elements; others incorporate human-made artistry that serves both practical and aesthetic purposes. Some champion socialization and programming opportunities; others bring a social consciousness to the park setting, touting such causes as dog adoption or innovative energy alternatives. Some revitalize a downtrodden area with energy and movement; others embrace an area's historic or natural character and blend into the landscape. Each in its own way does something to separate itself from the pack and, in the process, inspire new ideas in others.

Cosmo Dog Park
Gilbert, Arizona

Thanks to the Cosmo Dog Park, an unused retention basin has become one of Gilbert, Arizona's prime attractions. More than 5,000 visitors came to Cosmo's grand opening event in 2006, a sign of the park's standing in the community and the pride residents hold for the recreational offering.

Described by Gilbert spokesperson Beth Lucas as "a special oasis that has captured and celebrated the unique bond between dogs and humans," the Cosmo Dog Park welcomes an estimated 600,000 annual visits from residents alone, many waiting at the park's gates for each morning's opening.

The park's unique layout—its drainage infrastructure creates an amphitheatre look—and special features attract dog lovers from neighboring areas. Unlike most dog parks that separate canines by size, Cosmo identifies its dog areas based on temperament: an active dog area, which includes a number of obstacles made of masonry blocks, and a timid dog area.

"We made the decision to identify areas by dog temperament because people often know if their dog is timid or not, and that can include big dogs as well as little ones," Gilbert Assistant Town Manager Tami Ryall said.

Everything in the 17-acre Cosmo Dog Park, honored by Dog Fancy magazine as the nation's best dog park in 2007, celebrates dog life: Lights are decorated with bright and colorful paw-print décor; paw prints also run along the amphitheater steps, shape the tot lot and cross the lake, allowing children to leap from one to the next; and finally, a retired fire hydrant from the town's public works department has been reinvented as a water feature.

Aside from playing and exercising, residents can also train their dogs at the park, using the same equipment as the police department's K9 team, including an obstacle course as well as a popular dog beach that features a dock for dogs to leap into the water. The police connection also provides the park's name: Cosmo was the city's first K9 cop.

Yet, the park was built with humans in mind as well. Ramadas offer an opportunity for picnics and community activities, the nearby tot lot features safe climbing toys, and trails allow for a stroll along the slopes that lead to the lake and dog beach. All amenities interconnect and sit within sight of one another to allow the entire family an opportunity to enjoy the dog park together.

"We discovered that people using dog parks tend to be social, so we wanted to create areas for people to congregate as well," Ryall added.

The park's entry also features a brick memorial that acts as a special place for residents to honor their dogs. Over the course of six months, nearly 1,400 bricks were sold at cost, as an outpouring of residents expressed messages of love and memories for their dogs past and present.

Above and Beyond: A ramp over the water allows dogs to jump into the lake and fetch a ball or stick. Often, Ryall said, up to 20 dogs will line the ramp waiting for their turn to jump. It's the same ramp K9 officers use for training their police dogs, partners who must often leap into the canal to fulfill their law enforcement duties.

"The wet dog area and dog beach are a real centerpiece," she added. "You can go down there anytime of day and you'll see a group of dogs playing in the water."

Wish List: Investigations are under way for the addition of a dog waste light generator device. Such a device would transform dog waste into energy (methane) through a publicly fed methane digester. Once the dog waste is mixed using a hand crank, energy is formed to produce light. Currently, park leaders are discussing a partnership with Arizona State University Polytechnic to challenge students in the science and technology field to develop such a novel system.

Pilgrim Bark Park
Provincetown, Mass.

A Portuguese fishing town, Provincetown has garnered a reputation as one of the nation's most canine-friendly communities, a status cultivated with features such as year-round off-leash beach rights, pet-friendly patio dining, an emergency pet shelter and a dog fountain on the lawn of the historic town hall. At the center of Provincetown's dog-friendly ways, however, sits the Pilgrim Bark Park, a 3-year old complex that embraces the seaside community's past and present.

"Two dogs came over on the Mayflower, so we have a 400-year canine history," explained Candace Nagle, the president and co-founder of the Provincetown Dog Park Association, the agency that oversees the Pilgrim Bark Park. "We wanted to incorporate that history alongside our maritime heritage and roots as an artists' colony."

While dogs can make use of the town's myriad dog-friendly features, the space inside Pilgrim's gates is equally captivating. Artist-made, multi-tiered benches provide seating as well as dog play while the one-acre parcel features separate sections for small dogs and general dogs.

"If you have the space, it's a wise idea to split it up," Nagle said, adding that the park's landscaping incorporates irrigation.

Nagle and her fellow Provincetown Dog Park Association colleagues have done much to make the space more than a simple dog park, cultivating a social community for the dogs as well as the humans. In 2009 comedian Lily Tomlin shared her comedic talents for a park fundraiser that not only vaulted the Pilgrim Bark Park into the national spotlight, but characterized the park's communal vibe. Additional fundraisers for the privately funded park have included a silent auction of 50 knotty pine dog houses that netted $13,000 and, during the Tomlin fundraiser, 50 artisan-crafted ceramic dog bowls that earned the park another $8,000.

Above and Beyond: Most of Pilgrim Bark Park's infrastructure is utilitarian art, including its benches, signage, poop bag stations, posts wrapped with nautical rope and a custom-built storage shed that resembles a super-sized dog house. "All [of these features] serve as necessary dog park elements, but are also art, which reflects our unique seaside community," Nagle explained

Coming Soon: Outside of buying trees for more shade, Pilgrim Bark Park is complete. Attention now turns to marketing Provincetown as the nation's premier dog-friendly community. The hope is to not only attract tourists and their canine companions, but inspire such spirited animal welfare in other communities as well.

Prairie Pastures Dog Park
Clinton, Iowa

A former petting zoo that sat dormant for years and withered into an oversized, shoulder-height weed-infested parcel, the Prairie Pastures Dog Park in Clinton, Iowa, opened in July 2007 to eye-opening acclaim.

Enclosed by a 10-foot fence, the six-acre park includes a five-acre large dog area as well as a one-acre small dog yard that features an agility training area. A double-gated entry ensures safe entry and exit. Broken water pumps have been restored to working order, while garden benches scattered around the park site, often under shade trees, provide seating. The former monkey cage received a paint job, and molded swimming pools allow dogs to enjoy the water if they wish to avoid the park's swimming pond. Park planners also elected to maintain as much of the park's natural look as possible, including vines and trees that blanket the property in earthly wonder.

"No tax dollars or city money—just a lot of blood, sweat and tears," said Prairie Pastures' spokesperson Pam Wisor, who credits the energy and vision of park advocate Judy May for turning Prairie Pastures from dream to reality.

In just three years, the park has tripled its membership, which includes visitors to the Mississippi River town. The park leadership's creativity extends to marketing as well, with one-year gift certificates offered during the holiday season to help maintain the facility's operating budget.

Above and Beyond: Since its 2007 opening, Prairie Pastures has added additional land, highlighted by a senior/special needs area that sits adjacent to the park's swimming pond. Before opening that distinctive area, park leaders researched other dog parks throughout the United States, noting that a senior/special needs area would not only be unique but, more importantly, useful to dogs and handlers who might not otherwise be able to enjoy the dog park experience.

Coming Soon: "We've only been open a little over three years and are still a work-in-progress, but we keep at it. Our ideas come more quickly than our labor and finances can keep up," Wisor confessed.

Next spring, Prairie Pastures hopes to complete "The Big Dig." The former bird aviary space will be transformed into a mulch-filled area that invites dogs to sniff and dig. Meanwhile, volunteers will soon clean the swimming pond, a perpetual work in progress according to Wisor, and install a waterfall feature to keep it aerated.

Wish list items include a hard-surface parking lot to replace the current mulch-covered lot. Coupled with handicap parking spaces and double-gated dog park entry, the senior/special needs area would then truly become handicap accessible for handlers as well as dogs.

West Bend Dog Park
West Bend, Wis.

Over a period of 12 years beginning in the mid-1990s, plans for a dog park in West Bend, Wis., had come before the city council three times. And thrice the resolution was rejected.

In 2008, however, a groundswell of support began forming for a dog park in the town of 30,000 in southeastern Wisconsin. A more formal and organized grassroots movement, K9 Friends of West Bend, approached the city council once again and laid out plans for a comprehensive dog park. This time, the council agreed. The city identified underutilized property and, last summer, opened the 10-acre West Bend Dog Park, the city and county's first off-leash dog park.

"It was something our citizens wanted in our community, and it certainly was an amenity lacking," said Melissa Lipska, a landscape architect with the West Bend Park, Recreation, and Forestry Department.

Spotted in a densely wooded area with mature oak and hickory trees as well as prairie spaces, the property features rolling hills and trails for both dog and human exploration. In the rear of the park, a kettle (a glacial land feature) holds large boulders.

"This was not an open field that had no other use or something along the side of a road that could fit no other purpose," Lipska said. "This is an absolutely beautiful piece of property."

The K9 Friends maintain the space, including lawn mowing and litter removal, with an extensive volunteer army, while the city has added an assortment of benches and picnic tables to make the space even cozier for visitors.

Above and Beyond: The park utilizes its compelling natural terrain to its fullest. Of the entire West Bend park's 39 acres, the dog park's 10 acres features the best mature stand of woods with fences and trails carefully planned and constructed so that no quality trees were removed.

"Our best asset to our dog park is not something that we could construct, but something that we were able to contribute to the dog park, and that was naturally beautiful wooded rolling hills and prairie," Lipska said.

Wish List: West Bend is currently researching lighting options, including solar-powered lights, for both security and nighttime access.

NOLA City Bark
New Orleans, La.

From Hurricane Katrina's fallout comes one of the nation's most endearing stories: NOLA City Bark, New Orleans' premier dog park that sits on 4.6 acres in historic City Park.

Devastated by Katrina's wrath and New Orleans' fledgling state, the 1,300-acre, historic City Park seemed destined to remain an urban wasteland. Much of the park sat under four feet of water, and damages mounted to well over $40 million. Slowly, however, the expansive park rebounded and welcomed recreation, largely spurred by volunteer efforts and private foundations. In 2007, a group of committed private individuals approached city park leaders, hoping to secure a slice of the park for four-legged friends.

"Most people didn't even know what a dog park was in New Orleans," said NOLA City Bark President Jackie Shreves.

The City of New Orleans provided the dog park's 4.6-acre location, a largely unused parcel even pre-Katrina, and some of the site improvements, while dog park board members raised $440,000 from the community and corporate sponsors. Hiring a landscape architect who specialized in animal habitats and researching best practices at dog parks across the country, NOLA City Bark began to take shape, incorporating historic elements, such as black iron gates, that meshed with the Big Easy's centuries-old character.

Today, three years after the plan's conception, NOLA City Bark stands tall as one of the nation's most celebrated, state-of-the-art dog parks. The site features both small and large dog areas (both with double-gated entry), wading pools, agility equipment and a doggy shower. Portable lawn chairs allow visitors to establish seating wherever they desire, while on-site restrooms and handicap access allow fun to reign for everyone, every time.

Upon opening in March 2010, board members thought they'd be overwhelmed by some 500 permits. Within eight months, however, the board has doled out nearly 3,000 $35 permits to local residents and others who travel to the park from other parts of Louisiana and even Mississippi. Each permit holder carries an electronic security card that allows access into the park and fosters a safe environment for both humans and dogs.

The nonprofit NOLA City Bark agency covers the dog park's maintenance, while also promoting dog education and adoption. On certain days, rescue groups are even allowed to bring in adoption-available dogs.

"The park's become as much about people as dogs," Shreves said. "You have people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds crossing paths who otherwise wouldn't, and that's proven to be a real special element."

Above and Beyond: "The Pit" is a sand-filled pit where dogs can dig and dig some more. A truckload of sand arrives every other month to replenish the supply, while pet-friendly showers help owners clean their dogs after play time.

Wish List: The park's supporters are currently raising funds for the installation of lighting and irrigation.

Heritage Park
Henderson, Nev.

In building the five-acre Bark Park at Heritage Park, Henderson officials met with veterinarians and dog trainers to explore the amenities most needed in a dog park complex. Those focus groups joined with public input and extensive national research to create the Bark Park at Heritage Park, one of the Nevada town's most celebrated public spaces.

"We began our department master plan two years ago and the two things we kept hearing over and over from our residents was the need for a dog park and additional forms of outdoor recreation," said Kim Becker, marketing and communications supervisor for the City of Henderson Parks and Recreation Department. "There were plenty of residents in our community who were pet owners eager to get out of the home and enjoy leisure time with their pets."

The Bark Park features three separate dog runs (small, large and mix) for similarly sized dogs to frolic, an agility course for dogs to run on and around, walking paths throughout the park, dog and human drinking stations, shade shelters and dog-bone shaped benches.

"We see so many concerned about mixing their small dogs with larger dogs and the three separate dog runs is a popular, appreciated solution," Becker said.

With little more than a Facebook announcement carrying word of the park's unofficial opening last August, hundreds poured into the park for a first look.

Above and Beyond: Barkules, a six-foot tall, 18-foot long public art display welcomes visitors to the park. Since kids can climb Barkules, parents can easily keep one eye on their child and another on their dog in this multifunctional park setting.

"We pulled in the community involvement with a naming contest for Barkules and that generated some real excitement," Becker said.

Coming Soon: The Bark Park looks to add canine obedience classes as well as agility courses in 2011, thereby tying recreational programming into the new park district space. The park is also adding doghouse-shaped human restrooms, which are expected to be complete by summer 2011.

Ithaca Dog Park Turns Waste Into Compost

As the plastic bags with dog waste began piling up for a trip to the landfill, dog owners in Ithaca, N.Y., home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College, began wondering if there wasn't a more environmentally sensible way to dispose of the dog poop.

Turns out, there is.

At one of the city's dog parks in the Treman Marine State Park, dog waste is being turned into compost, an early trial with already-intriguing results. Visitors can use special corn-based bags to pick up after their dog. After putting the bag and its contents into large bins near the park's entrance, a local compost company, Cayuga Compost, ventures to the park weekly to empty the bins.

Cayuga's Mark Whittig said the two-year-old collection of pet waste is nearly done composting. The first year's collection of nearly 12,000 pounds of dog waste, a $6,000 project funded by private donations, is now about one pickup truck worth of compost. In early 2011, samples will be sent to a lab to test for pathogens and determine nutrient profile for possible usage.

"It's unique material, not in its characteristics, but in its origins. That makes it interesting commercially. There's an opportunity for a nonprofit like the dog park to use it as a product for fundraising," said Whittig, whose company is still collecting 250 pounds of dog waste each week from the dog park's bins.

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