See Spot Run at the Dog Park

How to build an off-leash recreation area for dogs in your community

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Imagine a canine utopia, a place where dogs can frolic untethered, unleashed, free. A park smack dab in the middle of a city might not come to mind—especially now when leash laws are so strict that New York, for example, equips citizen-snitches with cell phones to report violators. But parks with off-leash areas (OLAs) —where dogs can be dogs—are cropping up in Seattle, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and other North American cities.

Good dog guardians strive to give canines a happy life, including enough stimulation so they poop out (in more ways than one). According to Nicholas Dodman, a Tufts University veterinarian and behaviorist, dogs simply do not get sufficient exercise if they’re walked on a leash. “It is not that they die if they walk on a leash, and it’s not that a human being dies in solitary confinement, either. It is just that it is not optimal for their physiological and psychological well-being,” he says.

Off-leash recreation, however, is turning into one of the biggest imbroglios in park management, and one of the most politically challenging and hotly debated items for local legislators. Most cities have leash laws that outlaw dogs running “at large,” so if you want an OLA in your city you’ll need to change this policy. Since few policy makers are risk takers, they’ll need reassurance that they are not the first to be confronted by a citizenry asking to allow a pack of off-leash dogs to use public land. Do your homework online, where you can find many examples of successful programs. Have signed petitions in hand. And remind legislators that you pay taxes supporting everyone else’s recreational activity and that you consult with your dogs before voting.

Once you have piqued their interest, lead them to the drawing table with design guidelines and planning criteria. Size is the single most important and probably the most contentious criterion. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the better. Some suggest that off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres, though in some urban areas this is probably unattainable. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog activities like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space for private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. The larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.

With a smaller area, you will quickly find that supply can’t match demand. Permits to Indianapolis’ first Canine Companion Zone sold out almost immediately. In smaller parks a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available for dog use in early morning and early evenings. Try for a liberal time frame (before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m., for example), factoring in seasonal day-length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports success with a time-share program in all of its parks.

Some suggest limiting OLAs to a maximum of five acres because monitoring a larger area would be difficult. But park superintendents oversee only a minority of OLAs; most are policed by dog owners themselves. Successful dog parks covering more than 20 acres, some in operation for more than 10 years, include Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington; Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas; and Point Isabel in Richmond, California, which draws nearly a million visits a year.

Another bone of contention is fencing. In parks close to traffic, it might be necessary; double entry, self-closing gates are recommended. Fencing can also help allay fears of liability. Unless your dogs are into high hurdling, a four-foot fence should be adequate. Vinyl-coated chain-link fencing is probably the least expensive, but parks in Sacramento and Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., are looking into wrought iron (beware of the pointy pickets) and other alternatives. Judy Green, founder of Arlington Dogs, a Virginia OLA advocacy group, adds that fencing must extend to the ground and that the bottom of chain-link fencing must be crimped to avoid dog injuries. In larger, multi-use parks, especially in areas away from traffic with barriers that separate them from other park uses, fencing might not be necessary. Fencing can be the single most expensive item in OLA construction, so securing funding can hamper your progress. Pet stores and pet food companies might contribute and perhaps even sponsor your park.

Other design issues include neighbor-friendly parking; compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements (encourage service dogs and their companions to use OLAs); buffer zones from neighbors concerned about barking; covered trash receptacles and poop disposal products; bulletin boards; shade trees, good drainage, and maintainable turf; water fountains with human and dog-level spigots; signage; and benches, tables, and swimming ponds.

Allowing children into OLAs is more of an operational than a design issue, but it is usually addressed during the design stage. Children should be supervised in parks anyway, but some communities have opted for not allowing children, even those accompanied by an adult, into their OLAs. This unfortunate decision can add fuel to the children-versus-dog debate, and “it doesn’t serve the dog community to perpetuate this idea that dogs are always to be feared,” says Judy Green. Many families with dogs cannot afford the luxury of separating time in the park with kids from time in the park with a dog. And why should they? That’s the essence of what these areas are all about: having a good time in our parks with those we love.

From The Bark (Fall 1999). Subscriptions: $12/yr. (4 issues) from 2810 8th St., Berkeley, CA 94710; www.thebark.com