How to Create a Dog Park in Your Neighborhood

An examination of the nation’s dog parks and gives tips on how to create a park of one’s own
By Claudia Kawczynska, November 2008, Updated June 2021

In the beginning there was a dog, a ball and a piece of green…

Many of you already come together at your favorite de facto dog park daily to do what every responsible dog person knows must be done—exercise and socialize your dogs. We all strive to give our dogs a happy life and enough stimulation so they poop out (in more ways than one). But strictly enforced leash laws can really zap the fun out of this innocent activity, turning many of us into lawbreakers. We aren’t deterred, because we care more about our dog’s recreational needs than we do about our legal standing, but we are forced into playing hide-and-seek games with the authorities.

Many of us no doubt feel like Kevin Kraus of Washington DC: “I have a very well-trained dog so I leave him off leash and he responds and stays with me and it isn’t a problem, but I still wound up getting fined. I said this is ridiculous. I know that I’m breaking the law, but at the same time I feel as if this offense is not a problem.” Kevin’s experience is being repeated in parks everywhere, and so dog people are organizing and forming activist groups, as he did in his Dupont Circle park. No matter how vigilant the authorities are—in New York they’re equipping citizen-snitches with cell phones!—dog people are united in their desire to get a piece of green!

Off-leash recreation is turning into one of the biggest imbroglios in park management, and one of the most politically challenging and hotly debated items for local legislators. It’s inspiring participatory democracy at its finest, with off-leash advocates, many political novices, pulling out all stops to earn the right to exercise their dogs—and it also has local politicians running for the hills. According to the March issue of Governing, most of these fights have much in common, and it cautions local legislators that “if you thought that taxes were the only issue that made voters’ blood boil, then you haven’t had a dog issue appear on the public agenda lately.”


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Such off-leash activism gave birth to The Bark, so we thought it was time that we respond to your requests and offer tips on how to get and keep a dog park. The information we present here has been gleaned through discussions with off-leash advocates and park administrators, from studies and reports, and from working in the trenches in this struggle for the past five years. This report will run in two issues of The Bark, beginning with the following discussion on “taking up the banner”—including development of political action plans and position papers. In the next Bark we’ll focus on the nuts and bolts of the issues involved with implementation; topics will include planning, designing and operating dog areas. Both segments will be supplemented with accounts by experts that you can use to guide your efforts. But we won’t stop there. Dog parks have been, and will continue to be, an ongoing feature in The Bark—we would love to hear your frontline stories so we can learn from your examples too.

So What’s the Beef?
De facto off-leash parks have been around for a long time, and in the past, this has worked out fairly well. What schoolyard doesn’t have its doggie regulars playing fetch long after the kids’ soccer game has ended? But lately a lot has changed. Now it seems that “being anti-dog is the socially permissible prejudice,” says Pam Ferguson, who spearheaded the first dog park campaign in Berkeley in 1985. In her insightful Washington Post article, Mary Battiata points out that leash laws were mostly enacted in the 1980s by “local governments with no intention of strict enforcement. Rather, there still was a tacit understanding that if dog owners wanted to run their dogs off leash, they would do so in out-of-the-way places where they wouldn’t disturb anyone.”

But in the ’90s we are going through one of those horrid “paradigm shifts,” with a number of factors affecting how far the shift will go. There is increased competition for scarce green space from a number of other public park users—inline skaters, picnickers and exercise-driven adults wanting to play “ball” sports. There are more people living in “planned” developments (many in the Sun Belt states or in exurbs) that didn’t put dog parks into their master plans. And, as Battiata suggests, urban areas’ “in-fill development” is taking away green space, and “the ‘echo’ baby boomers are filling parks with strollers and toddlers once again,” setting up the overplayed “children vs. dog” conflict. There is criticism leveled in NYC that people are favoring bigger dogs (Labs are the most popular dog today, while in the ’50s, it was the Cocker Spaniel). Add to all this a society that is becoming increasingly less tolerant in general, with road rage spilling over into dogs-in-park rage, and your de facto dog park can vanish in the wink of an eye.

There is truth in the adage “don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Perhaps this isn’t the time for you to venture into the dog park minefield—you might want to hang back to see what happens. But leash law enforcement is usually complaint-driven, so it only takes one irate citizen’s angry complaining and that schoolyard-doubling-as-dog-park can come to a screeching halt—as dog lovers in Sacramento recently found out. In Berkeley a scat-obsessed citizen with a penchant for high drama dials 911 to report dogs in “his” public park, pooping on “his” grass. This staunch dog-hater gave a slide presentation at a Task Force meeting showing offending poop piles with little white flags he’d stuck in them, neatly dated, to demonstrate how uncivil dog people can be … umph. But as unreasonable as a 911 call for dogs pooping may be, this man’s complaints were answered by swift police action and he managed to make life miserable for that park’s dog people.

And the Wheel Keeps Turning, Turning, Turning …
Changing public policy and amending laws isn’t all that easy. It can take an enormous amount of grassroots effort, aided by familiarity with governmental procedures and the tenacity of 10,000 Terriers (definitely the most important factor of all). Leaders in the movement have a lot in common with dogs: their staying power, ability to focus and determination would make any Border Collie proud. Attendance at dull and often frustrating committee meetings and public hearings, letter writing, petitioning, and buoying up flagging volunteers might consume years of your time, with an attendant loss of sanity. But if you think you are ready for the challenge, and promise to keep your good sense of humor, here is some information that might help you along.

A Doggedly Determined Political Action Plan
Knowing the political process, how it’s played and who the players are is half the battle. Do the very necessary and Kafkaesque task of learning how your local government operates. Most dog park issues involve municipal or county governments, requiring modifications in ordinances. Chart your way around city hall. City (county) clerk offices or their online equivalent are good places to start. They’ll provide lists of legislators. Set up meetings with your legislators to scope out their feelings.

Identify the procedures needed to get your proposal heard by the legislative body. Battiata describes the scene well: “Finally, late into the evening, only one item remained on the docket. And in the well-established tradition of local government, it was the really controversial one.” That final one will undoubtedly be yours, so rest assured, you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about legislative procedures.

If policy advisory commissions are involved, find out which ones recommend policy regarding parks, when they meet and, most importantly, how to get your item on an agenda. Policy can be shaped by a chairperson controlling agendas, so this might be more difficult than you think.

In Berkeley, a process-rich city, attendance at numerous monthly meetings of four separate commissions, plus a Dog Task Force, was needed before we even got close to our first city council hearing. Note that most public meetings reserve time for public comment unrelated to any specific item; take advantage of these opportunities to introduce your proposal. Go as often as you can—hounding them isn’t a bad idea; sometimes just showing an interest in their dull proceedings and becoming a familiar, (and hopefully friendly) face, can earn you bonus points.

Determine what public agencies are concerned with parks and dogs: Parks, Recreation, Animal Services, Public Safety and Health departments. Meet with the managers to assess their positions—offer to help with some park maintenance, like organizing a poop clean-up campaign. Let them know that you are there not just to ask for something but to provide a service as well. In New York City, individual directors of parks, such as Central and Riverside Parks in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, can act quite independently. So Jane Cameron’s FIDO (Fellowship for the Interest of Dogs and their Owners) group in Brooklyn found the director of Prospect Park more responsive to their demands and thankful for the assistance they were proffering, whereas Jeff Zahn’s FLORAL (Friends and Lovers of Riverside Area Life) had their adopt-a-park space taken away from them by a director with a renovation plan that didn’t allow for their good stewardship to even be acknowledged. Go figure!

Civil servants can be your biggest enemies or best allies. Often it is up to them to support the legitimacy of your activity—and this might be key to your success. The Director of Portland, Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department, Charles Jordan, understood the off-leash issue to be a classic example of a land-use conflict: “Public lands belong to everyone, yet when there’s not enough for everyone to do what they want to do when they want to do it, we have a collision.” His department took the step of accepting the legitimacy of off-leash recreation and set up a task force to find suitable sites. John Etter, of Parks Planning in Eugene, Oregon, is so enthusiastic that he provides a supportive letter to those interested in dog parks. And Dee Tilson, Park Supervisor at Point Isabel— a 21-acre off-leash park in Richmond, California, established in 1975 and receiving an estimated 900,000 dog visitors per year—is also happy to send her supportive letter.

Consult with any neighborhood groups that might have an interest in your proposal, especially targeting any and all homeowners and businesses abutting a park that might be under your consideration. Kevin Kraus, the philosophy professor who spearheads the dog group in the Dupont Circle, stresses the importance of consensus building. He recognizes his group’s need of first making peace with their neighborhood council so they can achieve the goal of making a de facto off-leash area part of the neighborhood’s Adopt-a-Park strategy. He adds, “We’re optimistic, we are working with really good people in the neighborhood.” Kevin teaches a program in Creative Problem Solving—skills sure to be well tested in his new dog park activism.

Do not ignore the concerns of the community, as they will be addressed some time during the public process. Better still, become a player yourself. Get appointed to or volunteer to be on a civic committee, neighborhood council or a task force. Working from within can do wonders.

Task Force
A model that has been used with varying degrees of success by some cities, including Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego and Berkeley, is a task force appointed to study and make recommendations on off-leash recreation. A task force centralizes the “process,” but it needs to represent your constituency as well, with its public meetings conducted openly with schedules properly noticed, and in locations accessible to public participation. Since it is the park users who should determine local park needs, a task force shouldn’t just be packed with city hall pols and bureaucrats.

It is extremely important that if such an issue-specific committee is convened, your group is well-represented at its hearings—let it be known that this is your issue! A recent decision to “de-list” some San Francisco parks for off-leash activity came about when opponents outnumbered proponents at the final meeting of that city’s dog task force. Speaking as someone who serves on a commission, it can’t be stressed enough that attendance at these meetings does matter—packing meeting rooms with supporters can sway votes even more than logical and heartfelt arguments. This is especially true with this issue.

It might be difficult to convince dog people to attend numerous meetings—especially if its takes four years, which is about average for most of the successful dog park resolutions—but remind them that the game is theirs to lose. (What can be the most frustrating is that even after you convince people to go to these meetings, to write their letters, to do e-mailing, the effort might only be good for one particular time frame, or one meeting. The next time you go before a committee, its members might have changed and you have to repeat the whole show all over again. Sisyphus and his old rock look like a piece of cake to off-leash advocates.)

Gathering Support
If the dog park idea starts with just a handful of supporters, you’ll need to increase your numbers—few politicians are brave enough to turn their backs on a large number of earnest voters (especially in election years). Unfortunately, volunteers often only come flocking to the cause when citations increase or the status in a park changes. The spark that caused the formation of Seattle’s COLA (Citizens for Off-leash Areas, one of the better acronyms; their opponents are called UNCOLA) was an increase in city-wide citations in one year from 300 to 1,200. SFDOG got its push when dogs were banned from Ocean Beach, an area within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, because of unsubstantiated claims that dogs were disturbing Snowy Plover nestings.

But you can also be proactive, like Mary Anne Morrison-Roberts, a founder of Santa Barbara’s Dog PAC (Dog Political Action Committee), who recommends making handbills and brochures and posting them at de facto dog parks, vet offices, pet stores and dog-friendly businesses around town. She also suggests that memberships not be subject to dues; she says it is “more important to get the people enrolled—those wishing to donate, will.” Their organization, a registered 501(c)4 nonprofit performing political action, has 1,000 members and has made remarkable strides in a very short time.

Dr. Paul, a veterinarian from Coral Springs, Florida, set up a table at his community’s annual fair, getting people to sign petitions in support of a dog park. And Bash Dibra, a NYC dog trainer and author, has organized events, including doggie parades, to benefit Van Cortlandt Park, persuading celebrities (whose dogs he trains) to attend and contribute support —impressing both park administrators and park users. His fundraising skills and willingness to work toward consensus led to the building of a Canine Court, a state-of-the-art dog area in that Bronx park. Bash told us that “Henry Stern (Mayor Giulaini’s Park Commissioner) loves it: I bring celebrities in and they are amazed at the response. You have to show that you have a commitment, and that members of the community participate, so we do these annual fundraisers in the parks.”

You should also look for support from veterinarians and humane organizations. Most vets, especially those with behaviorist training, understand the benefits of off-leash exercise to the health and well-being of their patients. Solicit letters of endorsement from them. Dr. Paul, inspired by what he saw during a conference in Boston, came back home and started one of his state’s first dog parks. He tells of seeing “ten or fifteen dog owners having a blast in the Boston Commons, their dogs chasing each other, the people socializing and at the other corner of the park, nobody was talking to anyone else, nobody was doing anything together.” But it took him four years to get the park up and running—with no encouragement from the other vets in his area.

Dr. Lynette Hart, director of UC Davis’ Center for Animals in Society, addressed many key points in a letter of support for a Sacramento dog park initiative: “Dogs especially facilitate friendly interactions among people, as they so actively solicit play and offer greetings … establishing a dog park creates a community center of activity where friends and neighbors gather to relax … users of dog parks are self-policing so as to maintain the appealing environment .… Creating dog parks is a method for more efficiently educating dog owners and facilitating them in assuring excellent behavior with their dogs.”

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Tufts University veterinarian and behaviorist, answering a question about a dog’s need for aerobic exercise, stated,“Walking them on a leash is not sufficient exercise. It is not that they die if they walk on a leash, and it’s not that a human being dies in solitary confinement either. It is just that it is not optimal for their physiological and psychological well-being.” He adds, “It is important for a dog to be provided with natural outlets—to be able to run and exercise and chase things and do as a dog was bred to do.” There is plenty of expert testimony—we hope you will be able to get the vets in your community to write letters as well.

Humane organizations and animal shelters should be willing to endorse your efforts as well. As a nationally respected leader on all issues relating to companion animals, San Francisco’s SPCA has been a staunch proponent of off-leash recreation. This is evidenced by an excerpt from their statement to the Advisory Dogs Off-Leash Task Force: “We feel that because of the growth of our City’s population, in human and canine terms, now is the time to accommodate for the future of our dog-friendly parks … Off-leash recreation is not only an essential part of how many people care for their pets—it is a way to give a little something back to the animals who give us all so much.” The SF/SPCA cares so much about this issue that they have even offered to contribute financially to the development of a state-of-the-art dog park in San Francisco.

Running with a Pack
Again, stressing the power in numbers, you might want to consider the formation of an umbrella group composed of groups with a common vision. Seattle’s COLA has led the way in this manner, and has been recognized as the official sponsoring group, entering into a formal agreement with the city to perform various stewardship functions in their off-leash areas. New York City’s dog people have recently banded together to form NYCDOG (“nice dog”) in response to that city’s recent draconian crackdown against off-leash recreation. According to Dr. Terry Fonville, “it is hoped that this will give us strength and unified voice … as well as helping all the diverse users of the City’s parks find common ground … our outreach abilities will be employed to better educate dog owners regarding responsible use of the parks.” We certainly wish our doggie friends in the Big Apple a lot of luck. There are many similar umbrella groups across the country, such as Judy Green’s ArlingtonDogs in Virginia, SFDOG and DogPAC, SB, all of which understand the importance of unity.

Putting on the Dog: Position Papers and Presentations
A position paper serves a variety of purposes. It will help to synthesize your thoughts and prepare you for the public speaking circuit, and it will be the central part of your proposal (which should also include case studies and supporting affidavits). A shorter version can be used as a handy and ever-necessary “fact sheet” (important for policymakers with short attention spans), and as your press release (get to them before your opponents do). A volunteer with a nose for Internet research can really help out here. There is a lot of good source material available online to get you started. An excellent example has been produced by SFDOG, “Managing Off Leash Recreation in Urban Parks,” found on their web site. They analyze topics such as the benefits of dog ownership, the importance of socialization and exercise, the cycle of violation and enforcement, park guidelines, community organizing and outreach activities etc., with maps illustrating their findings. Another thorough analysis was prepared by students from the University of Southern California, “The Case for Space: An Analysis of Off-Leash Recreation Areas in Los Angeles,” written for Freeplay, the off-leash group in Venice, California.

One of the most remarkable finds on the web is a must-read report from Australia, “Public Open Space and Dogs: a Design and Management Guide for Open Space Professionals and Local Government.” Reading this might convince you to pack up your dogs and move down under, where there seems to be a very enlightened view of the place of dogs in society, including in parks—think “multi-use” and not separate little dog runs. As evidence of their forward thinking, this is what the report says about dogs as a threat to wildlife: “Another argument for restricting dogs’ access to public open space is that their presence (behavior and smell) frightens away native wildlife … the most direct failing is that the scientific evidence to support this view is far from sufficient to constitute the basis of a management prescription. The second failing relates to the fact that dogs are not the only agents that may frighten wildlife. Humans, especially children and teenagers, park maintenance staff and their machinery are likely to have as much impact as dogs.” Makes you want to burst out in a verse of Waltzing Matilda!

For some visual inspiration, there are two excellent videos, Your Dog Off Leash, prepared by Dog PAC, SB, and the Point Isabel Video Project. Both demonstrate the benefits of off-leash recreation and provide convincing proof of its efficacy—especially useful for people who have little first-hand familiarity with the joys of dog parks. They are invaluable resources.

Taking a clue from Seattle’s Jan Drago, focus on points that demonstrate that “this is not a dog issue, it is a people issue.” Even though we know we are doing this for our dogs, few policymakers care about them. Discuss the benefits of pet ownership in general, citing examples from both physical and mental health literature. New studies are cropping up every day. Your vet might be able to help with these citations. You can find many excellent reports of this kind from the Delta Society catalog. In our increasingly fragmented and isolated society, any positive opportunity to bring people together into a common space with a common interest is a rarity that should be rewarded and cherished.

Recognizing this community (“constituency”) is a concept most policymakers will appreciate. Your group’s willingness to become a dog park sponsoring group, or to take on stewardship responsibilities, such as self-policing, maintenance chores (ranging from poop clean-ups to wood chip disbursements), fundraising, assistance in shelter adoptions, increasing dog licensing compliance, etc., should not be lost on policymakers. Make sure to include such positive stakeholder assistance in your press release. There will never be enough officers to prevent people from walking leash-free dogs in parks, no matter what New York’s Mayor Giuliani feels—so better to make an alliance with dog people that can take on some of these responsibilities and help to educate others as well.

Discuss the importance for the elderly with dogs to be able to use parks for leashless recreation. Not only does it provide a social avenue, but for those with mobility problems it can be very difficult to walk, much less exercise, a dog on lead. Every local group probably has a dog park champion such as Ruth Wightman, of Alameda County, a “career-change” senior who went from retirement into the “field” of dog-park activism. She attends the bureaucrat’s meetings that other advocates can’t because their work schedules conflict with middle-of-the-day meeting schedules. She’s there keeping careful watch, and she’s having a blast with her new dog as well.

Dog owners are taxpayers, paying taxes into a system that provides parks to the public, yet most of us rarely use these greenspaces for anything but walking our dogs. If you can, get some budget numbers from your recreation department to show the public resources that are being spent on sports. Or make graphs or maps showing how much park area is devoted to a single-use activity, like baseball diamonds and tennis courts—contrast that with how much is set aside for your favorite recreational pursuit.

Public Health Benefits
There are great societal benefits, including enhancement of public safety, in allowing off-leash activity in parks. Dogs provide a safety component in the parks themselves; in fact, many marginal open spaces have been reclaimed for use as safe public space because dog people have “reclaimed and civilized” the space for the whole community. This happened in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, where an ad hoc dog park drove away the drug dealers and other less desirable users from a park that the rest of the community had abandoned. But, as is often the case, after the dog people transformed this park space, others, such as parents with small children, were once again attracted to the park and tried to dislodge the dog people. In many instances, the majority of dog park people are women, many of whom would not venture out to some areas of urban parks without a “guardian” dog.

We all know that the more a dog is socialized, the less likely it will be to develop aggressive behavioral patterns. Exercise not only tires a dog out, but “also generates ample supplies of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a mood-stabilizing and calming effect on personality,” as Dr. Nick Dodman describes in his book Dogs Behaving Badly. He also adds that you should exercise your dog “preferably first thing in the morning for an effect that lasts all day.” A more relaxed dog also leads to one less inclined to bark the day away, proclaiming her lonely state to the neighbors.

Finally, Jane Dirks, in a paper presented at the 1996 conference of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, had the following to say about the public benefits of dog parks: “For ultimately, the Dog People find in the Dog Park a sanctuary, a space for healing. Dog People exult in watching their animals run, feeling that an hour or two’s romp with their dogs is essential to health, theirs and their dogs’, and makes up for a week of sedentary working hours. Dog People roam the trails of lower Frick Park [in Pittsburgh], alone or in groups, peeling away the stress and cognitions of the human world, cleansing themselves in the world of nature through the heedless antics of a happy dog.” Now, isn’t that well worth fighting for?

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