Leash-Free And Lovin' It

By Jacquelyn Goddard
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / eldadcarin

If local, state, or federal park managers were asked to identify a trend for users of park property, many of the managers would name the increase in dogs going off-leash. According to survey results released earlier this year by The American Pet Products Association, dog ownership has increased to an all-time high of 83.3-million dogs (www.americanpetproducts.org ).


Further, anecdotal evidence suggests that requests from dog owners to park managers for designated locations for their pets to play have also increased. As a result, municipal officials have devised a variety of new policies, including designating off-leash hours in specific parks, installing pet runs that can be used for a fee, and having pet owners take the initiative to form a group, raise money for construction materials, and then maintain the recreation area.

The Benefits
Park managers and dog owners realize there are many advantages to establishing specific areas for dogs to run off-leash:

  • Pets and other park users will be safer if kept separate.

  • Parks will be active during off-peak times, which helps lower crime and vandalism.

  • Neighbors may use a park more frequently if they know they won’t be approached by over-friendly canines.

  • Public areas are kept cleaner since dog owners are more likely to pick up waste.

The Approval Process The city of Boston’s approach to recreation areas for dogs is outlined in a city ordinance adopted in 2004. Information about the ordinance is posted on the city’s website: www.cityofboston.gov/Images_Documents/DRP%20ordinance_tcm3-27878.pdf . The ordinance facilitates a partnership between dog owners, other park users, and department officials. The first step is a group of 10 or more people filing an application with the BostonParks and Recreation Commission for an off-leash area. A public hearing is then held on the proposed plan, and if the application is approved, the recreation space designation is subject to a one-year probationary period; designations expire after 5 years, at which time the applicant may submit an application for renewal. Applicants are responsible for raising money to create and maintain the off-leash area.

Support And Expansion
Following the guidelines, residents have successfully established official dog-recreation spaces at Peters Park in the city’s South End and at RonanPark in the neighborhood of Dorchester. These designated off-leash sites are located on municipal land, but funded with contributions from residents, foundations, dog owners, and the city. In the case of the exercise space in the South End, Friends of Peters Park raised more than $150,000 for design costs, construction, and maintenance. Those who worked to create this recreation space feel they were successful for several reasons:

  • The applicants were committed to the plan for the long-term.

  • The process was very public.

  • The applicants received specific guidance and feedback from the property owner and the city’s parks and recreation department.

Currently in Boston, efforts are underway to create a unique play space for dogs in the downtown area. The applicants are Friends of the PublicGarden and Common Canine and their proposal is to create six “rotating” off-leash areas on Boston Common. Rotating the play space will help the turf to restore itself. Because the property has historic designation, the applicants will need approval for boundary markers, trash receptacles, and signage from the Boston Landmarks Commission. The two groups hope to create off-leash areas ranging from 21,000 to 57,000 square feet, which will allow for recreation daily between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Follow The Rules
Regulations for the recreation areas are similar to rules adopted in other communities:

  • All dogs must be licensed and vaccinated.

  • Puppies must be of a certain age to enter the area.

  • Prong and choke collars must be removed prior to play.

  • Adults may only bring two dogs at a time into the space.

  • Young children are not allowed in the area.

  • Owners must clean up pet waste.

Other Successful Ventures
Other municipalities in Massachusetts with dog-recreation areas include Lowell, Salem, Medway, and Sharon. The SalemDogPark requires a $25 yearly “PoochPass” that funds the site’s maintenance. The LowellDogPark was created after months of research into issues such as the ground surface. Lowell decided on Pea Stone as the play surface after learning that sand was difficult to keep clean, could lead to drainage problems, and would attract fleas. In Medway, rules for using the fenced-in dog-recreation area include filling in holes dug by animals and reporting any bites or scratches to the animal-control officer. In Sharon, features of the off-leash siteinclude double-entry gates and fresh water for the animals during warm months. In Massachusetts, some municipal officials have had help in creating dog-recreation areas thanks in part to the Massachusetts Dog Owners Groups, (MassDOG). The nonprofit’s website, www.MassDOG.org , contains information about the state government’s efforts to create off-leash areas, locations for canine play, links to local pet groups, and maps and policies for various sites.

A Dedicated Bunch
Park managers who have been involved in plans for recreation areas stress the importance of having a balance of activities for all park users. They urge colleagues to think about staffing issues, access issues, and user-group needs. In many places where dog-recreation areas have been created successfully, it is due to partnerships with dog owners, since the people involved in the activities are often the most committed to facilitating change.

Jacquelyn Goddard is the Director of External Affairs and Communications for the city of Boston, Mass. Reach her at jacque.goddard@cityofboston.gov .