We need a dog park!

Image Credit Curtis Lee Photography 

We get many questions from parks agencies, park advocates, and the press about dog parks. People want to know “the right way” to build a dog park and want to bring together the right combination of people and resources to make it possible. Based on those discussions, as well as some interviews and even some personal experience, we have put together this article.

1. Have A Plan

With so many dog parks in public parks, there are both best practices and lessons learned that both public agencies and park advocates could learn from. The most important point is: have a plan. You can modify it as you go but being up-front about what you need to do helps everyone understand what is required and keeps the process public and transparent.

A plan should address all of those questions that people will ask as you move through both the approvals process as well as the funding process. It should answer some of the following questions:

  • What kinds of facilities you want to build?
  • Should the dog park or off-leash area be fenced or are you planning for open areas that are open during a certain number of hours during the day?
  • For open areas, are you planning to rotate from seasons to season in a larger park?
  • Are you planning water features, including drinking fountains, splash pads or pools?
  • Are you planning climbing or other agility features?
  • Are you including seating and shade?

Image Credit Jenna Stamm

There are many options and you should first consult what types of dog parks already exist in your community as well as any standards that have been developed or approved by public agencies. Public agencies should develop a standard for dog parks with a public input process based on best practices that are generally available widely. Required elements for dog parks generally include:

  • Complete Fencing around the perimeter of the designated area or natural barriers that prohibit dogs from leaving the area. 
  • Double entry gate – A standard feature is a double-entry gate system with a gated waiting area for the dog and human to enter, remove the dog’s leash and then open the gate to the main off-leash area, reversing the process for exiting. This ensures that “unplanned escapes” will be kept to a minimum as well as allowing for leashing and unleashing in a separate area that allows dog owners to manage the transition into and out of the dog park.
  • Separate small and large dog areas. Allow for dogs of different sizes and ages to avoid interacting (and causing possible conflicts) by creating separate areas for differently sized dogs and their humans. Puppies and shy dogs then have the opportunity to interact and get used to the high level of activity that can occur in a dog park.

Image Credit Lincoln Barbour
 
  • Surfacing plan (including renewal) – There are many surfacing options and the choices depend on weather, drainage and current conditions. That said there are many options ranging from artificial turf to engineered wood fiber to gravel. All have pluses or minuses and local knowledge of what works in other park facilities (such as playgrounds or other high traffic areas) is critical. For example, artificial turf is great, but it requires cleaning and built in irrigation and sanitizing systems are increasingly common. Natural turf is softer but requires a lot more care – including a need a plan for renewal, including temporary closures for regrowth. Gravel, rock dust or some sort of crusher fines work well but can get stuck in dog paws and can get dusty in drier climates or seasons. Regular mulch or engineered wood fiber is increasingly used in playgrounds, but needs to be replaced often, depending on the usage patterns.
  • An alternative to a fenced gated site are areas that are subject to time restrictions for off-leash use. Prime examples are the Long Meadow in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY or the Boston Common, which has off-leash rotating areas depending on the time of the year. These set out specific areas as well as specific times of day for off-leash usage.
  • Dog waste plan (bag dispensers and trashcans) – a key requirement of any dog park is dealing with dog waste, as well as general trash and recycling. All dog owners should be strongly encouraged to bring their own bags (you never know where a dog will poop!) and is encouraged to “pack it out” to minimize the impact on the dog park as well as the ongoing maintenance and operations for the parks department.
  • A design to encourage movement. We’ve heard from many dog trainers as well as public health officials over the years that a key ingredient in developing good park areas are designs that keep dogs and their people moving in the off-leash area. Many people might think that unclipping your dog’s leash once inside the double gate and plopping oneself down on a bench is all you need to do. Nope. Dogs are pack animals and love to socialize, but also need to be managed by their owners. We all need exercise and having areas for object chasing, agility and other forms of activity mixed with socialization are a key part of a great dog park.

Image Credit Curtis Lee 
 

2. Make sure your dog park is open and inviting. 

Try to make your dog park inviting to everyone, not just dogs and their owners or walkers. As many case studies have shown, having a good working relationship with the surrounding community and neighbors is critical to the success of any dog park. While the following list of amenities might be considered frills, it is important to think about what makes your favorite park inviting and welcoming, as many of the same rules apply.

Water fountains are features for humans and pups. Having a source of water, especially in warmer climates, is key. Dogs can get easily overheated and we all want everyone to stay hydrated and safe.

Image Credit Annie Bang

Visual attractiveness, especially from outside the parks. It is important to be a good neighbor to the rest of the park, the adjacent street or residents and businesses. Improvements such as flower plantings, attractive street fencing, and artwork are always welcome and are another way that the local friends’ group can make a difference in the upkeep of the park. One of the authors passes his community dog park to and from the subway each day and it’s a lively place with dogs and their people socializing, actively playing with their dogs, engaging with passersby (there’s a set of athletic fields and a very busy hike and bike trail in the immediate vicinity.)

Parking and bike racks. Not everyone can walk their dog to the park; some people need to come via other means.

Shade. In general, we need to keep planting trees in our parks and dog parks are no exceptions. Alternatives can include shade structures that are increasingly found in warmer climates over playgrounds.

Signage. It is very important to have park hours, Dog Park rules, opportunities for volunteering, and for joining local the friends of the dog park group clearly posted at park entrances.

Seating for humans. Generally, it is a good idea to keep people and their dogs moving, but everyone needs a break. Having seating is good; it can often double as an agility feature.

Image Credit Elyse Leyenberger