This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.
It wasn’t long ago when maintenance for a dog park did not even have a page in recreation history; today, however, new dog parks are springing up somewhere nearly every day and maintenance has become a real and evolving part of doing business in the 21st century.
It is no surprise that most dog parks start with the efforts of volunteer citizen groups. Volunteers have almost always been a vital part of any successful recreation effort.
There is probably more than one story about how, when, and where dog parks first became part of the recreation scene. Most evidence indicates they started in the early- to mid-1980s in Berkeley, Calif., when two ladies had an idea. The first park was something of an oddity and thrown together thanks to the talents of the two women and the group they organized.
However, once the park was established, it became a vibrant part of the community as more and more people came to join in the human and canine social experience. Of course, this increased use meant more intense needs for maintenance as well.
A Skeptical Beginning
I can attest to this phenomenon. In 1998, when I was director of a city’s leisure-services division, a small group of citizens petitioned the department for assistance in building a dog park. I admit I was skeptical at first.
I had heard stories about dog parks, mostly those in large metropolitan cities where green space and yard space were limited and people were looking for canine-friendly outdoor venues. Our city was relatively small but growing; most people had at least an acre of land with fenced-in backyards and about 100 miles of public walking paths and dozens of parks.
Still, people moving in from bigger cities where there had been dog parks must have wondered where ours were. I wasn’t seeing the need; I had two dogs that romped in the backyard, and my family and I took them for long walks on the paths.
However, I could see that the people interested in dog parks were involved and passionate about them. A group formed an organizing committee and began signing on volunteers, so I started to look into what the city could provide.
A proposal to use a piece of existing recreation land for a dog park was presented before the recreation commission; the volunteer group pledged to raise the money for fencing and other start-up expenses. The group also agreed to do some or most of the maintenance, even though none of us really comprehended what that equated to in manpower or funding requirements.
A Long Road To Success
After more than two years, the proposal passed. We had done research into the few examples of dog parks that had varying degrees of success, and had put together a list of all the potential land in our inventory that would be suitable. Then we had to visit each one on numerous occasions to evaluate need versus reality.
This was a time-consuming effort. Once we thought we had found the right site, but as we were preparing a presentation for the city council, we discovered insurmountable issues with the site and had to return to the drawing board.
Eventually we got it right, city council approved it, and work was underway. The volunteer group took several months to raise funds and get fencing and a few amenities.
By the time construction actually began, the original group of volunteers had lost interest, and a new set of people were at the helm. This group had greater visions of what the dog park should look like, what should be included, who should use the facility, how much if any users should pay … and the list went on and on. There was never a lack of issues.
We found there was more to maintenance than met the eye, and soon the recreation maintenance staff was putting more and more time into a myriad of requests from the volunteer group, which did a good job of maintaining social order, enforcing rules, and making sure people picked up after their pets, but they didn’t have the funding or manpower to take care of day-to-day maintenance.
Little things, such as keeping weeds from fence lines, getting water to the site, obtaining materials and equipment to create maintenance roads, signage, and a litany of other issues were not unreasonable. However, they were mostly unfunded, unexpected, and time-consuming for a maintenance staff that already was stretched too thin.
However, I have to admit that working with the volunteers to develop the dog park was a satisfying experience and well worth the effort. Total strangers with a common cause and became good friends with a continuing quest.
Susyn Stecchi came to the dog park experience from the other side of the city government-volunteer group equation.
“The effort was difficult,” she recalls. “The dog park I helped establish in Coral Springs was the very first dog park in the entire state of Florida. There were no other dog parks in the southeastern portion of the U.S. at that time either.”
The volunteer group in my southeastern city may very well have used the Coral Springs effort as an example. The way Stecchi told me how she approached the project had a familiar ring to it.
“The most important thing is to site the dog park properly in the first place,” she says. “If you pick an inappropriate site at the get-go, maintenance will be a true money pit and nightmare. This is the most common mistake that municipalities make.”
Stecchi now consults with groups in order to help others. She has even produced a dog park development book and will soon release a training DVD. She identifies herself as the Chief “Barketing” Officer (and Founder) of DogParksUSA.
She admits her initial experience was less than smooth. “Yes, indeed, we experienced very strong resistance,” she recalls of her early years in the business. The most resistance she met from municipal officials was a concern for liability. “We had to remind officials that the same protections that cover them when people do harm, or have harm done to them, in public parks covers them in public dog parks,” she says.
Time and success have made dog parks more widely accepted now, she contends. “There are still unenlightened public officials out there who worry about liability, but historical trends have shown that it is not the big worry in practice that it was believed to be in theory way back when,” she says.
Still, maintenance can be a sticky subject if not totally understood and codified by all parties. “I do believe the dog park users and dog owner groups should take full responsibility for ‘scooping the poop,’ and not counting on the local governments to do that,” she insists. “But all other maintenance should fall to the municipality, just like with any other public park. You don’t expect the parents to fix the swings at the playground, do you?”
Other maintenance includes pest treatments, fence repairs, equipment repairs, providing utilities, landscaping, signage, and general maintenance. For most of these items, users don’t have expertise, materials, or equipment, and if they were to do the work, the municipality would be taking on even greater liability.
Maintenance of surfacing over the long haul is probably one of the most challenging aspects of dog park stewardship. The turf of dog parks gets more wear and tear than many general-use parks or even sports parks.
The issue with dog park turf, in Stecchi’s opinion, is the “need to give sections of the dog park a rest so the grass can recover from being peed on so much.” Some parks use mulch, crushed stone, or even artificial turf, but there are drawbacks and special maintenance concerns with each of these as well.
The important thing to remember is that these items should be considered and addressed well before the first fence post is driven into the ground. The process for a municipal government to work with a volunteer group to develop a dog park may take a long time, much longer than some people would like and longer in some places than others.
If the process is rushed, the results may not be what everyone expected. In the end, effective maintenance of the facility will write a successful page in the city’s history.
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.