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Since 1990, pet ownership in the United States has increased to such an extent that over 65% of US households now own pets.  Of these households, 38% include one or more dogs. While it was once true that the majority of pet owning households were found in suburban or rural areas, the fact is that in the past two decades urbanization has taken over much of what were once suburban and rural areas meaning that urban areas have undergone an increase in pet population as well.

Research has shown that having a dog as a companion improves one’s health, mood and mental acuity by providing comfort and care, constancy in a world of change, and physical and mental stimulation.  Urban planners and managers have, and must continue to recognize this “quality of life” factor in the development and growth plans for their communities.  This is why spaces and facilities have been set aside throughout the country to allow people and their canine companions to interact and play together, thus promoting the physical and mental wellbeing of both.

While many people use the term “dog park” to mean any place where dogs can play off-leash, a true dog park is one which has been designed and provides amenities to make it clear that dogs are not just permitted but openly invited.  A true dog park should provide a controlled environment in which to exercise and play off-leash and should include some, if not all, of the following features:

  • fully enclosed fencing
  • double-gated entries and exits
  • a pond for swimming
  • hydrants or taps for watering dogs
  • restrooms for humans and tools and supplies for picking up and disposing of animal waste
  • benches
  • shaded areas
  • access for the disabled
  • lighting if the park provides for after dark use

Fees may or may not be charged and proof of license and current shots may also be required.  The park should be safe for dogs and people with no dangerous terrain, wildlife or plant life and be located a safe distance from traffic.

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The American Dog Trainers Network lists the following as some of the benefits of enclosed dog parks/dog runs:

  • Puppies and adult dogs have a safer place to play.
  • Enclosed play areas prevent off-leash dogs from infringing on the rights of other community residents and park users including joggers, small children and those afraid of dogs.
  • Well exercised dogs are happier, healthier dogs and make better “neighbors” within the community than under-exercised dogs (i.e. less likely to create a nuisance, bark excessively, destroy property, etc.).
  • Dogs bring people together and create a greater sense of “community” by breaking down social and economic barriers and in many cases creating lasting friendships between those who might never otherwise have met.

So far you may have noted that the word “play” has been used in association with dog parks and the benefits of such off-leash play have been noted.  There is no question that off-leash socialization time with other dogs is beneficial and constitutes a “canine playgroup” of sorts.  But is play what it is all about?

There are many dog owners and groups who believe that dog parks and runs should not be considered as “play time only” by your dog but rather serve as a time for you to provide your dog with some formal work or training – not formal in the sense one would find in an obedience class — requiring the dog to do as it is instructed by you.  For example, after letting your dog off its leash to do its own thing, you should periodically call your dog out of his group play to “come” to you – and make sure he does.  The purpose of this is to keep your dog listening for your voice even while playing with other dogs and to keep him interacting with you even in the midst of numerous other distractions. Keeping the dog with you and having him “heel” to you for a time is also an important lesson that should be reinforced during off-leash situations. Both can prove invaluable if it becomes necessary to extricate your dog from a difficult situation.

Training should start as soon as you acquire your canine companion and continue throughout the dog’s adult life.  What type of training you feel is necessary and how often it needs reinforcing is up to you; but the important point is that the training — the “work” — comes first at the dog park followed by periods of play between you and your dog and your dog and his canine buddies.

Play spaces or training fields?  However you view the purpose of dog parks, they serve to provide a social setting in which people can gather together in friendship to delight in the entertaining and interesting interactions of their dogs.

Feature Photo Copyright: eldadcarin / 123RF Stock Photo

This article was written by Joan D. Reynolds (1950-2014). Joan served the City of Lynn, Massachusetts as a librarian at the Lynn Public Library for 30 years, the last 13 years as chief librarian. Illness forced her into an early retirement.

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