Should you pay for a dog park? 3 pros and 3 cons.

Members-only dog parks have some definite advantages over public parks, but there are definite drawbacks as well. Here's how to decide if a membership is right for you (and your pooch).

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    In this August 15 file photo, Hercules, a 3-year-old European Boxer, drinks from a water fountain at the grand opening of the Paducah Dog Park at Stuart Nelson Park in Paducah, Ky. Members-only dog parks have plenty of perks, but rules, fees, and inconvenient hours can go with it.
    Allie Douglass/ThePaducah Sun/AP/File
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I have an extremely friendly 58-pound puppy. Calling her rambunctious would be an understatement. In fact, my vet recommended she get at least one hour of outdoor play every day. Any less and she runs circles in my house – slamming into furniture and knocking stuff over.

So needless to say, I spend a good chunk of my week at my local dog park. Last year, I visited six different free dog parks, trying to find the best one. This year, I signed up for a members-only dog park. The membership costs $43 a year. So is it worth paying for something I could get free? Yes and no.

Why memberships are worth it…

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1. Size

The members-only dog park I visit in New Orleans (cutely called City Bark) is massive – 4.6 acres that include benches, shaded areas, and rinse centers. There is even a wading area and a series of misting fire hydrants. (My pup passionately hates the fire hydrants – but they work great on my legs.)

While some free parks I’ve visited are large, the amenities end with an overgrown lawn. When you pay for a dog park membership, you get different, dedicated areas and a larger general play space.

2. Cleanliness

At most free dog parks, it’s up to the owners to pick up after their pets. Four of the free parks I visited were clean, and I saw most owners walking around with those black waste bags. But the other two were a maze of dog waste with several broken bits of toys and trash in the play area.

When you pay for a monthly or annual dog park membership, a portion of that money goes toward a cleaning crew. While it’s still up to you to pick up after your own dog, the park workers clean the play area and take care of the grass.

3. Safety

Two of the six free dog parks I visited had safety issues. In one, there was only one entrance gate. That posed a huge safety issue for dogs already in the play area – when a new owner walked in, the dogs could have easily run out and into the street. At the second dog park, I noticed a few holes in the far fence where dogs could dig free.

By comparison, the members-only park has high vinyl-coated safety gates and separate entrances. Both prevent dogs from escaping and getting hurt or injured. The park is also well lit and has an employee on site, so it’s safer for owners too.

Then again, there are good reasons not to pay a membership fee…

1. Rules

All six of the free dog parks I visited were more casual when it came to rules and restrictions. As long as you picked up after your pet and avoided dog fights, you were free to play with your dog in peace. The members-only park has a lot more rules. Here’s a sample:

  • No outside toys
  • No eating or drinking at the dog park
  • Limit three dogs per household
  • Rough-housing will not be tolerated

While rules are usually good to have, if you or your dog breaks one of them, you’re asked to leave for 24 hours on your first offense. That’s time you’re paying for but can’t use.

2. Limited hours

Only one of the six free dog parks in my area closes at a certain time – and that’s at 9 p.m. The other parks allowed you to come as early or as late as you wanted, which was great for me, since I prefer to go in the late evening when it’s cooler outside.

Since members-only dog parks usually have staff or volunteers on site, they limit their hours. The dog park may also close for several hours a week for maintenance or cleaning.

3. Crowds

Your results may vary with this one, but all of the free dog parks I visited had regulars. Every time I went, I never saw more than 10 people, and they were usually the same people. The dogs and the owners got to know each other, and there was plenty of room to play.

Members-only dog parks (especially ones in urban areas) attract a lot of people. They’re more well-known than the smaller, free dog parks – and they get crowded. I’ve seen more than 40 people at my members-only dog park during the weekends. Crowds aren’t as much fun for your dog. There’s less room to play and a higher chance of a fight breaking out.

5 tips for choosing a dog park…

Ultimately, paying for a members-only dog park is only worth it if you and your pup enjoy your time there. To find out all the dog parks, both free and members-only, in your area, do a search for “Dog Park (your city).” And before you commit to an annual membership, try the park out with these steps:

1. Visit the park without your pup and inspect the area. If you don’t like the park, or see several dogs you don’t think your dog will get along with, move on to the next option.

2. Ask for a day or weekend pass. Many members-only parks will give you a free (or cheap) day or weekend pass before you fully commit.

3. Plan an off-peak visit. Take your dog to the park during an off-peak time – like early mornings or late evenings during the week. Introducing your dog to a new area can be overwhelming when it’s crowded. Let them acclimate to the space first.

4. Visit again during peak times. Take your dog back during a busier time (like weekends) to see if she gets along well with the other dogs. Most dogs warm up to the idea of having playmates, but some don’t like to be around a lot of other animals. It’s all trial and error.

5. Ask for a discount before you buy. If you decide to pay for a dog park, ask if there are discount programs. For example, my members-only dog park offers a discount for those who are members of different service or charitable groups in my city.

Angela Colley is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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