how to help ensure optimal ambiance at a dog park?
January 14, 2020 4:07 AM   Subscribe

My group is organizing to start a dog park in a rural area that's sparsely populated by demographic extremes: there are newcomers who are very familiar with excellent parks, and others who come from a huntin' and fightin' background. Adding to this mix, we hope to draw from vacationers travelling with their dogs, as we're located near an intersection of major interstate highways. For various reasons, we're going to allow public access, even though the park will be entirely privately funded and managed.

What are measures we can take to make sure that the park operates successfully, by the standards of the best public parks? We plan to have a webcam (so you can see if the park is crowded and if that mugger dog is on site at the moment), and to have volunteers on hand as often as possible, to educated the uninitiated and to help resolve conflict (this last could be a tall order). The park is located near the entrance to a large public park and campground, and is very visible from the road. Some of our board members, like some of the population, object to having a primarily rule-based approach, though our signage will copy rules from another, more urban-ish dog park.

From another mefi question earlier today, this is what prompted me to ask:
"b) you will not take the dog to a dog park and will instead do leashed walks (because you understand only some breeds are socialized to like stranger dogs and you will keep your dog safe from having an interaction that will cause the dog to become scared and aggressive)--"
posted by mmiddle to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Separate areas for small and large dogs
posted by Jacqueline at 4:15 AM on January 14 [14 favorites]

Make it very clear that this is a place for dogs to play, not a place for kids to play with dogs.

Signage that you need to have a dog with you to enter (makes it feel safer for people (esp women) there alone)

Volunteer days once or twice a year to help clean / rake / resurface -- giving locals a stake in the run and a chance to build community will keep it running better.

Take a toy / leave a toy bins
posted by Mchelly at 5:37 AM on January 14 [11 favorites]

Regular volunteer cleanup days - I believe my local dog park does monthly ones.

I've heard of dog park with a few fenced individual runs, for dogs that want to play fetch or whatever but aren't good at sharing. It would be such a dream for my dog-selective dog to have access to something like that (we can't do dog parks). Some folks take their dog to the dog park despite knowing that they have iffy behavior (which I vehemently disagree with, but it happens); perhaps offering them a more appropriate set of infrastructure will cut down on those dogs hanging out in the main run.

Definitely a separate small dog area (with all the amenities, like water taps, please!)

If it's a large park, separate it into "zones" so that people aren't getting super far from their dogs.
posted by mosst at 5:45 AM on January 14 [7 favorites]

Make it very clear where the boundaries of the dog park end and the public park begin. Include strong signage about needing to use leashes beyond X point.
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:52 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]

Decide on a maximum dog occupancy. And this is highly personal, but I would try to ban, or otherwise schedule specific times for, dog breed meet-ups. We tried to go to our closest (small) dog park once and there were about 20 huskies there in some sort of obviously coordinated meetup. It was chaotic and poorly supervised and we never took our dogs back to that dog park.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 6:43 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

Oh yes please to a gated area for individual reactive dogs. I'd love a place to run mine. He'd love other dogs to play with, but is to silly to figure that out. So we keep him leashed, and away.

Also, a new dog park near me is having issues as its close to housing, and the residents are complaining about the barking. So you said rural, but maybe having a good look around to see who might be impacted.

I'd donate to a park that I used, so perhaps a sign with how to make donations would be great.
posted by Ftsqg at 7:02 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]

Garbage bin for the poop bags, maybe a poop bag dispenser for those who forget theirs (it happens to the best of us)
posted by fso at 7:15 AM on January 14 [10 favorites]

Free dog poop bags and well-placed trash cans.

Something on the “rules” sign asking owners to supervise their dogs at play. I’ve seen dog park interactions really go wrong when owners view the park as a place to drop their dog off while they read a book or play on their phone.
posted by sallybrown at 7:26 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]

For the love of god, think carefully before putting in anything that seems like a picnic bench. Our local one has a couple and we've seen people eating lunch there. Once our dog also saw them, jumped up on their table, and shared their lunch before we could stop her.

And thirding the idea of separate space for individual dogs! Our pup is more selective about other dogs these days so we no longer go to dog parks but she'd love something like that.

Also, be sure there's access to water, or at least big bowls that everyone is encouraged to help keep full.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:41 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

Re: the trash cans - I'd look deeply into the frequency of refuse removal. We live across from a city park with a new(ish) dog park section, and they didn't increase the frequency of trash pickup. I put in regular requests for special visits to do so, when it's been a busy park weekend and the cans are overflowing. I'm not sure how your refuse removal works, since it's rural (ours is just part of the regular DPW schedule, not the weekly residential trash pickup) but it's one of my main issues.

Think about a potential water source. If there are existing water fountains for humans in the area that you can tap a line into - because one of the other big issues we hear people complain about is folks letting their dogs drink out of the "human" fountain.

Another thing to look at - does the grade of the space you want to use allow for ample drainage? No one wants a muddy dog park. Ours gets bad because drainage is an issue and then they close for a few months in the spring to let the grass regrow. If you're looking to attract tourists/travel, having to close a part of the year would suck.
posted by librarianamy at 7:47 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]

Separate little dog (under 20 lbs) and big dog (all others) areas. (separate via chain link fence).

Plenty of water fountains/taps/bowls (with running water, even in winter).

Plenty of seating, because a lot of people who don't have the mobility to walk their dog on a leash come to dog parks to exercise their dogs.

Picnic tables are good hiding places for dogs if they're being chased around, so while food is a bad idea in a dog park, tables aren't necessarily. Anything that makes the landscape more interesting -- trees, rocks, etc -- are fun for dogs and help break up any kind of "pack" behavior or chasing. They also make the park much more pleasant to be in for the humans.

Free poop bag dispensers and lots of (closed) trash cans. (Our poop bags and dispensers are sponsored by nearby doggie daycares).

We have a rule that you have to keep your dog in sight at all times, and there are also signs asking you to put your phone away and pay attention to your dog. I think those two rules/suggestions make a big difference.

Our best dog park has a lot of trees and plants, which helps with erosion and makes for a more interesting environment for the dogs -- it's not just an enclosed empty lot.

The drainage in that park also flows directly into the creek right next to the park. That's not great for the creek in some ways, because dog poop has e. coli and other issues with it, but it does ensure good drainage and it does mean that people use and pay a lot of attention to the creek (so it gets cleaned up a lot and there aren't a lot of other pollutants or trash getting dumped there).

I personally am not a fan of toys in dog parks, because the dogs get possessive and weird about them. But to each their own. I also maybe say that because my dog loves playing with other dogs, but toys not so much.

We do recently have people doing agility training in a dog park nearby, and the dogs all LOVE that and want to join the class. The equipment also lives in the park and so the dogs get used to playing with it on their own. It's adorable. I'm not sure how much actual training gets done, but it's fun for them.
posted by rue72 at 8:00 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

Be prepared for the fact that a lot of visitors won't be accustomed to cleaning up after their dogs, and will in fact have no concept of why anyone would do so. Your goal of attracting vacationers and locals who may not be familiar with dog parks is laudable, but folks surrounded by acres of land (or even just big surburban lawns) sometimes don't have much experience with shared spaces and it might not even occur to them to pick up the poo. Also many travelers won't feel any social pressure to keep the park clean since they might only be there once. See any highway rest stop 'pet relief area' as exhibit A.

So provide the tools to make it as easy as possible for people to clear up their dog waste, and perhaps think of non-condescending approaches to putting everyone in the frame of mind to use them, with a focus on the fact that this is a place where all visitors needs to do their part to maintain it.
posted by theory at 8:03 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

What a wonderful thing you have taken on! My local dog park has some really thoughtful features that make it a joy to visit:

Lots of seating for dog owners - this lets people relax and visit with other dog folks.

A double-entry system into the park. Basically we go through two sets of gates to enter. It’s great because it means that no sneaky doggos escape while we’re entering or leaving.

Water dishes/access to water is huge. We have water dishes lined up in one area and folks fill them as needed from a public spigot.

Extra dog bags are a big deal. We have a mailbox that has “take a bag, leave a bag” painted on the side. It definitely promotes a cleaner park.

I would agree that encouraging toys seems like an iffy idea. Dogs can get weird about them and it’s not like they’re playing together with the toys. There’s also a high likelihood of them being spread around the park, leaving a mess. (Of course, this is different from owners who like to bring a ball or frisbee for their dog to fetch.)

Think about shade. Where can dogs and humans go to get out of the sun on hot days? Someone brought a kiddie pool to our park and the dogs absolutely love lounging in it.

Will there be any lighting? This is one thing that disappoints me about my park: there is very little light once the sun goes down. On cold winter days, this sometimes means that the park isn’t usable after 5:00 p.m.

Best of luck to you! Your park will be amazing!
posted by WaspEnterprises at 8:21 AM on January 14 [7 favorites]

My small city has a pretty great dog park culture, featuring four dog runs that are run as a partnership between a non-profit and the city. Each park has two areas, one for large and one for small dogs. No separate sections are there for individual dogs, although a private dog boarding place has five acres that they rent out for that, so I know people appreciate having that sort of space set aside. The non-profit raised the money to build water fountains for people and for dogs at two of the locations, although since our weather gets cold they are closed roughly a third of the year. Volunteers have opted to chain big metal bowls to the fence so people can keep them full. Volunteers also do occasional big "cleaning parties" where they go in and pick up stray poop, check fences, etc.

They also recently put sidewalks in, which has been a big benefit for people I see who use the space with powered wheelchairs. There are also multiple park benches. There are occasionally drainage issues, leading to huskies and labs sitting in mud puddles with beatific expressions, but they will regrade and reseed trouble spots to keep that down to a minimum.

There are also places where people can bring extra poop bags and put them out for other people, and trash cans that are emptied regularly by the city parks folks so that there are rarely overflowing bins with poop bags falling out of them.

There is also a lot of clear signage about expectations: dogs must have their rabies vaccination, any dog that the city has designated as dangerous is not permitted, you have to pick up after your dog, leashes on outside the park (this one is not followed very well, admittedly).

I did just witness a dog that was aggressive get taken away by animal control, so you may want to figure out a similar situation will get handled in your space.
posted by PussKillian at 8:23 AM on January 14

I'm not a dog or a dog park person BUT one thing that hasn't been suggested yet is something the City of Toronto does with its off-leach dog parks: commercial dog walkers are forbidden from using them. I'm sure other responders can explain why this might be the case, and you might want to think about it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:23 AM on January 14

Also, seconding Mchelly's point about making it clear this is a park for dogs to play rather than a place for kids to play with dogs. To extend on that, consider age restrictions (for people) - we've had people bring in infants in those ... baby bucket with a handle things ... and just set them down on benches, and other people bring in toddlers - just seems so incredibly unsafe in an area where dogs are running and playing and could easily knock a child over. Alternatively, I guess have a separate "family" area people can be redirected to with their dogs and small kids?

And yes to agility equipment! Our dog loved the a-frame at one park we took her to so much. It was adorable watching her play king of the mountain. If water is available, kiddie pools tend to be a hit in the summer as well.

Also, just want to say that I love your idea of a webcam to see how crowded the park is - it can be disappointing to bring your dog to a park only to find there's nobody else out there (or to find there are too many dogs to feel comfortable about).
posted by DingoMutt at 8:24 AM on January 14

Consider the way access works, and try to prevent a situation where it would be convenient for the general public to cut through the dog park en route to somewhere else. We had an ongoing problem with a dog park which was right next to a play park, and people would constantly walk through with small children (sometimes on push bikes!!), often leaving the gates open etc.
posted by Zumbador at 8:34 AM on January 14

Lots of good ideas here! My pup and I were regulars at our local Dog Park for many years - as in, 2-3 hours a day every day. We had such a core group of dedicated dog owners at my DP that we actually formed a nonprofit so that we could raise money for improvements that the City was unable/unwilling to do.

- We bought an enormous mailbox (one of these) and installed it at human-head-height in a tree. Inside was a doggie emergency first aid kit, copies of DP rules, info about what the Friends of the DP were working on, etc. We also had info for how to surrender dogs to the humane society because there were situations in which people would drop their dogs off at the park and leave (with the intent of not coming back). We figured that the dog's owners thought it would be a safe place to abandon dogs because a good dog owner would come by and help out. :^(

- We paid for some motion-detecting lights because in Minnesota it gets dark at about 4:30 in the winter.

- We were working on having a water spigot installed when I moved away. We had a few water jugs with DOG PARK written on them that lived at the park (and a ton of water bowls of many sizes). If we got there and there was no water, we could take the jugs to the nearby river to fill up.

- We built a doggie agility course (not an official one, but one with boards and old tires just for fun) but if we could go back in time I wouldn't have done it. The dogs were mildly interested in it (much more interested in playing with the other dogs) but it really seemed to attract little kids. When I moved away there was discussion of taking it down because we didn't want a kid to fall off and get hurt.

- We had a quarterly Poopapalooza in which we'd get huge garbage bags and divide into groups. Whoever picked up the most poop (weighed by a fish scale) won a prize. I don't remember what it was...probably a box of doggie biscuits donated by a DP person.

- the thing that kept the neglectful owners and reactive dogs out: the dog park regulars were really vigilant about keeping it a fun, safe place. We had a NO intact males and NO females in heat rule, that helped. But when a troublemaking dog/owner were there I felt like I could talk to them and be backed up by the other DP regulars. I suppose there was a bit of a Dog Park Self-Appointed Law Enforcement thing going on but we took a lot of pride in our park and did a lot to make it fun and safe.
posted by Gray Duck at 8:38 AM on January 14 [6 favorites]

Garbage bin for the poop bags, maybe a poop bag dispenser for those who forget theirs (it happens to the best of us)

Yes, and it would be best if there was not just one can, especially if this is going to be a larger park. Sad to say, if someone has to walk all the way across the park to drop off their poo bag that's going to keep some bad apples from cleaning up after their dog at all.
posted by zeusianfog at 10:00 AM on January 14

I really like the idea of a double-entry gate, particularly if you are near a major roadway and/or want to attract travelers. I've seen so many sad stories on social media (and here) about pets bolting or otherwise getting lost while traveling with their families.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 12:16 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]

Yes to double-entry gate AND make the fence 6' high. I will never forget when my knucklehead ran into the park, looked at me once, promptly bounded over the 4' high fence (FOUR FEET????) and ran onto a highway.

She's fine, but people were telling me that it happened almost every day. Get a tall fence. Maybe even the kind that has a foot that leans in so dogs can't jump it.

I'm so happy to see people doing things like this!!
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:40 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]

The dog park we use doubles as stormwater surge basin. So there is a berm all the way around that has a compacted gravel path but the grassy centre is depressed about 12'. There are trees planted on the sides of the berm but not so thickly that one has trouble keeping track of their dog. It's just one big open field.

Things I like:

City water is available. It gets pretty hot here for a quarter of the year and water is in high demand. The water hydrant is mounted on a 8x10' concrete pad surrounded by smooth gravel about 3/4" in size. This seems to completely prevent things from getting muddy.

The outer edge of the berm next to the path is fenced with chain link. The fence is only 3-4' high but I've never seen a dog jump it; maybe the outside isn't exciting enough? What I like is the city crew that does maintenance and garbage removal ties poop bags on the fence about every 20 feet. Makes it easy to comply with the pickup rules. This is in addition to a free dispenser at the entrance. I don't know how much the bags cost but it is probably cheaper than paying someone to scoop a poop.

Double Entry Gate. This is such a must I'm surprised to hear that not all enclosed parks have them. Anyways, definitely put a double gate entry. Also unless there is some compelling reason to have more than one entry I just wouldn't. Completely solves the transiting issue.

There are standard park benches every hundred or so feet along the path.

One thing I don't like is there isn't a set of stairs down to the depressed area. The slope is fairly gentle but it can still be a challenge when the grass is wet or in the winter with the snow.
posted by Mitheral at 9:17 PM on January 14

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