Going To The Dogs

Almost 40 percent of American families share their homes with a dog--73 million dogs in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Like children, once you have one, it is often easier to have two or more. A quarter of those who own a dog have multiple animals. Regardless of size or pedigree, dogs need exercise, and parks draw dogs and owners, like the proverbial honey draws bees.

Lisa Peterson, director of Club Communications for the American Kennel Club (AKC), the country’s oldest and largest non-profit dog club, suggests park directors “embrace the concept of dog parks as the perfect way to reach out to dog owners and non-dog owners alike so they can both coexist in the community and neither group will feel threatened.”

“A dog park,” she adds, “sets up great boundaries for everybody concerned.”

Special areas dedicated to canis lupus familiaris are among the hottest feature going in parks and campgrounds today. But to do it right, you can’t think like a park director, architect or facilities and grounds manager. You have to think like a dog.

Thinking Like A Dog

The AKC can provide invaluable assistance in developing a dog park within your park system. “We have more than 5,000 affiliated clubs filled with volunteers who love to give back to the community,” says Peterson.

From design assistance to Mutt Mitts, these individuals understand the needs and temperaments of dogs. As an example, a picnic table in a dog park appears to be a nice amenity for the dog owner. It looks quite different from a dog’s perspective. Six people at a table, perhaps some with food, with six dogs running to their masters, heighten the pack instinct among the animals and may cause fighting. Benches placed 100 feet apart might be a more prudent choice.

There are some basic design features that ensure safety in a dog park, and then there are the “doggie Disneyland” features dictated by budget.

The AKC suggests the following basic features for the “ideal dog park”:

· One acre or more of land surrounded by a 4-to-6-foot-high chain-link fence.

· Fences equipped with a double-gated entry to keep dogs from escaping and to facilitate wheelchair access.

· Cleaning supplies, including covered garbage cans, waste bags and pooper-scooper stations.

· Shade and water for both dogs and owners, along with benches and tables.

· A safe, accessible location with adequate drainage and a grassy area that is routinely mowed.

· Signs that specify park hours and rules.

· Parking close to the site.

In determining a location for a park, Peterson suggests checking the toxicity of local plants. “Holly and rhododendron are toxic to dogs. Acorns can be as well,” she says. Given the difference in size, a separate area for small dogs--generally less than 20 pounds--is an advantage. Providing a variety of terrain (i.e., dirt for digging) may be beneficial as well.

When it comes to using the dog park successfully, regulations must be stated clearly. However, Peterson puts the responsibility on the owner. “It is up to the owner to know the animal and to provide proper socialization and training to ensure a good experience for all.”

AKC also provides a list of general health and safety rules:

· Owners are legally responsible for their dogs and any injuries caused by them.

· Puppies and dogs must be properly licensed, inoculated and healthy.

· Animals should wear a collar and ID tags at all times.

· Owners must clean up after their dogs.

· Dogs showing aggression towards people or other animals will be removed from the park; animals that exhibit a history of aggressive behavior will

not be permitted.

· Puppies using the park must be at least four months old.

· Owners should not leave dogs unattended. If young children are permitted in the dog park (and you might want to give this serious consideration), they should be under constant supervision.

· Dogs in heat will not be allowed inside the park.

· Dogs should be leashed before entering and prior to leaving the park.

· Violators are subject to removal from the park and suspension of park privileges.

Perhaps the best service the park system can provide after building it is educating potential clients. This approach can be a revenue-maker as well. Peterson suggests offering basic obedience classes or certification courses to ensure appropriate training. AKC offers the Canine Good Citizen Test--a 10-step test to prove good manners and the tenets of responsible dog ownership. This program has been adopted in proclamation by 26 states and the U.S. Senate. It also has been used successfully against breed-specific legislation. Some insurance companies will accept the certification and allow coverage of otherwise uninsurable breeds. [www.akc.org/events/cgc/index.cfm]

“We encourage park directors to use AKC as a resource,” concludes Peterson. “We provide educational resources, the canine ambassador program (volunteers bringing dog-safety programs into schools), public education coordinators and 5,000 affiliated clubs and members.” [www.akc.org]

Building PawPark

Mike Knipfer, Chairman of the Friends of Our Paw Park in Sanford, Fla., understands dogs. He also understands political process, fundraising and land utilization. Several years back, Knipfer read an article about a dog park in California and thought it was a nifty idea. There were none in Central Florida at the time, but he did locate one in Tampa and one in Sarasota. He and his two retrievers took to the road and visited the latter dog park.

Knipfer returned to his close-knit historic community of about 400 homes and started talking to other dog owners about the fun he and the dogs had in Sarasota. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dog park in Sanford?

City officials were open to the idea. Mike put them in touch with their Sarasota counterparts, while he and his group started looking for a possible site.

Jaycee Park in Sanford was old, underutilized and rundown and had become a gathering place for vagrants. It had (excuse the pun) gone to the dogs. Could this property literally be given to the dogs? The decision was obvious.

Friends of Our Paw Park entered into an agreement with the city of Sanford. If the group could raise $10,000, the city would budget the remaining $15,000 needed to build a “bare bones” dog park. “Our biggest fundraiser was a Halloween costume party for the dogs,” recalls Knipfer. “The city let us use a baseball field for a one-day, off-leash party. We had such a good time it really got people excited about building a permanent dog park.”

Unbelievably, the group raised the money in less than a year, and the city built the park.

Today, PawPark is one of the best dog parks in the country. For the second year in a row, it was runner-up in Dog Fancy magazine’s annual contest.

“When we opened on May 5, 2001, we were a bare-bones park with fencing and water. We now have lighting, a paved walkway, enlarged small-dog area, misting towers, dog wash stations, upgraded dog and human water fountains, and, as a result of the $2,500 grant from Dog Fancy magazine, a new doggie playground with ramps and tunnels,” Knipfer says with pride.

Friends of Our Paw Park continues to raise funds for the facility. Halloween in the Boneyard and Paw Park Birthday Bash are the major fundraising events. Although the group is not a non-profit entity, city co-sponsorship allows the funds to be raised tax-free and earmarked for the dog park.

Maintaining The Grounds

Mark Hultin is the parks and grounds manager responsible for maintaining the 1-1/2-acre PawPark. Like most residents, he believes the decision to build was a good one. “We can better serve the needs of our population, and we’ve improved the looks and aesthetic value of the neighborhood,” he says. “PawPark is the most-used facility of the 30 or so parks in Sanford.”

“We’ve been building and tweaking PawPark over the years,” he adds.

A particularly popular feature, the “king-of-the-mountain-tree,” is a gift from 2004’s Hurricane Charlie. When a large tree was downed by the hurricane winds, staff cut off the branches and left the remains in the dog park. The dogs love climbing on the trunk; it’s almost reminiscent of children playing in appliance boxes. Expensive isn’t always better.

Hultin struggles with some of the problems indigenous to dog parks: maintaining turf and providing enough parking for the patrons. Weekends can be a problem despite parking being available on three sides of the park, which spans a city block. Although most of the park’s surface is mulch, the turf areas do tend to get muddy. He and Kniphen have discussed installing a synthetic trade grass in the dog shower area and expect to move forward with the project soon.

Keeping the different animals in mind, Hultin provides flea treatments regularly.

Although some parks charge an admission or membership fee, Paw Park is free to its patrons. Rules are stated on a 3-by-4-foot sign, and patrons generally do a good job of policing themselves. There is a bulletin board for announcements, and a contact number is prominently listed.

“We’ve been cutting-edge for dog parks in Central Florida for a long time,” says Hultin. And you can bet a dog yummie that Paw Park intends to stay that way. With a little luck, it may also take the Dog Fancy prize in 2008!

Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business and Camp Business magazines. She gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, the environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her at lstalvey1@verizon.net.

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Grass That Will Last

When one or more dogs gather, the turf will be challenged! Whether it’s a dog park, kennel or boarding facility, turf quickly turns to mud and dirt, and Rex, Ben and Molly begin to smell and look like wet rugs.

The grounds manager, the dog owner and facility staff are not happy. The only beings that don’t seem to mind--which by no means is universal--are the dogs themselves. Having fun outside is doggie nirvana.

Mud, odor and maintenance costs are the three challenges in dog park management.

Enter ForeverLawn’s K9 Grass.

Introduced in the first quarter of this year, K9 Grass is quickly becoming a product of choice for many dog-facility owners. The novelty of the product’s construction even warranted an article in USA Today.

K9 Grass is a synthetic grass specifically designed for dogs. It has a dense blade structure that allows doggie deposits to be readily scooped up. The back of the product has multiple holes for continuous and instant drainage; therefore, K9 Grass is easily hosed down. An antimicrobial agent is built into the blade structure, reducing odor.

There are approximately 30 K9 Grass dealers across the country.