Tail-Wagging Fun

Design & Outfit an Effective Dog Park

By David Mumpower

Recent studies suggest that people feel more empathy toward dogs than they do with other humans. Our canine friends are equal parts companions and wards. People are in charge of their safekeeping, and a crucial component in their weekly satisfaction is keeping them entertained. Puppies are the most playful pets, and our society is starting to recognize this through widespread adoption of dog parks.

In fact, the data suggests America is becoming a canine society. The United States Department of Health recently noted that 2013 witnessed a record low for birth rates among women aged 15 to 44. With only 62.5 out of every thousand women bearing children, there has been a symmetrical meteoric rise in canine ownership over the past decade. In 2004, 73.9 million dogs were kept as pets. Fast-forward to 2014 when records indicated that 83.3 million people owned a puppy, an increase of almost a million dogs a year. Amazingly, there are now 5 million more households with dogs than with kids.

The chief explanation for why dog parks are rising in popularity is because they fill a niche in the country's evolving living arrangements. As urban areas attract a larger portion of the population, the need to entertain exists not just for the pets but also the people. With many high-rises lacking outdoor space, residents must find a designated location for their puppies to run and play. If the options are a sidewalk or a dog park, which one would you pick?

Primarily due to the increase in furry family members, dog parks have become prevalent. As the growth of actual parks stagnates, canine playgrounds have become the new urban sanctuary. Over a half-decade period, the top 100 cities in the country in terms of populace added 34 percent more play areas for man's best friend. You may be considering adding a dog park to your area, and if you are not, these numbers indicate that you should. Here is what you need to know about the newly popular puppy playgrounds.

Presuming you want to build a dog park, here are some steps to take. First, you must understand the difference between a dog run and a dog park. While the terms are oftentimes used interchangeably, they represent vastly different facilities. A dog run is basically just a walled-in tract of land that is rarely larger than 1.5 acres in size. It is a place for dogs to interact on a small scale, doing all of the things they would do on a sidewalk, only in a more open area where they can run and play freely.

Amazingly, there are now 5 million more households with dogs than with kids.

A dog park is a much bolder endeavor. Most people believe that it should comprise at least three acres of land, and much more is preferred. Many of the most popular dog parks across the country cover 20-plus acres. Obviously, such sites include much more than a simple fence and some land. Many feature park equipment that functions as toys for the dogs. Popular structures include hurdles, hoops, dog slides and even fake fire hydrants. These interactive toys can distract and thrill your pup for hours. There is a reason why so many pet owners view dog parks as Disneyland for their dogs. And contrasting a dog park to a dog run is like comparing Space Mountain to a bus ride. You'll want the bigger space with the larger-scale activities. Otherwise, your new area is little better than a sidewalk.

Once you have embarked upon building a dog park, the next step is finding the perfect place. You will want to find a parcel of land that suits the needs of your potential guests, both human and canine. The first concern is bureaucracy. Trying to build infrastructure will draw the attention of the local government. You want these people on your side.

Owner Katie Kelley of Dog Wood Park, one of the largest dog parks in the country, has a brilliant suggestion for building a facility that will make you a hero with the government. Investigate if there is a landfill in your area that could be converted into a dog park. If your local city, district or county is amenable to this suggestion, you can develop a current wasteland into a future communal visitation destination. Using this strategy, Dog Wood Park fundamentally changed a 42-acre area of Jacksonville, Fla., from landfill into a popular site for dog lovers.

This sort of tactic curtails another potential snag in the planning of a dog park. Potential neighbors who own land in the surrounding area may not warm to the idea of your proposed facility. If they raise complaints with local political officials, you could be fighting an uphill battle to break ground on your park. By selecting barren land nowhere near potential neighbors, you avoid any potential arguments about the property. Best of all, such landfills should be cheap and the officials with whom you interact will be incentivized to do whatever is needed to aid you in your quest. You will be turning a regional blight into an Eden for dog lovers, which will be just as good for the résumés of the officials who could stand in your way as it is for dog owners.

Roseanne Conrad, president of the National Dog Park Association, notes that it's also a good idea to include among your planning committee some people who have influential friends and other resources. She notes that finding an engineer who is willing to work pro bono on the project is useful. This person can operate as a liaison between the dog park developers and the appropriate government officials. Conrad adds that a feasibility study is crucial, because even the most basic survey can unearth potential issues among the citizenry. No one can anticipate every small detail and possible snag, so such due diligence is an imperative.

After the study is completed, the business plan should be developed. From a business perspective, there are multiple ways to operate a dog park. Kelley runs an extremely popular private dog park. Owners pay a fee of $11 per day for the first dog and $1.25 for each additional one to visit the facility. Alternately, frequent guests can pay $250 annually for unlimited visits. They are given a key fob that provides park access via magnetic gate during operating hours, thereby avoiding the lines and paperwork that non-members experience. This style of monetization is better for private owners, because there is always a revenue stream to enable consistent park maintenance and sustained facility growth.

The chief explanation for why dog parks are rising in popularity is because they fill a niche in the country's evolving living arrangements.

If you are considering a government-run dog park, the issues are different. Special Activities Coordinator Mike McMahan of Houston, Texas, oversees several facilities in Harris County Precinct 3 including the world-famous Millie Bush Bark Park. When he targets a new area for dog park development, his primary constraint is that the precinct cannot build anywhere that is directly beside private residential areas.

Several other potential problems must be addressed during the planning phase. Dog parks have grown so popular that they attract a crowd, even in inclement weather. This causes traffic congestion in the immediate surrounding area, something residential owners would not appreciate. Noise pollution is also a concern. Dogs obviously bark a lot, especially when they are excited. Since these facilities are by definition designated play areas for puppies, the noise issues could irritate nearby neighbors.

Finally, park size matters. McMahan said that any potential development in his district must be large enough "that the grounds can still be maintained in the manner that we preserve the vegetation, especially the grass." This matter is important for the short term as well as the long term. The grounds must be properly maintained in case the public land is ever used for a different purpose decades from now. Right now, a lack of turf means muddier animals, and that is the kind of mess that would discourage potential visitors from returning to the dog park.

Keep in mind that sustaining the vegetation is much easier in larger areas. In tighter ranges, dogs tread over the same ground repeatedly, ruining any chance of keeping the turf alive. For this reason, McMahan suggests that you should seek to acquire at least four acres of land to ensure that there is the proper amount of space.

The legal process for purchasing the land can require bureaucratic negotiations even for other government departments. McMahan points out that his department must attain a legal document of authorization for the land from a diverse group of organizations, including the city of Houston, the Harris County Flood Control, or the United States Corp of Engineers, before they can move forward with development plans. For would-be small business owners, several such permits much be attained. The specific needs can vary dramatically by city, county, district or state, each of which may require specific authorizations. During the planning phase, be sure to check with all of the appropriate government officials to ensure a smooth negotiation for the park opening.

Once you are ready to break ground, choosing dog park features is seminal to the eventual popularity of the facility. There is universal consent among dog park operators that the most beloved feature is the dog pond. Any park with this feature will have no problem enticing visitors. Canines of all sizes love to splash around in the water, and owners relish in the pure joy of such a sight.

If you are going to have a pond, however, you should plan to have some sort of showering apparatus as well. Once wet dogs exit the water, they have a tendency to roll around on the ground, which again means muddy pets. Since owners will not want any of this tracked back to their cars, a pet wash station or shower is needed. At public facilities, guests will be expected to provide their own drying towels, but private owners may include them as a courtesy for guests. Purchasing and laundering towels is not cheap so remember to allow for this maintenance expense.

Of course, animal safety is a priority, so the water must be meticulously checked to ensure that it remains clean enough to guarantee the health of playful pups. For a public park, expect to check the cleanliness of a lake or pond on a frequent basis. Taking water samples is especially important during the summer months. Warmer water is a fertile breeding ground for the nastier sort of bacteria. In terms of planning for the worst, parasites such as fleas also can become a serious issue from time to time. Every few years, you may need to apply a licensed pesticide to negate the fleas, which can be an expensive process.

The topic that every dog park operator agrees is seminal is the implementation of rules. For a facility to operate properly, the guests must have a clear understanding of expected behavior. Man's best friend can be messy, impulsive and sometimes even aggressive. Pet owners must be alerted to the rules at a new dog park. Otherwise, the actions of a select few canines could cast a pall on the overall perception of your park.

Once the location is ready to open, important decisions still remain. Most dog park organizers believe that providing separate play areas for different-sized animals is a must. McMahan allows families to decide what is best for pets and children. His facilities all include play areas for small dogs, but if someone is more comfortable letting a Chihuahua run with the big boys, that's allowed. Similarly, if parents prefer not to divide their families, small children can play with their puppies in the large dogs section.

As a private owner, Kelley has different concerns. She feels strongly that guaranteeing everyone's safety should be codified in the rules. Dog Wood Park does not allow children under four feet tall into the facility. Since all breeds of dogs are welcome at the dog park, it is the only way to protect toddlers from giant animals. Small dogs do have their own play area for those owners who are concerned about the safety of their Toy Poodle or Yorkie. However, if an owner is comfortable, their small dog can play in the big dog area.

All three of our interviewed experts agree that the most important aspect is that all the owners know and understand the rules, no matter what they are. When people respect these park requirements, harmonious pet interactions are likely to follow.

Building a dog park is a major undertaking. From the planning phase until the maintenance phase, a lot of potential stumbling blocks exist. Once you have your facility opened, however, the joy of people playing with their pets will more than justify all the hard work.

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