Getting the Most From Your Dog Park

Play Areas for Pooches Provide Gateways to Greater Gain

By Jessica Royer Ocken

A few years back, the president of the park board in Fargo, N.D., went off to a conference and came back all full of big ideas, recalled Fargo Director of Recreation Clay Whittlesey. She wanted to build dog parks. "We laughed at her a little," Whittlesey admitted. "But it's one of the most positive things we've done. We're now adding a third."

This is not a story about how to get dogs to use your dog park. Once built, a dog park most often seems to be a place with no shortage of participants. Sometimes it's a challenge just to keep the grass growing! But, what may be missing (whether you've built it yet or not), is a strategy that maximizes the dog park's potential. Although canines are certainly beloved members of the community, it would be tough to say they're your primary target audience—even at the dog park. It's their owners you're really seeking to serve.

So, what would they like? Answering this question is a great place to start. And, once you get the discussion going, you'll likely find all sorts of ways to engage dog lovers in park district and community happenings and special events, as well as get their suggestions for how to make your parks the best they can be. After all, sometimes things begin with a trip to the dog park, but those dogs' people have exercise and entertainment needs as well.

Read on for our tips on how to get everyone, with two legs or four, out there and enjoying life!

Get Groups Involved

Many of the very best dog parks across the country are partnerships between cities or park districts and nonprofit organizations or community volunteers. If you're considering building a dog park, or if you'd like to have some programming at the one you already have, why not see if pet owners might be interested in taking charge?

In the Los Angeles area, the Hermon Dog Park (one of the country's top 10, according to Dog Fancy) is supported by the Friends of Hermon Dog Park (a 501c3 organization), but it's on park district property. "We're very proud of it and our great relationship with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks," said Wendi Riser, co-president of the Friends of Hermon Dog Park. The Friends work closely with the area maintenance division from the park district, she explained. Whether they need a gate opened, graffiti removed or an electric box turned on for a special event, "if we have security or maintenance issues, they're on it right away," Riser said.

And no wonder—what a deal for the park district! This well-loved, award-winning space is managed almost entirely without their in-house resources. Furthermore, in Provincetown, Mass., the Pilgrim Bark Park (another Dog Fancy top-10-ranked park) is run by the Provincetown Dog Park Association Inc. (PDPA), which is another nonprofit. They have a public-private partnership with the town (because the town owns the dog park's land), but the only service Provincetown provides is trash removal, according to Candace Nagle, president and co-founder of the PDPA. The park itself is privately funded by the PDPA. It opened in 2008, but they just put the final touches on this fall.

In contrast, the dog parks in Fargo are operated solely by the park district, but Whittlesey said there are still plenty of groups involved. "[The dog parks] provide an opportunity for recreation for those who don't play sports or go to the pool, including the elderly," he said. "I've also met young people who've gotten married after meeting at the dog park. People at the parks are friendly, and their dogs give them something in common." He said he "sees the same five or six people there all the time" at the dog park near his home, and sometimes there are as many as 30 or 40 gathered.

Even if there's not a formal support organization for the dog park, you can still reach out to interested parties, noted Kim Becker, communications and marketing supervisor for Henderson, Nev., Parks and Recreation. She suggested contacting not just those who'll be neighbors with the dog park and those likely to use it, but those who are experts in the field.

"We know how to build a dog park, but we didn't know how people would use it," she explained. "We do the same thing with our skateparks. We ask the pros how it will be used."

The Henderson Park District reached out to local breed clubs (German shepherds, cocker spaniels), those who have show dogs, veterinarians and pet industry professionals. As a result, they have well-designed parks with a fantastic assortment of programming, so there's something for everyone, poodle or Rottweiler.

Location, Location, Location

To maximize both human and dog enjoyment of a dog park—and perhaps some of your other offerings as well—appropriate placement is key. Locating your dog park within a larger park space or near other recreation options may increase crossover usage of all your facilities.

Locating your dog park within a larger park space or near other recreation options may increase crossover usage of all your facilities.

There are 11 tennis courts in the Los Angeles park where the Hermon Dog Park is located, and Riser said a number of people have mentioned that they "stumbled on to the tennis courts" when they brought their dog to the dog park, then returned later, sans dog, to play tennis. She also believes a variety of non-dog-owners get a kick out of the dog park. "We do have people who just come and watch the dogs play," she said. "Maybe they recently lost a dog, or they just enjoy it. Families bring their kids to watch the dogs."

The Henderson park district has nine wildly successful dog parks located within larger parks, and their community's enthusiasm was so great that when they began building their 160-acre recreation complex, they included a five-acre bark park, complete with agility equipment for dogs, dog-themed benches, water fountains, restrooms and an 18-foot-long statue of the park's mascot, Barcules. And, they're still not finished.

The next phase of construction will add walking paths and 13 ball fields, "so it will bring people in who may not [otherwise] have gone to that side of town," Becker said. Now when the kids come to softball practice, parents can use the paths to go over to the dog park. "We've had good results with dog parks within other parks and near other facilities," she added. "That's what people told us they want."

Fargo's dog parks are also both attached to larger parks, one near a community garden and one near the children's museum, "so there's lots of traffic through the area," Whittlesey said.

The Fargo Park District has also realized that an essential component of dog park location is finding adequate space. "When we started our dog parks we had no idea they would be so successful," said Whittlesey. "They could be twice as big. We've had trouble keeping grass [because of] heavy usage."

But, if they were surprised by the parks' popularity, they were downright insightful when they chose their locations. Neighborhoods with sprawling backyards won't be nearly as desperate for dog-exercising areas as more densely populated parts of town. Scout the map for dog-friendly apartment complexes, suggested Whittlesey. "Those are the people who need it." The dog park closest to such a complex in Fargo? "That's the one we can't keep grass on," he said.

Amenities and Design

When it comes to what your dog park actually includes, there's a broad spectrum of choices. Some parks focus on simply providing protected space for dogs to run, while others go further and include an assortment of agility equipment, dog-themed amenities (for people and pooches), and even water features for both drinking and frolicking. Another helpful feature seems to be some means of maintaining order, and a well-thought-out design as well as meticulously posted and enforced rules can make sure that's happening.

As a point of reference, Dog Fancy requires the following three features for dog parks that would like to be considered for their "top dog parks in the country" list each year:

  • Fencing: Particularly in busy urban areas, and in any town with leash laws, there aren't many spots where dogs are free to roam. A dog park should be one of them, so secure fencing is an imperative. No pooches-at-play should inadvertently end up in traffic.
  • Double gates: Double gating is another safety feature that also enhances furry crowd control. The first gate opens into a "foyer" area, if you will, where dogs can be unleashed before entering the main play area and re-leashed before exiting the park and returning to the civilized world. This extra layer of fencing also helps cut down on escapees. Should a dog slip out the main gate as another enters, they'll be contained by the second gated area.
  • Free cleanup bags: A well-loved dog park could easily become a (literal) minefield without the proper cleanup protocol. In most cases dog owners are conscientious, but you can ensure more complete adherence to waste-disposal ordinances by providing owners with everything they need. Cleanup bag dispensers are available from a number of companies in a variety of styles—including recycled-material options—so you're sure to find something that will work in your space. A trash can specifically designated for pet waste may also be a nice touch.

And that's it. Pretty simple. "It's very inexpensive and easy," Whittlesey said. "Just green space and a fence."

Of course, there are a few other things Dog Fancy and many of the dog park proprietors we talked with for this story would also recommend. To take your park past the basics, consider some of the following options:

Separate spaces for smaller and larger dogs: Although the dogs coming to play are usually quite social and friendly, dogs are not always so good at realizing what size they are. And no one wants to see their miniature poodle or puppy trampled by an overeager, oversized potential playmate.

When the first of the dog parks opened in Henderson, Nev., "we immediately got feedback to designate by size of dog," Becker said. Their parks now offer three size-designated dog runs for small, medium and large pets. In Fargo they provide a line 18 inches off the ground (like at the carnival!) at the dog park entrance. Dogs taller than the line go in one run, and those shorter go in the other.

Occasionally, some small dogs want to run with the big boys (see note above about dogs having no idea what size they are), but the option to stick with those of similar height and weight keeps everyone safer and happier (that includes owners). At the Hermon Dog Park, the large-dog and small-dog runs are side by side, "so the little dogs can run along the fence with the big dogs, but they feel safe because they have their own space," Riser said. It's the best of both worlds.

Water features—whether it's a dog-level drinking fountain alongside the human-level one, or a more elaborate water play area, everyone needs a little refreshment while they're having fun!

Water features: Whether this is a dog-level drinking fountain alongside the human-level one, or a more elaborate water play area, everyone needs a little refreshment while they're having fun—and Dog Fancy also includes this on their list of contest criteria. Some drinking fountain units also have faucets for dog-washing or sprays for cooling down.

Becker reported that the next phase of development at Henderson's new recreation complex will include a splashpad for people in one area, but also one for dogs in the dog park, which will be shaped like a paw. People and pets can't share a splash play area for health reasons, but no one will be left out.

And if onsite water play is not an option for your dog park, what about elsewhere in town? Provincetown's Pilgrim Bark Park does not include a water feature, but the Provincetown Animal Welfare Committee (a government board of which the PDPA's Nagle is also chair) has worked with the city to secure off-leash beach rights for local dogs during scheduled times all year round.

Agility equipment: Most of those we spoke with whose dog parks include simply space to run did agree that some agility equipment—durable features for dogs to jump over and run around and through—would likely enhance their park. In some cases it was an issue of maintenance (it is harder to mow or rake around an obstacle than in an open area) or a matter of space or available money.

But, if you can include this option, it can open a lot of doors. Look for equipment made by a manufacturer that specializes in dog parks, and select challenges that are adjustable for dogs of varying sizes and skill levels to help avoid injury. When chosen wisely, agility features make your park more of a "destination" for dogs and their owners in search of a special outing.

In Henderson, the agility-course-equipped park can even accommodate small dog shows. They also rent it out occasionally to the local cocker spaniel club, which has used it for events as well as group meetings. But best of all, "even if we're not having an event, someone just going through with their dog can use the course," Becker said. "It's available even when it's not programmed."

Other tips: Other features that may enhance your dog park include adequate shade, appropriate lighting and parking. Each of these is a factor considered by Dog Fancy, and Riser reported that they've gotten great feedback from planting additional trees for shade at the Hermon Dog Park. She also suggested careful consideration of the surface material you choose. While grass is lovely, the Hermon Dog Park has decomposed granite, which Riser said dries much more quickly than turf would after a rainstorm and prevents them from having to close their whole park for maintenance, as they'd need to do periodically if they had grass.

She also suggested posting the rules and local ordinances that apply to your park somewhere prominently to avoid any confusion. Hermon Dog Park notices include that owners are responsible for their pets and everyone enters at their own risk. They also have a large sign that indicates only neutered dogs are allowed in the park.

In addition, the American Kennel Club offers some excellent suggestions for dog park features (along with accompanying explanation to help you convince your community) at

Special Events

A final factor Dog Fancy considers as it ranks dog parks are special events, including educational workshops and health clinics. Programming and events can be a huge success at dog parks, just as they are at other park properties. And people love pets—often even those who don't own them themselves—so including an animal option in larger park district or community events can be a great way to make sure everyone is involved and having fun.

At the dog park, consider developing some regular programs to build participation among local dog owners. Henderson offers dog obedience training at their dog parks and an introduction to agility class that shows dogs and their owners how to use the course. They also offer something called Rally, which is an obedience sport that involves dogs and owners completing a specially designed course together. "We also offer basic canine classes at our recreation center, but people are much more interested in taking them at the bark park," Becker said.

Friends of the Hermon Dog Park in Los Angeles host a monthly "yappy hour" at their dog park, which began as a fun way to let more people know about the park and has evolved into a great time for socializing among dogs and owners alike, Riser explained. They just put out a big bowl of dog treats, along with some punch and cookies, and let the fun begin. Or sometimes they go for a theme—Hawaiian luau, anyone? There's a doggie costume contest at "Howloween," which is followed by the Big Peanut Butter Lick-Off. "[Yappy hour] takes very little planning, but it's an opportunity to get material out to everyone about what's coming up," Riser said. They advertise the event with flyers at pet stores, veterinary clinics, restaurants, coffeehouses and other community gathering spots.

The Friends have also hosted three pet education seminars this year, which are held right next to the dog park, so people can bring their pets. They've covered topics from pet emergency preparedness to dealing with pet loss to basic obedience and training tips. They also host an occasional cleanup day at the park to disinfect benches and trash can covers, clean out the water area and organize the bulletin board. "Although, the park district does so well with maintenance that it doesn't take us much more than an hour," Riser said. Nevertheless, "it helps with buy-in and a sense of ownership" among those that use the space, she explained. "It's a way to reach different populations and get them to the dog park."

Riser also suggested hosting a periodic "puppy party" to teach newbies about dog park etiquette. "We're mostly teaching the owners," she said. "But we don't put it that way." During this event the Friends show new dog parents how to socialize their animals and how to recognize what behaviors are playing, as opposed to aggression.

Beyond the dog park, consider community-wide events that focus on dogs, or include a furry component in an already-established local celebration. Even those who don't own dogs may enjoy an opportunity to interact with the four-legged members of the community.

Residents of Fargo look forward to the Hot Dog Walk each summer, which includes complementary hot dogs to munch, as well as a "hottest dog" competition, stupid pet tricks, a costume contest and an owner-dog look-alike competition. This summer Petco and several local pet stores donated prizes. There were homemade dog biscuits for sale, and the agility club in town set up a temporary course for dogs and their owners to test out.

If your town has a zero-depth entry pool, consider opening it up to canine swimmers before you close it for the season (because you'll be disinfecting it then anyway). See sidebar for more on how this sort of event might work.

In Los Angeles, at the city-wide holiday parade, dogs and their people form the Santa Paws Squad. They dress in their holiday finest and walk the parade route to the delight of all. Provincetown's Nagle suggested holding a pet appreciation weekend with canine games and a dog parade, and you might even consider kicking off the event with a fundraising dinner to support the local dog park or animal shelter. Fargo features the Furry Friends Walk, which begins at the dog park and winds its way through town via the walking trails. There are stops for food and prizes at the city's fitness centers, and the fee to participate raises money for Adopt a Pet in Fargo, which assists abused and abandoned animals.

Animal ownership is not only big business, it's probably the key to the hearts of a good portion of your community, as pets are beloved and full-fledged members of many a family these days. So, as you seek to serve your constituents, don't forget those who love their dogs. Reach out to them, find ways for them to be involved along with their pets, and you'll likely find them participating in activities they might not otherwise think to attend. Who knows what they'll discover once they're there. Remember, not only does a dog park enhance the neighborhood around it, your attention to the needs and interests of this part of your population can bear fruit across the community.

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