Barking Up The Right Tree

By Tony Forshage

Dog parks are among the fastest-growing recreational amenities in city parks across the country. According to the Trust for Public Land, off-leash dog areas in urban parks have increased by 40 percent over the past decade.* The city of San Antonio’s Parks & Recreation Department in Texas has contributed to this national trend by building a dozen dog parks in the past 10 or so years.

Photos: Tony Forshage

Photos: Tony Forshage

In an attempt to impart some knowledge related to park design and construction, two case studies stand in stark contrast: Madison Square Park is in the downtown area bordered by a hospital, commercial offices, a church, and multi-family residences, while Phil Hardberger Park is a sprawling natural area in the northwest suburbs. While both studies offer advice on successful navigation in constructing a dog park, they also serve as a reminder that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to pooch parks.

Select A Site
Dog-park design begins with site selection. This process involves not only identifying areas of geographic need, but also conducting studies of land suitability. Wildlife, habitat, and water quality should be protected. Hardberger Park is surrounded by dense suburban development. The environmentally sensitive site was subjected to rigorous ecological analysis—with a goal of preserving at least 75 percent of the land in a restored or undeveloped condition.

Even with this conservation goal, at more than 300 acres Hardberger Park could accommodate the creation of more than 3 acres of dog parks. However, the dog parks had to be strategically located in order to limit habitat disruption. In addition, designers had to evaluate the challenging topography and hydrology of the site. In order to manage drainage and control erosion, dog parks are generally best suited on relatively flat sites with permeable soils. So, at Hardberger the dog parks had to be insinuated into the scarce, flatter sections of the hilly terrain without disturbing valuable tree cover.

Locating a dog park within a site requires sensitivity to adjacent uses. Dog parks should be located at least 50 to 100 feet away from residential neighborhoods. If possible, vegetated buffers or landscaped berms can be provided to create visual screening and attenuate noise. Potential conflicts can be minimized with other park users by separating the dog park from popular areas, such as playgrounds and game courts. The dog park at Madison Square, for example, was placed on the east side of the site opposite the playground and the hospital, which form the western boundary of the park. This layout separates dog park patrons from hospital visitors, who bring their children to the playground.

Decide On The Size
In addition to proper site selection and location, dog parks must be adequately sized. How big does a dog park need to be? While the answer to this question is subjective, a parcel measuring between a half-acre to 2 acres is reasonably generous. The two case studies cited above fall within this range: Madison Square Dog Park is .65 acres, while the two Hardberger parks are 1.5 and 1.7 acres, respectively. To put this into perspective, Madison Square is a 5-acre park, with the dog park representing roughly 10 percent of the entire area, whereas the 3.2-acre dog parks at Hardberger constitute approximately 1 percent of the overall site. It is worth mentioning that the larger parks at Hardberger made it possible to construct separate fenced areas for little dogs and big dogs—a preferred practice that was not practical at the smaller park at Madison Square. If separate areas are provided for little and big dogs, the spaces should not be equally split in size; instead, a significantly larger area can be dedicated for the bigger dogs.

Factor In Safety
Regardless of overall size, certain design features are essential for a safe and successful dog park. First, while some cities provide unfenced, leash-free areas, the San Antonio Parks Department requires perimeter fencing for all dog parks. Fencing should be a minimum of 5 feet tall because some athletic breeds are capable of jumping a 4-foot fence. Likewise, when specifying fence materials, typical chain link should be avoided because it is climbable, and a wily, motivated hound may escape. Metal pickets or wire panels provide a better type of fencing. These materials have the added advantage of “invisibility” in the landscape, as one tends to look through or beyond narrow metal pickets and thin wire panels. If a dog park is located in a natural area or near a pond or river where poisonous snakes may be encountered, quarter-inch wire mesh screening can be installed at the base of the fence.

Consider Aesthetics
Site aesthetics should not be overlooked in material selection. For the fence at Madison Square Dog Park, the designer selected black metal pickets because their sleek style complimented the formal pedigree of this old downtown park. In contrast, at Hardberger Dog Park, rough cedar posts and ranch-style wire panels were chosen to blend in with the naturally wooded setting. Aesthetics aside, it is imperative to install a double-gated entrance with a square or rectangular corral (at least 6 feet by 6 feet, if not larger). The corral creates a confined space to leash or unleash a pet before exiting or entering the dog park. People use this space to hang their leashes and gain momentary composure before their pet bounds into the park, often greeted by other excited dogs. In addition to the double-gate, installing a separate service gate to facilitate equipment access for routine maintenance is a consideration.

Provide Water
Water is another important element in dog-park design. Especially during the warmer months, dogs drink a lot, and they drink repeatedly during play. Therefore, it is best practice to provide a drinking fountain inside the dog park, even if water is available in the larger park outside the fenced area. In addition to drinking fountains, showers or misters may be provided for cooling dogs down in the heat. At Hardberger Dog Park, a long and shallow limestone trough with a series of elevated water spigots serves as both drinking fountain and shower. Adequate drainage around fountains and water features should be provided. Beyond basic water amenities, well-appointed dog parks are often equipped with agility equipment, such as exercise ramps and hoop jumps. One of the dog parks at Hardberger is furnished with a playful two-story dog house.


Include Convenient Amenities
There are a number of other necessary considerations in design—including supplies, signage, and lighting. The main supplies needed are plastic poop bags and lined trash receptacles. These should be as convenient as possible for people to pick up after their pets. To encourage clean-up, it usually makes sense to provide more than one bag-dispensing station. Regarding signage, the parks department utilizes two standard types: general dog park rules are posted outside every entry into the park; pet-waste cleanup rules are posted at each station. Because San Antonio’s dog parks are open into the evening hours, pedestrian night lighting is provided for visibility and safety.

Dog parks provide spaces for dogs and people to spend time and socialize, so human comfort should be part of the design. At a minimum, dog parks need to be furnished with benches, positioned in pairs to promote group conversation. Again, be thoughtful about material selection. For example, at Madison Square Park, elegant iron benches were selected for their aesthetic appropriateness to a downtown setting. Conversely, rustic limestone block bench seating proved more appropriate to the naturally rugged terrain encountered at Hardberger Park.

Picnic tables are arguably even more important than benches—not because people regularly eat in dog parks, but they bring beverages, books, and laptops with them. It is quite common for dog-park patrons to gather around picnic tables; people tend to sit and stand in various combinations, conversing or reading, while tolerating the dogs that jump onto the table tops. Locating site furniture under a shade canopy is a real plus. In fact, shade is itself a significant design consideration that should not go overlooked.

Determine Which Surface Is Best
Dog-park surfacing is a topic that deserves special attention. Municipalities differ in their approaches to this maintenance issue. The San Antonio Parks Department utilizes shredded wood mulch, which must be refurbished two or three times a year. With heavy public use, grass is nearly impossible to maintain, especially under tree canopies; eventually, the areas get worn down to bare dirt, which becomes muddy with rain. Decomposed granite and even synthetic lawn provide alternative surfacing options. Park designs should also include a hardscape plan for pedestrian circulation. Common circulatory treatments include paved perimeter pathways, as well as sidewalks that bisect the site or connect multiple entrances.

Think About Programming
Planning should also include some thought about programming. The San Antonio Parks Department recently partnered with the Animal Care Services Department to develop an educational program to promote responsible behavior. The Dog Park Ambassador Program utilizes parks staff members and community volunteers to encourage proper dog-park etiquette. Trained volunteers assist with organized outreach events held on-location at various dog parks. Engaging park patrons through on-site education can create good will in promoting the safe use of facilities.

*City Park Facts, The Trust for Public Lands, 2018, p. 8.

Tony Forshage, Landscape Architect and Certified Arborist, is the Assistant Manager for San Antonio’s Parks & Recreation Department. Reach him at (210) 207-8489, or