If your OLA is located on a new site or built within an established park, size is the single most important and probably the most contentious criterion to be decided. Let it be suggested as a rule of thumb that the bigger the better. An off-leash area is similar to a computer: the day you buy one is the day it becomes outdated. With a smaller area (especially if it is the only facility servicing a wide area), you will quickly find that supply can’t match demand. Indianapolis experienced this when permits to their first Canine Companion Zone were sold out almost the day of the opening. They are now looking to open a second, larger canine zone in another park.
Some suggest that the auxiliary (i.e., neighborhood) off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres. Even though we agree with the larger end of this range, in many urban areas this is probably unattainable. For smaller parks or for the ones that can’t be easily “divided” into specific usage zones, a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available to dog use in the early mornings and early evening hours. If this is your only option, as it is for many New Yorkers, try to obtain a liberal frame of permitted times (perhaps before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), factoring in seasonal day length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports very successful results with a time-share program that is operational in all of its parks.
We disagree with policy papers that suggest that OLAs be restricted to a maximum of five acres. The rationale behind this limit is that a larger area would make monitoring more difficult. But there is abundant and convincing long-term evidence to ameliorate these concerns, coming from larger dog-friendly parks such as Pt. Isabel in Richmond, California (with nearly a million visits a year), Fort Funston in San Francisco, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas, and others. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog recreational activities, like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space where some of us can spend private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. Also, the larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.
Another bone of possible contention is fencing. In parks close to traffic, fencing—with consideration for aesthetic concerns —might be necessary. In these cases, double entry, self-closing gates are recommended. Unless your dogs are into high hurtling, a four-foot fence should be adequate. Chain-link (vinyl-coated) fencing is probably the least expensive but some parks, as in Sacramento and Dupont Circle in DC, are looking into other alternatives like wrought iron (beware of the pointy pickets). Arlington Dogs’ Judy Green adds that fencing must extend to the ground and that if using chain-link, the bottom must be crimped to avoid injuries to the dogs. In larger multi-use parks, especially in areas away from traffic which have terrain features that provide natural demarcations and barriers away from other park uses, fencing might not be necessary. There are often serious disagreements over fencing. It can be the single most expensive item in the construction of OLAs, so securing the funding can hamper the progress of projects, especially if communities balk about paying for it. Sometimes dog people are asked to contribute to this expense. Putting aside the fairness question—are tennis players asked to pay for the fences on public courts?—some of you have turned into amazingly effective fund-raisers, getting financial assistance from local businesses. Pet stores and pet food companies should be eager to contribute and perhaps even sponsor your park. In some cases, fencing can also help allay fears of liability.