Gone to the Dogs

Design & Manage an Effective Off-Leash Area

By Dawn Klingensmith

Looking at the array of dog park equipment on the market, as well as cutesy design features at existing parks, you might pause to consider if a great many of them appeal more to people than pooches, just as many toys appeal more to parents than kids, who often toss aside a toy in favor of the box it came in. The question might be worth pondering, Were dog parks designed for the sole satisfaction of our four-legged friends? But they're not—at least, not successful ones.

Tom O'Rourke knows a thing or two about operating a successful dog park. "It isn't about the dogs; it's about the customers," said O'Rourke, executive director of the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission in South Carolina.

By customers, he means people, of course.

"I think it's more about, while the dogs are having fun, are the people having fun with one another? It's about people socializing and interacting. You cannot forget that part of it," O'Rourke said.

A dog park has the potential to become "so much more than just a place to exercise your pet," said Stephanie Devine, vice president of sales and marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based recreation products manufacturer. "For many pet owners it's a place to meet new friends, relax and enjoy the outdoors," and to that end, they appreciate creature comforts and programmed events.

In popular culture, the potential to meet people and socialize in dog parks and the magnetic ability of dogs to bring folks together have driven storylines. In the 2005 film "Must Love Dogs," a man and woman meet for their first date in a dog park. He borrows a terrier for the occasion. A similar plan is hatched in the country song "Norma Jean Riley" to capture the attention of the titular love interest. In real life, O'Rourke knows of couples who met in dog parks.

Whether or not romance comes out of it, the key is to create a dog-friendly environment that encourages people to linger and mingle. That's not to say dogs don't have certain needs and predilections, but the best dog parks cater to people not only by incorporating design features for their comfort and pleasure, but also by implementing creative programming.

Dog Park Doings

The Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission operates three dog parks, all within existing large regional parks that have a gate fee. All three dog parks host events. And, all three have very different user groups. That dog owners are not a homogenous group is a point O'Rourke emphasized repeatedly. When planning events, it's important to consider user demographics, he said.

For example, two of Charleston's dog parks hosts periodic "happy hour" events with beer, food and music, but the event title and offerings differ by location to appeal to each target audience. Yappy Hour has a laid-back vibe and simpler food, whereas Yups, Pups and Food Trucks has an upscale feel, sophisticated fare and live local bands. Yappy Hour is held five times a year in warmer months, each attended by an average of 300 people in 2013. Last year's budgeted expense was $3,495, with revenues and sponsorship totaling $4,625 and $6,300, respectively. Yups, Pups and Food Trucks was held four times, each attended by about 100 people, with a budgeted expense of $3,600 and revenues and sponsorship totaling $4,500 and $1,800, respectively.

To generate revenue and in some cases simply to sustain themselves, dog parks "have to be operated with the same passion and creativity as a waterpark, athletic complex or community center," O'Rourke said.

Other creative programming ideas include:

  • A pet festival and expo with performing dogs and other entertainment along with booths for local pet businesses and nonprofits including vets, groomers, trainers, rescue groups and adoption center.
  • Volunteer cleanups, such as an annual April Stools Day event after the spring thaw.
  • Easter egg hunts and spring bonnet parades for both kids and dogs.
  • Pet and people portraits with the Easter Bunny, Santa and other seasonal celebs.
  • Dog-themed movies in the park.
  • Barktoberfest celebration with a Halloween costume contest and parade.
  • Mutt Strut walk/run events.
  • Classes (obedience training, dog park "petiquette," dog nutrition, canine body language, make your own pet toy).
  • Pet talent shows.
  • Birthday parties for dogs.
  • Community outreach activities, such as assembling care packages for K9 military units.

Some parks, or the agencies that oversee them, hold annual or biennial park "mayoral" elections to generate buzz and in some cases proceeds for park maintenance and improvements. The Fort Woof Dog Park in Fort Worth, Texas, plays dirty politics every two years, when dog owners nominate their pet for mayor and campaign to raise money for their "pawty." The canine candidate that raises the most cash for the park wins. Organizers joke that "it's the only election you can legally buy," albeit for a good cause. Candidates are posted on the park's website alongside donation buttons. A donation counts as a vote, and people are encouraged to vote early and often.

Charleston holds a "Top Dog" contest each year to select an agency mascot. People campaign for their dogs on Facebook and by other means, driving friends to the commission's website to vote. The website includes finalists' bios. "These are often rescue dogs so there's that feel-good aspect," O'Rourke said. "It causes so much stir in this community."

Perks for People, Pooches

Providing benches and shade is the easiest ways to make dog parks comfortable for people, Devine said. Other people-pleasing amenities include walking trails, water fountains, restroom facilities, picnic tables, rentable or reservable pavilions, leash posts, dog wash stations, and waste bag stations and receptacles.

Every dog park should include ample waste stations with consistently replenished, biodegradable bags and a waste receptacle to ensure the park stays clean and sanitary for patrons. "It's a good idea to provide multiple waste stations to avoid overflow," Devine said. "It's also important to make sure there are plenty of bags stocked in each waste station because not all pet owners will bring their own."

Depending on the market and budget, aesthetics may be an important consideration. The Provincetown Dog Park Association in Massachusetts had local artists create or decorate seating, shade structures and other site furnishings, as well as outdoor sculpture for the privately funded Pilgrim Bark Park. The park also hosts periodic art installations, said Debbie Grabler, park president and co-founder.

Landscaping is one of the park's larger maintenance bills, addressing the community's concerns that a barren corner lot enclosed by a chain link fence "would look like a prison yard," Grabler said. "We promised to beautify the space," and groomed landscaping is part of that promise.

Some dog park features are wag-worthy as well as applause-worthy, pleasing both pets and their guardians. Freedom Bell Park in Lowell, Ind., has a butterfly garden and prairie grass area open to four-legged snoopers. Other parks boast sandy beaches.

"One piece of equipment that is offered for dog parks is a faux fire hydrant. Dogs immediately determine its purpose in the park, and owners appreciate the humor of its inclusion in the setting," Devine said.

And then there are features and amenities that are solely for the delight of dogs. Freedom Bell Park has a sand bunker digging area. Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Ada, Mich., boasts Doggie Mountain, a giant sand pile for climbing and digging. Beau's Dream Dog Park in Lancaster, Pa., has custom-designed splashpads for large and small dogs. (For a scaled-down version, there are hydrants on the market that spray dogs just enough to cool off.)

As one dog park equipment manufacturer states on its website, "A trip to the dog park is one of the very few multigenerational activities the whole family can enjoy, in a setting that is welcoming to everyone regardless of age or physical ability."

Although some dog parks don't allow small children, citing safety concerns, for older kids they provide "a great opportunity to get out and exercise and bond with the dog," said Nora VandenBerghe, sales and marketing manager for the manufacturer, based in Everett, Wash.

The agility equipment her company offers helps facilitate bonding versus "just letting dogs off the leash and letting them run," she said.

Bill Airy, president and founder of the Poo Free Parks sponsored pet waste station program, frequents dog parks across the nation and sees agility equipment as something that appeals to people initially, but then gets ignored. "I've not seen agility equipment apparatuses getting used a lot," he said, adding that people seem to prefer walking trails or open spaces for exercising their dogs.

Devine countered that "it's important to give dogs a range of exercise so they don't get bored" while concurring that "one of the primary purposes for installing agility equipment is to add to the aesthetic appeal of the park in order to attract pet owners."

As a sport, dog agility is "growing in popularity, and dog parks provide a great place for people to see if their dog has an interest," Devine added. "In many communities there are clubs that will seek out locations to train and practice."

Keep in mind that dogs new to the sport need beginner or adjustable equipment, VandenBerghe said. Many manufacturers offer adjustable equipment with slip-resistant surfaces to safely accommodate different breeds and levels.

Where equipment is installed, "You still want to include open space for general play, for throwing a ball or Frisbee or just letting the dog run," VandenBerghe said.

Dog Park Basics

Before installing wish-list items, there are space and design requirements to take into account. Before opening Pilgrim Bark Park in 2008, the Provincetown Dog Park Association placed calls to more than 50 established dog parks in the nation to learn about minimum space requirements and other design factors. "The consensus is, you need at least one acre" for an off-leash dog park, Grabler said.

Besides ample space, "The most important part of an off-leash dog park is the fence," Devine said. Determining the fence's design, "some considerations include whether or not there will be both large and small dog areas, as well as the entrance to the park. There is typically a small fenced area, about 10 feet by 10 feet, that allows an enclosed space where the owner can attach and remove the dog's leash before exiting or entering the off-leash area."

This transitional enclosure, or "bull pen," is critical because "when a dog is attached to a leash, it's at a disadvantage to dogs that are not on a leash, so it gets defensive and aggressive, Airy said. "Separating on-leash and off-leash dogs is necessary to avoid confrontation" and prevent escape.

Material selection also is important, especially for surfacing and finishes. "A lot of people use wood chips, which can cause splinters; grass tends to get demolished; and coarse pebbles can cut up dogs' paws," Airy said.

Synthetic turf with good drainage in conjunction with an irrigation system for cleanup is a durable alternative to natural grass, VandenBerghe said.

Pilgrim Bark Park opted for a mix of pea gravel and sand, with cement walkways throughout for accessibility.

When choosing site equipment and furnishings, keep in mind that dog urine "is incredibly corrosive," VandenBerghe said. Her company switched from steel to heavy-gauge aluminum to combat rust and corrosion, she added.

Dog urine can also damage saplings and other plantings, so be sure to use a protective barrier until they are established.

Dog feces "is not fertilizer but a contaminant that can affect wildlife and our drinking water," Airy said, so every dog park should include a sufficient number of waste bag stations and receptacles as well as educational signage.

"If it's not convenient for pet owners to clean up after their pet, they're more likely to look the other way" after their pet does its business, Airy said. Moreover, "Plastic bags, particularly grocery store bags, are being banned in a lot of places, like California," he added, so parks may need to step up and supply bags for patron convenience.

Shade can be provided by using existing trees in the park, or by installing a fabric shade over the observation areas, Devine said. "Many pet owners will bring their own water," she added, "but it is beneficial to have fountains on site" for both people and pets.

If purchasing agility equipment, "remember that dogs of different sizes and skill levels will be using the park," Devine said. "Equipment that offers adjustable heights meets the abilities of many breeds."

Space permitting, it's nice to have a separate area for small dogs and perhaps senior or unsocial dogs as well, Grabler said.

It's also important to establish and post guidelines for dog park users including hours of operation, rules, maximum number of dogs allowed and emergency protocols. Except for special events, parks may want to prohibit food in off-leash areas since food can spark "a scuffle" among dogs, VandenBurghe said.

As for fundraising, "There are a large number of social media outlets that allow dog park patrons to connect and raise funds, which makes a dog park an excellent way to build community in any area," Devine said.

Pilgrim Bark Park founders had 50 knotty pine doghouses built and had artists decorate them for auction.

A puppy kissing booth is a creative way to raise a little cash for a planned or existing park.

"Providing the opportunity to purchase and inscribe a fence picket, brick or other site feature can be a popular fundraiser, too, especially for pet owners who wish to memorialize a treasured pet," Devine said.

Many dog parks also charge a small annual membership fee. The dues collected each year are applied to park maintenance and purchasing new equipment.

Maintenance costs can be fairly steep and require a revenue stream. Pilgrim Bark Park spends $12,000 to $15,000 per year for landscaping, cleanup, waste bags and pea gravel replenishment. Signage is repainted every two years.

With the basics in place, wish list items can be added to the extent the budget allows.

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