Double Dog Duty

By Colleen McCarty and Anita M. Pacheco

For anyone looking for the ingredients for a successful dog park, the answer is simple: Combine two park districts, add a splash of committed dog park enthusiasts, and fold in a location with potential. That’s exactly what the Arlington Heights Park District and the Mt. Prospect Park District did in Illinois, and the results were fantastic!

Location, Location, Location
The first order of business was to find a suitable location. While park officials visited nearby dog parks and potential areas, joint public meetings helped educate the community about the proposed park and solicit input from interested parties.

Ultimately, the Melas Park Sports Complex was selected because of its convenient location on the border of the two towns in the village of Mt. Prospect. Owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago, Melas Park is a 35-acre regional park with synthetic-turf softball/baseball fields, soccer fields, sand volleyball courts, and a playground. The specific location for the dog area was an undeveloped piece of land adjacent to parking, close to restrooms, and, most importantly, it did not border any residential housing. Additionally, the site already featured a number of large shade trees.

Designing the space to satisfy the needs of dog owners and non-dog owners required input from many stakeholders; therefore, it was critical to initially engage staff members from both of the districts’ parks and planning, recreation, and marketing departments. One of the first priorities was to craft an effective intergovernmental agreement outlining everything from construction costs, usage policies, and membership eligibility and registration procedures to maintenance and marketing responsibilities.

Drafting The Details
Dog park users would be greeted at the entrance with a 24-foot-diameter hexagonal shelter featuring a two-tier tongue-and-groove roof, security lighting, and landscaped garden beds. An off-leash transition zone would contain a memorial area where park users could purchase an engraved brick for their four-legged friends.

The dog park was divided into three areas: one quarter-acre dog park, one three-quarter-acre dog park, and one three-quarter-acre rotating dog park for maintenance purposes. The rotating park was included because the surfacing in all three spaces is grass, and during our research it was recommended to have a separate space that is only open when the other is closed, to give the grass a chance to regrow from foot traffic. A perimeter fence separating the off-leash areas is 6-foot-high, black vinyl chain-link, with vehicle-service gates at each of the three areas. Black vinyl was selected over galvanized fencing because it is more aesthetically pleasing. Waste-eliminator stations, restrooms, and picnic tables are also available on-site.

Initially, district officials wanted to have a drinking fountain on the site, but there was no adequate water source nearby to tap into. It would have been too expensive to build a new water line to the site for one drinking fountain, so this amenity was put on hold as Phase 2 of the project. Dog owners were informed that this feature would not be part of the plan and understood about having to bring their own water.

The park districts alternate maintenance duties for the dog park every year, as indicated in the intergovernmental agreement. The park is closed every Wednesday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. for mowing. Because a number of maintenance staff were not familiar with dogs and/or weren’t comfortable around them, special training from a local animal hospital on dog behavior, how to recognize it, and what to do in various situations was provided.

The resulting 1.82-acre dog park was made possible because both districts contributed funding for its development and will share financial responsibility in ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs.

Once the site was identified and the plan was in place, the park needed a name. Since the project was initiated by residents, it only seemed fitting that park-district officials allow them to name the park. As a result, nearly 200 possible names were submitted for consideration, with staff narrowing those to three candidates.  The public was then asked to vote for its top choice. The winning name was Canine Commons at Melas Park.

Members Only
In an effort to manage a clean, safe environment without endangering or annoying others, users were required to purchase an annual membership that met county and village vaccination, health screening, and licensing requirements, as well as to sign a liability waiver. More than 500 memberships were sold between both districts in a matter of weeks, prompting officials to create a wait list.

A single main-gated entry point features signage with rules/regulations of park use and a key fob unit that allows members access into the dog park area. This entry system was implemented because the park was to be open year-round from sunrise to sunset, and staffing the park wasn’t a feasible option. The key fob software also allows park-district officials to manage access remotely should a member misplace a key fob, track membership usage and daily visits, and easily deactivate the unit if someone does not renew a membership. All dog park revenues are restricted to funding maintenance and repairs.

Worth The Wait
Canine Commons officially opened to several hundred happy members on June 21, 2014. To say that the level of excitement was high and people were eager to get into Canine Commons is an understatement. Canine Commons had a fantastic first year, and park-district staff is eager to possibly sell even more memberships in the second year. Dogs and their owners can be seen frolicking at Canine Commons come rain or shine or in the heat or cold, and there have even been a couple of successful dog-related events during year one. The grass has been particularly difficult to maintain with all of the foot traffic, but the rotating area has helped to give the grass a chance to recover.

Both the Arlington Heights Park District and the Mt. Prospect Park District will continue to evaluate the dog park in efforts to address concerns, but one thing is certain. Canine Commons has brought two communities together over a much desired and highly utilized recreation facility that will surely evolve over time.

Colleen McCarty is the Park Planner I and Anita M. Pacheco is the Superintendent of Marketing & Communications for the Arlington Heights Park District. Reach McCarty at