More Than Just a Fence
By Nora VandenBerghe
With nearly 70 million dogs living in U.S. homes and 60 percent of pet owners who consider their dog to be part of the family, it's no surprise that the number of dog parks has grown exponentially over the past five years. Off-leash areas fill a unique niche in a park system because they provide multigenerational recreation and have the ability to bring a community together through a shared common interest. From a programming perspective, they offer new opportunities such as adoption events or pet training workshops in addition to enhancing the quality of life for park users.
Many dog parks get started as a grassroots effort from local off-leash organizations or dog enthusiasts. Working with these groups is mutually beneficial; when parks maintenance budgets are stretched thin, a local off-leash group can be a tremendous asset to help offset the costs of fence and equipment installation, brush clearing and more. If finances are holding your community back, partnering with local pet stores, veterinary hospitals and/or doggy daycares is also an effective way to boost fundraising efforts.
The Waukegan Park District is opening a park this September, and the district utilized its relationships with local businesses to help get the park built. Recreation Supervisor Jennifer Dumas noted, "It was a five-year process and staff took on the role to secure sponsors for each piece of equipment, apply for grants and even created a new special event called the K9 Trace and Pace."
Fundraising has changed quite a bit from the days of holding bake sales (though they're popular—especially if selling dog treats). Dog park groups have become increasingly creative over the years and now host 5k runs or walks, dog kissing booths, canine carnivals and pooch paddle events where dogs can swim in a community pool before it closes for the season. Participating in these events can help residents feel more involved and committed to the park's future.
Location is easily the biggest consideration when it comes to a successful dog park and, if possible, bigger is definitely better. The larger the space, the more flexibility there is in incorporating design elements such as large and small dog areas, a separate agility area or a water feature. However, it's important to remember that smaller, urban dog parks can be just as successful. Repurposing an underutilized tennis court or land underneath a freeway, like the I-5 Colonnade Off-Leash Area in Seattle, are affordable ways to provide recreation in more densely populated communities.
Regardless of the size of the park, adding amenities such as pet fountains and agility equipment is an easy way to create interest and continued park use. From a safety perspective, it makes sense to separate dogs by size, but it also allows each section to be customized. Most agility equipment has a "one-size-fits-all" approach, but some manufacturers also provide pieces that are adjustable or designed specifically for small dog areas.
When selecting agility components, safety and durability should be the highest priority, particularly if the community has been involved in fundraising. It often takes years to raise money for park enhancements, and replacing poorly made or unsafe equipment is not only disappointing, it can be costly. To ensure years of enjoyment, look for equipment that is made with heavy-gauge rust-resistant aluminum.
Dumas confirmed that quality materials were an important deciding factor for the Waukegan Park District. "The dog agility playground will provide an opportunity to better one's health and entice residents to get outside and play more with their dog, so the safety value with the non-skid surfacing and strong materials was a necessity, as was the warranty," she said.
Another consideration should be level of expertise from the dog park equipment manufacturer. Some points to consider: Does the company specialize exclusively in dog parks? Have the products been designed specifically for dogs, or are they adapted children's playground components? Are there perforations or step strips on walking surfaces that could potentially be hazardous? All of these questions can help point you to a knowledgeable manufacturer and help you make the right choice for your community.
After all of the hurdles have been cleared and the hard work has paid off, what better way to celebrate than with a grand opening? When coordinating the event, there are several things to keep in mind to make sure all goes smoothly. Plan accordingly for lead times and transit on the equipment, installation and weather. Including a buffer period of a few weeks can relieve some of the stress of opening the park on time and allows for any last-minute additions or maintenance.
Whether your community has existing off-leash areas or has one planned, dog parks are so much more than just a fence. They provide a place for people to socialize with their dogs while encouraging healthy exercise, and as the saying goes, "A tired dog is a happy dog."