The Rise of the Dog Park

By Helen Mitchell

Across the U.S., the off-leash dog park is a growing trend.  The Trust for Public Land’s 2017 City Park Survey reported that dog parks are one of the fastest growing park amenities U.S. cities.  Amazon picked up on the trend, opening a dog park at their Seattle headquarters in 2017.  

Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). This is up from 56 percent of U.S. households in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted; a trend likely to continue as dogs may be the new starter children for millennials.  These dogs not only require physical exercise, but have a need for social interaction uninhibited by leashes.

Brief History of Dog Parks

The inception of the formal dog park can be accredited to Ohlone Dog Park in Berkeley, CA.  Established in 1979 as an urban park experiment, the facility set the stage for the modern dog park craze.  From 1980 to 2002, the U.S. saw the establishment of approximately 1,100 dog parks; Trust for Public Land reported that since 2009 dog parks have grown by 40% in the 100 largest U.S. cities.

As dog parks have risen in popularity, designers, landscape architects, social scientists, and community leaders have contributed to the canon of dog park design best practice.  Susan Stecchi’s book “So You Want to Build a Dog Park?” and a variety of research articles have shown the how, the why, the benefits, and the liabilities of the off-leash dog park.  To dive deeper, see the “Additional Resources” section.

The Making of a Dog Park

To make a great dog park, consider these four essentials:

1.     Double-gated entry.  A double-gated entry way is fundamental to reducing any unplanned escapes.  This gate system also creates a space for dog-owners to prepare for either entry or exit in a safe enclosure.  

2.     Room to move.  It seems obvious, but dog parks should be large enough for pups to really cut loose.  Extra space gives dogs a social buffer as well as more room to stretch their legs.

3.     A place for dogs & humans alike.  A good dog park design should consider human needs alongside dog needs – dogs aren’t the only social creatures who visit the park!  Basic park design will suffice here – places to sit, places for shade, and places to socially interact.

4.     The bulletin board.  According to the National Parks and Recreation Association, communication is key for dog park success.  A bulletin board or other signage near the entryway will provide users the know-how to properly use the park and communicate any pertinent updates about park conditions.

To take your park to the next level, consider some of these recommendations from City Lab’s “The Anatomy of a Dog Park”:

  • Set aside smaller spaces for smaller dogs who might feel intimidated by bigger ones.
  • Give the dogs a challenge, a variety of textures and facilities should keep the pups entertained.
  • Water, water, water.  Drinkable and swimmable water is key for dog hydration and those dogs who will benefit from low-impact exercise.

Building a Dog Park in Your Community

If all of this dog park talk is getting you excited but your community doesn’t have one, you can be the voice to have one created in your community.  While there’s more than one way to build a dog park, consider these strategies for creating one in your community:

  • Get organized! There’s power in numbers.  Connecting with other dog-fanatics will help you garner more support and show the size of your community’s need for a dog park.  With the rise of social media, residents have a greater capability than ever before to connect with like-minded folks in their community.  Use this powerful tool to rally a voice around your town’s future dog park!
  • Envision your dog park.  With a group of inspired pet owners behind you, it’s time to envision the facility.  From a rough sketch to a list of amenities to a site plan from a landscape architect, the visioning process can take many forms.  Dream big, but remember, dog parks can be simplistic and minimal – consider cost and viability during this stage. Whatever you come up with in this phase will be critical to informing a management strategy and any conversations with local officials.
  • Management strategy.  A management strategy will be critical to the dog park’s success.  Whether you are planning on building a small park with your neighbors, lobbying for a town-funded facility, or seeking out a local recreation non-profit to construct and manage your park, strategies for funding, construction, and operational maintenance are all important to develop.   
  • Talk to local officials.  Community leaders and officials can be important stakeholders in the park development process.  These folks can provide any knowledge on existing plans for dog parks as well as significant barriers to dog park development in the area.  Of course, if you’re aim is to create a municipally-operated dog park, local leaders are the gatekeepers!
  • Don’t give up.  Developing a local dog park may not be an easy process.  If you have a group of committed people and a real need for a dog park in your community, keep going!  You have the power to make it happen.

Additional Resources