John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Let one of America’s foremost designers of hound spaces lay out what works (and doesn’t).
Dog parks where pups scamper off-leash have long been the fastest-growing segment of urban parks in the U.S., surging in number by 89 percent since 2007. As cities continue to stake out four-legged-friendly zones, how can we make sure hounds are getting the best experiences and not, say, surviving chaotic mosh pits of mud and snapping teeth?
Leslie Lowe is a landscape architect who helped design the Hugh Rogers Wag Park in Whitefish, Montana, dubbed one of the country’s 10 best dog parks in 2015 by USA Today. Her park includes a wealth of dog-pleasing features, including climbing rocks, tunnels, asphalt trails, a pond for splashing, shade trees, and an agility course. She’s now plotting out another in Fernie, British Columbia, and writing a book about dog-park design. Lowe, who has spent decades working with hunting dogs, believes that a good dog park replicates the experience of frolicking in the wide-open, ever-stimulating wild, making dogs feel at ease by placing them in a setting that feels naturally familiar.
“A lot of architects don’t really understand dogs. They’re designing parks as, ‘Well, let’s just put a fence around it,’” she says. “But when my dogs are in natural settings, they’re leaping over logs, they’re climbing on rocks, they’re going under logs. There’s a variety of different sensations you’re giving them, rather than just a flat, grass park with nothing in it.”
After getting a small Brittany pup to settle down at her roost in northern Montana, Lowe chatted with CityLab about making dog parks excellent.
1. Give dogs room to roam. It’s not the easiest thing to do in often-cramped cities, but it’s crucial so problems don’t develop right off the bat.
“If you have a tiny, 1-acre dog park with narrow entries, then everybody congregates at the gate,” Lowe says. “So a shy dog or a dog that comes in and is not comfortable, all of a sudden I’ve got a dog dynamic I can’t really control, and that's when the trigger reactions happen. A dog that can't deal with all of the stimulus of other dogs, other dogs sniffing them, might turn around and its reaction then is to bite or cause a problem.”
But when they’re allowed to enter a broader terrain—ideally after first being taken off leash in a separated bullpen, because having leashed and unleashed dogs together can breed conflict—things will be more copacetic. “If I have a wide-open space and can get people and dogs into the park, it takes the pressure off the entry,” Lowe says.
2. Set aside smaller spaces, too. Some dogs benefit from a fenced-off area away from the general crowd. Smaller pooches might feel intimidated by mondo-sized dogs, for example; there’s even a phenomenon called “predatory drift” where a larger breed with normally peaceful behavior (in this anecdote, German Shepherds) will suddenly attack a littler dog as if it were prey. Parks will often designate these wee preserves as “small-dog areas,” though that’s not always accurate—and who wants to support canine sizeism, anyway?
“I like to call it a ‘special-use area.’ Because sometimes you have shy dogs or older dogs that are uncomfortable in the big park, and are quite happier in the smaller area where they're less pressured,” says Lowe. (These littler cells can also be utilized for obedience classes.)
3. Give them a challenge. “I think it’s important not only to give dogs exercise, but also to exercise their brains,” Lowe says. In terms of topography, Lowe likes to give dog parks a bunch of surfaces—level fields, gentle hills, clumps of rocks that pups can jump on. “I think dogs are like people—they like variety,” she says. Lowe installed an obstacle course in the Whitefish park with boulders and tunnels for dogs to explore.
4. Keep the water flowing. Water is a must-have, both for drinking and for dogs who love to plunge into it like a pro wrestler diving off the top ropes. Water fountains that serve both dogs and their masters are a good solution. Swimmable pools provide great exercise for older dogs that can’t run well, but should be regularly tested so the pups don’t contract anything nasty lapping them. They perhaps should also be gated for owners who don’t want their dogs spreading wetness and mud back home at the end of the day. To the challenge point, water elements can also keep dogs sharp. Lowe’s Fernie park will have an interactive water feature where dogs can reach out their paws to trigger jets of water from the ground.
5. Rip out dangerous plants, and bolster helpful ones. Utmost care should be put into eliminating toxic plants like the sago palm, which can cause liver failure and death in dogs that eat it. Trees, on the other hand, are a near-necessity, as they provide shade for dogs and people on hot days as well as a nice aesthetic boost. “For sure, dogs really do enjoy trees,” Lowe says, though “you might have to protect the trunk of the tree from always getting urine on it.” She’s not joking: Regular showers of canine pee can harm trees, causing “ammonium toxicity” and making their bark weak and vulnerable to disease and burrowing insects.
Grass would seem like a good choice for a park’s surface, as it’s pleasant, soft on the paws, and retains all the earthy and disgusting smells dogs love to hoover. But after rains and the stress of repeated trampling and digging, not to mention the chemical scorching of urine, grass parks can resemble muddy hellholes with sloshing craters. For that reason many parks (especially those in cities) go with hard surfaces or an AstroTurf-like fake grass that’s hosed down with soap and bleach. Lowe likes to put an asphalt trail in a park so people can walk in a loop without eroding the ground, and also to better serve folks with disabilities and families with strollers.
6. Engage the human visitors. Keeping the place clean is up to the biped guests. “That takes good signage and perhaps a volunteer group that patrols the park and picks up waste when they see it,” Lowe says. Decent parks should provide waste stations and baggies, though it’s a matter of human responsibility to use them properly.
Catering to humans can also help the park get built in the first place. Throw in some benches and lighting, and you get not just a classy dog park, but a draw for every dog-owning person in the region—and they might throw in some money to pay for it. “I think Whitefish raised $200,000 in donations to build that park, and that was donations from all across the U.S. and Canada,” Lowe says. “When people travel and they see these really interesting parks, they make that a destination.” The Whitefish park attracts 50,000 users a year, she says; that's in a community of roughly 6,600.