Drooling Over Programming Opportunities

By Pat Brockway

Looking back at the creation of Oakland County (Mich.) Parks and Recreation’s first dog park, Operations Manager Sue Wells, a lifelong dog owner herself, laughs and says, “I never thought they would be this popular!”

The dog parks are so popular that the county is now looking at developing a master plan for their growth.

In 2000, the county parks opened the first dog park; the number has since grown to three, and the original park has grown in size. The Orion Dog Park at the northern end of the 910-square-mile county was the first, the Lyon Oaks Dog Park followed in 2007 at the western end, and the Red Oaks Dog Park in the southern portion was introduced 3 years later.

It all began with citizen input. Relocated residents, who had enjoyed dog parks at their previous cities, approached the parks department about replicating the popular amenity. Wells recruited more than 50 volunteers who did 90 percent of the work, clearing the area and putting up fencing. But it soon became obvious that the original 7-acre park was too small.

“The popularity of the Orion Oaks Dog Park was tremendous,” Program Supervisor Laurie Stasiak says. “People were parking alongside the road and anywhere they could in order to get to the park. The once grassy area became dirt and mud. Experimenting with different surfaces, such as mulch in the heavy traffic areas, didn’t prove promising, as it held in the urine and substances and gave off odors.”

In 2004, expansion plans began. By 2006, park users requested bathrooms, and a seasonal one was constructed. In 2008, bathrooms became available year-round, and the porch from the first expansion was “glassed in” to make a vestibule for owners and dogs.

In 2013, a new dog park office and pavilion opened in Orion Oaks, now totaling 24 acres. Portable lights were added to two sites in 2014, giving dog owners the opportunity to visit in late fall and early spring when daylight hours are typically shorter in Michigan. The Red Oaks site already had lighting.

All three dog parks have proven successful. In 2014, 346,619 people used the dog parks, bringing in revenue in excess of $260,000.

As a result, programming for dog lovers continues to expand. Stasiak says costs are partially offset by sponsorships with local veterinary clinics and dog-related businesses. Programs currently offered include:

Vaccination Clinic: This facility offers affordable vaccinations for cats and dogs, as well as microchips, heartworm tests and prevention, de-wormer, and flea prevention. Dog licenses are also available. The clinics are held at three county parks in addition to the dog parks.

Canines, Coffee, and Conversation: Held at Red Oaks, this event is sponsored by a local animal hospital. Refreshments are provided for the dogs and their owners. The owners are able to talk to a veterinarian about specific topics of concern, and information is provided on heartworm disease, fleas, and ticks. This program is also a “meet and greet” opportunity where staff members are able to collect email addresses from visitors who want to become involved.

Howl-O-Ween Bash: A Halloween party for dogs and their owners with costume contests, activities, pet demonstrations, adoptions, and vendors is held at Lyon Oaks. New additions in 2014 were a DJ, a doggie maze, and a Doggie De Lure Course. Participants also receive a keepsake photo.

Doggie Tailgating: Held the weekend before the biggest football rivalry in the state—University of Michigan versus Michigan State University—the event features activities and contests such as Best Furry Fan and Best Furry Fan and owner. The 3-hour event is held at Orion Oaks Dog Park.

Camp Bow Wow Dog Swim: The department’s two waterparks close for the season on Labor Day. The following weekend is the final swim of the summer: the dog swim. The Waterford Oaks and Red Oaks waterparks are turned over to the pooches for a day. In addition to the dog swim, Fido Fest is held at Red Oaks Waterpark, featuring vendors, rescues and adoptions, demonstrations, doggie contests, training clinics, and helpful tips.

As with most department events, the dog swim is promoted on social media. A Facebook contest asks people to “like and share” the Dog Swim event posting to enter a drawing for a free Dog Swim entry. The result was a record 34,688 reaches in 2014.

To give a “dog’s perspective” of the event, a GoPro camera was strapped to several dogs, including 12-year-old Max, voted “Best Swimmer.” The footage was an exciting addition on YouTube and the park department’s Facebook page and website. A local television station interviewed Stasiak and used the OCP footage for the segment. The 5:20-minute segment was viewed by 41,107 people, equaling $16,723.88 in media value.

More than 500 dogs participated in the swims, which also included a beach swim for the dogs at a park lake, another new amenity.

While programming is continuing to grow, the department is also looking at expanding the overall operation of the dog parks. “There are always challenges with maintenance, ground hornets, dogs that dig holes, or scuffles between dogs,” Stasiak says. “With a total of 43 acres of land, we rely on our dog park users to bring any issues to our attention.”

The newest project for the dog parks is the creation of Dog Park Ambassadors. These volunteers will greet visitors, answer questions, distribute event flyers, and report concerns and comments to park management. Some ambassadors will be gatekeepers assigned to customer service and park security. Other ambassadors will help with special events and annual clean-up days.

“Dogs owners are a very tight-knit group,” Wells says. “A few months ago, one of the ambassadors known as Bark Park Bob passed away, and the dog owners raised money for a memorial bench for him.”

Wells adds that when the dog parks began, some questioned their place in a parks system for people. “Walking your dog is great exercise, and we have provided them with a nice place to do it where you can meet other people doing the same thing,” she says. “There is a lot of socialization among the owners, too. They may not know each other’s names, but they know the names of all the dogs!”

Pat Brockway is a technical assistant with Oakland County Parks and Recreation in Michigan. She can be reached at brockwayp@oakgov.com.