Evolving Dog-Park Design Standards

As our little corner of the world here in Douglas County, Colorado started to grow, our park district received numerous requests for the development of off-leash dog areas (dog parks). It seemed the folks moving to town (and those already here), wanted a place for their dogs to run, play and socialize off-leash.

Because of this input, the 2003 master-planning process for two regional parks in the county was careful to include a dog park in each of the proposed parks.

But then, an interesting thing happened. As the ensuing design discussions took place, it quickly became apparent there was not much history on dog-park design. It seems that, as a group, landscape architects and park planners have been designing parks for about 150 years, sports complexes for 80-90 years, but dog parks for only five years (although some have been around longer).

We were going to have to do some research and, perhaps, play a role in helping to evolve dog-park design.

Design Decisions – Where to Begin?

Our research method of choice was to observe existing dog parks in the Denver metro-area and break apart their designs for our own use. We learned a few things:

1) There were no hard and fast rules about dog-park design (all were different based on their particular situation).

2) All the parks experienced extremely high, active use.

3) In most cases, they were being used too much.

In short, there were no right, or more important, wrong design solutions – it seemed a simple case of “build it and they will come.” But there were design considerations we felt could make the dog park more aesthetically pleasing for both human and animal users.

First-Generation Dog-Park Design

As we continued to observe dog parks in our area, we found a progression of designs. It seemed each successive park took the best part of previous designs and then improved upon them with their own, new ideas. We started defining them as either first-generation or second-generation parks.

The first-generation parks we looked at were just large enclosures with a single entry/exit gate, and although they function very well to contain dogs, they are limited in aesthetic value.

The most obvious challenge discovered in first-generation parks was turf wear. Because of the concentrated use at the single entry/exit gate, the turf disappeared, leaving a rutted, dirt entry path. And, if the turf throughout these parks was not irrigated, large sections of the park were destroyed, unable to recover from year to year.

In some cases, where the turf was irrigated, the turf could withstand the beating, only showing wear in areas of concentrated activity (like the entry/exit gate) and stood a better chance of recovery year to year. But overuse was still a considerable problem.

The single entry/exit point in first-generation parks also posed another unique problem. As we observed several times, it seemed very hard for owners to control the entering dog (because it was so excited to get in), and it was equally hard to prevent the dogs that were already in the park from getting out (to investigate the new dog). These issues were addressed in the next generation of design.

Second-Generation Dog-Park Design

The second generation of dog park design was similar to the first -- one large open area, with the addition of what we call the bullpen.

The bullpen is basically a pen within a pen. It’s a small enclosed entry area, generally 10’ x 10’ to 15’ x 15’, and has two gates. The first is the entry/exit gate used to get to the bullpen; the second is a gate from the bullpen into the dog park itself. The surface of the bullpen is generally some material, either hard (concrete) or soft (crusher fines) to match the entry.

This system enables a person to enter the bullpen, close the gate, unleash the dog and then open the gate into the dog park. This allows for more control of both the entering dog, and the dogs in the park itself. To leave, the process is reversed.

The bullpens have also gone through an evolution in recent years. The first ones just entered directly onto the turf of the dog park. While very functional, there was an excessive amount of wear right at the entry. This concentrated use at the gate made it virtually impossible for maintenance staffs to keep the turf in good condition. More recent designs have included an additional surfaced area around the entry, constructed of some type of hard or soft material. This additional area helps to disperse some of the concentrated use right at the entry/exit, and has helped considerably in dispersement of use at the entry/exit area.

Second-generation parks still used either non-irrigated natural turf or irrigated bluegrass. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages.

The non-irrigated turf is much less expensive to install and maintain, but does not stand up well to high concentrations of use and seems to quickly turn into bare dirt soon after the opening of the dog park.

The bluegrass is more expensive to install and maintain but will hold up better under high use. However, even though the bluegrass will stand up to some heavy use, areas of high concentrated use day after day will also destroy blue grass turf.

We noticed the turf in the Denver metro-area dog parks never has an opportunity to recover. Once the turf is stressed, it almost never has the opportunity to re-establish.

Third-Generation Design?

Because of our observations, we centered the discussions on how to keep the turf in the best possible shape. We knew the parks we observed were very well maintained, but the turf was just “loved to death.”

One of the first decisions was that un-irrigated turf was not going to be an acceptable solution for the facilities. Both parks were to be located in very developed park/sports complexes, and the expectation was that the dog parks would fit into the surrounding parks. The question then became how to keep the irrigated turf in an acceptable condition and consistent with the rest of the park.

After much discussion and debate as a design group, we came to the conclusion that these areas would receive the same type of use/abuse as the sports fields, and maintenance decisions were based on this conclusion. The maintenance staff needed to treat these fields as if they were overused sports fields and maintenance of the dog park needed to include mowing, fertilizing, aerating and over-seeding.

As design discussion progressed, our maintenance staff voiced its concerns about the ability of the irrigated turf to recover from overuse. No matter what you do, or how well you address the wear of the turf through over-seeding and fertilization, if use is not removed and the grass does not have an opportunity to grow, it will never recover. Based on this concern, the design discussion moved to figuring out how we could effectively remove use from the worn areas, yet still allow use of the park.

The solution to this diverging thought was based on a prevailing agricultural concept in our area -- pasture rotation, where one area is rested while another is opened for active use.

We decided to divide the dog parks roughly in half, with each side being slightly over an acre in size, and rotate use of the areas throughout the year.

Personally, I would consider this the next generation in dog-park design. We have tried this concept on two of our dog parks and are extremely pleased with the results.

The rotation schedule is based on use, not the calendar, and the maintenance staff makes the decision as to when to rotate to the other side. This decision is based on time of year, natural moisture, compaction, use, etc. Currently, we are rotating approximately every third month, but that is subject to change, based upon conditions.

As mentioned, the maintenance practices used in the dog parks are the same as we use on our irrigated turf sports fields. The maintenance includes fertilization, aeration, mowing (twice weekly), over-seeding (using both slicing and broadcast methods) and trimming. The bluegrass seed mix that we use is a Rocky Mountain Fairway mix developed specially as a sports turf mix for our area.

Other Design Considerations

Dog parks can be designed and constructed for relatively low costs, i.e., metal T-posts with wire, a gate, and non-irrigated turf, to relatively high costs, i.e., irrigated turf, wooden fences, shelters, etc.

However, I would encourage you to base your decisions on how the overall appearance of the park fits into the surrounding park or area. And, you may want to consider adding a designated small-dog area.

The most frequently asked questions at our dog parks (most questions are phrased to our staff as “my dog wants”) are the following:

· When are we going to have shade?

During the construction of the dog parks, shelters were included as a portion of the overall construction and are set at the entry. Users have told us they would rather have the shade located within the dog park itself.

· When are we going to have water?

A water fountain was installed at the entry to the dog park. This fountain is a three-tiered unit, with a regular-height fountain, a handicapped- accessible fountain and a dog-bowl fountain. This fountain is used by all park users, and is located at the dog park, but just a short distance away from two multi-use athletic fields and one baseball/softball field. The dog- park users still ask the staff if the fountain could be moved into the dog park.

· When can lights be installed at the dog park?

Although the dog park is located within an active sports park, we have no plans to install lights. Our concern is that if lights were in place, the dog park would be used 24 hours a day. The dog park is open during park hours, dawn to dusk.

As a whole, users of the dog park seem to be very protective of their pets and are looking for all the conveniences to be placed within the dog park – something we’ll be working on as we go forward.

Randy Burkhardt ASLA is a Landscape Architect employed by Douglas County, Colorado as the Parks and Trails Planner. He can be reached via email at rburkhar@douglas.co.us.