Lapping Up The Experience

By Desiree Stanfield

Forty-five minutes north of Detroit,Mich., dogs may mistake Orion Oaks Dog Park for heaven. Here, in this 24-acre, fenced, off-leash facility, they can mingle with other four-legged friends and take a dip at the dogs-only swimming beach, complete with a dock that allows for hours of jumping, fetching, and doggie-paddling.


Operated by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, the park boasts two trails, a small-dog area, drinking water, picnic shelter, and modern restrooms. Opened in August 2000, the dog park originally measured 7 acres, but was expanded due to high demand and now includes three sections--Dog Park A, B, and C--which are rotated to minimize wear and tear on the turf. In 2011, the dog park greeted 163,219 visitors.

After one season of operation, Park Supervisor Mike Boyd and his staff created a dogs-only swimming beach complete with an 80-foot by 8-foot floating dock that features three separate ramps so dogs can walk up and out of the water. The beach and dock are open Memorial Day through Labor Day.

“The distance from the parking lot to the dog beach is one-quarter mile. Some guests thought that was too far to walk. So, we took the perceived negative and made it into a positive by creating a quarter-mile off-leash ‘run’ from the parking lot to the dog beach,” Boyd says. “Owners were happy that their dogs could run free, and they could walk at their own pace.”

For the safety of pets, the dock is open with no sides or rails.


“Dogs can jump in from anywhere on the dock and not get caught on anything. And, we switched to rubber floor mats from wooden treads because little dogs had trouble getting enough traction to get up the ramps,” he adds.

The shoreline around the dog beach needed some natural reinforcement, so rocks and boulders were added to prevent erosion. Lakeweeds are not a problem because the swimming action of dogs prevents plants from getting established near the dock.

The dog beach became a gathering place, so picnic tables were added and owners can now relax while their pets swim. A crushed limestone path was added from an accessible parking lot--open to individuals with disabilities only--so they could have the same experience with their pets as other guests.

“We have some repeat visitors who don’t even have a dog, who visit to socialize and watch the dogs play,” Boyd says. “It’s great exercise for the dogs and entertainment for our guests. You can always tell who’s been to the dog dock by their wet clothes. It’s all part of the experience.”

A picnic pavilion with concessions is expected to be constructed in 2013 to meet the needs from organized groups like Michigan Basset Rescue that annually holds special events for several hundred people and their pets at the park.

“Overall, this was a very successful experiment with our first dog-dedicated facility. Several times a year, parks and recreation professionals at the local and state level visit the site to study how they could build a dog park. Oakland County Parks and Recreation is proud to be a leader in this innovative recreation opportunity,” Boyd says. “Dog people make great park visitors. They’re very friendly, get along well with other guests, and self-steward by picking up pet waste to keep the dog park clean.”

Since the dog park was constructed, two more dog parks have been built, and a fourth is in the planning stages.

Desiree Stanfield is the Supervisor of Communication and Marketing for Oakland County Parks and Recreation. She can be reached at (248) 858-4627 or Oakland County Parks and Recreation operates 13 parks that include three dog parks, 65 miles of trails, two waterparks, two campgrounds, and five golf courses. To learn more, visit

Lessons Learned

For agencies considering adding a dogs-only swimming beach to their list of amenities, take it from the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Department, which has learned a lesson or two in how to make the operation run smoothly:

  • Rescue-flotation devices are not teething rings. Parks staff provides a rescue ring at the dock in case a person accidently falls into the water and needs assistance. Some dog owners use the rings as toys for their dogs, necessitating the purchase of a new rescue ring annually.

  • Owners must have dogs under voice command. Over the years, a few dogs have refused to return to the dock when the owner calls. “Dogs find their way to shore, and the owners have to go looking for them,” Boyd says. “The dogs are having a blast, and the owners are panicked. Having the animal under voice command ensures the dog’s safety.”

  • Not all dogs are natural swimmers. The park rents doggie-lifejackets, featuring a rescue handle on the top so owners can pull their pets out of the water. “Some dogs may have had no exposure to swimming, and the lifejackets let them learn and gain confidence in the water,” Boyd says.

  • A waterfowl-management plan is a necessity.Ninety-acreLakeSixteen--where the dog beach is located--is popular with ducks, geese, and swans, so the dock must be rinsed and swept clean daily. Scaring the birds away with ribbons, strings, and even a large plastic owl have not worked. “Basically, the birds are smart, and techniques need to be changed about every two days,” Boyd says. “It’s labor-intensive to come up with creative ways to keep the birds off the dock.”

  • There’s money to be made in future amenities. According to Boyd, patrons frequently ask for items to purchase, including beach towels to dry off their dogs and an outdoor dog-wash to rinse the lake water off their pets. These items are under consideration. Other requested items include dog biscuits, leashes, and collars, plus beverages for the owners.