Plenty of tails are wagging at dog parks

More than 700 parks now dot the American landscape. Debates over leash laws and proper use of open spaces just come with the territory.

Doggie drinking fountains, pooper scoopers, and tennis balls are just a few of the canine friendly amenities at off-leash dog recreational areas across the United States.

These "bark parks" allow man's best friend to roam freely, creating stomping grounds for dogs as urbanization cuts into grassy play areas and leash laws limit dog freedoms. The decision to build a dog park often pits pro-leash and anti-leash citizens against one another in a face-off about pet owners' rights. But dog lovers insist that a pack recreational setting is essential for an emotionally balanced and friendly Fido.

The US now has more than 700 off-leash recreational areas, says Claudia Kawczynska, editor of Bark magazine. And the demand for play areas is great: The Humane Society of the United States estimates that Americans own about 73 million dogs.

The dog park's origin is "fuzzy," Ms. Kawczynska says, but it is generally traced to the opening of the Ohlone Dog Park in Berkeley, Calif., in 1979. Kawczynska says efforts to implement leash laws in the 1970s had one major flaw: The rule often applied to parks. During the 1980s, she says, many city officials realized dogs needed areas to roam freely.

Efforts to start dog parks usually involve a dedicated group of local residents committed to raising funds and working with city officials to establish proper regulations. As a Berkeley city commissioner in the 1990s, Kawczynska witnessed a six-year battle over plans for a dog park. Opponents argued about dog waste (one angry resident even flagged and photographed all dog waste in the park), increased traffic, and noise. But the park has functioned near-seamlessly since it opened, she says. "It wasn't pleasant, but we finally won," she says in a phone interview.

Residents of Blue Springs, Mo., began the dog park process in 2005 with the founding of Responsible Unleashed Fun for Fido (RUFF). Dena McLean, co-chair of RUFF, says the city provided the land, fencing, and parking lot while RUFF members organized two major fundraisers for extra "treats," such as a dog drinking fountain and a wash-down area to clean dirty dogs after playing.

Ms. McLean says she's excited to bring her border collies, Rocky and Jessie, to the park, which is expected to open this month once the new grass is ready for hyper hounds. The nearest dog park at the moment is a 30-minute drive, she says. "It's just like kids at recess," McLean says by phone. "When they come home after being at the dog park, they're tired. They're not going to be as inclined to chew on the furniture and all that. It just makes them better pets." Most dog parks in the United States are built on public property but partially funded with private donations. In the case of Blue Springs Dog Park, McLean says all liability rests with the city.

Some cities have de­­bated whether to charge access fees. In 2002, officials in Mecklenburg County, N.C., implemented a structured dog park system that required $35 "pooch passes" for entry to any of the county's four dog parks. But after studying the success of unrestricted-access dog parks in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; New York; and other cities, the county announced a plan June 6 to phase out the passes in favor of free, unrestricted entry for all dogs.

"We have discovered in our scrutiny of [dog parks] that the liability is greater if you have controls, because then people assume that everything is safe, and they expect you to make sure it's safe, and they're not as diligent as they should be in watching out for their dogs," says Michael Cozza, public information coordinator for Mecklenburg County.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about dogs running freely on public property – especially in unfenced areas.

New York City park officials long maintained an unofficial off-leash policy, permitting owners to let their dogs roam free in unfenced city parks. But after years of bites and harassment claims involving unleashed dogs, the Juniper Park Civic Association (JPCA), a New York City advocacy group, sued the city in 2006 in an attempt to enforce the leash law. As a result of the suit, the city's parks department recently established official off-leash zones with set hours. That's still not sufficient for Robert Holden, president of the JPCA. "Do you feel comfortable in a pack of Rottweilers and pit bulls?" Mr. Holden asks. "When I walk past an unleashed pit bull, I'm frightened."

Indeed, in the eyes of some city park administrators, all breeds are not equal.

The Metro-Nashville (Tenn.) Parks and Recreation Department decided in 2006 to ban pit bulls from the city's three fenced dog parks. The ban was implemented after "extensive" research on pit bull attacks and documented evidence of local pit bull issues, says Bob Parrish, superintendent of natural resources for the department. Although many question its accuracy, a Center for Disease Control study released in 2000 labeled pit-bull types and Rottweilers as the breeds most responsible for human deaths. "The vast majority support the policy, understand it, and have thanked us for it," says Mr. Parrish.

But dog expert Turrid Rugaas disagrees with policies barring pit bulls or other breeds deemed aggressive. Ms. Rugaas, who authored a book on canine body language, says the US should look to Finland for a dog park system model. Helsinki alone has about 250 dog parks, and she says the city's dogs are calm and social because of their frequent park exposure.

Owners should refrain from yelling, throwing toys, or invading another dog's space, Rugaas says. In addition, parks should be landscaped, with a variety of trees and bushes where dogs can hide if they feel uncomfortable. "Dogs are very good at avoiding conflicts," she says. "It's only when we mess it up that [fights] happen."

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Dog park advice from the Dog Whisperer

Dog trainer Cesar Millan, who also hosts the "Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic Channel, offers dog owners these ideas before a visit to a dog park:

•Release some energy by going on a walk before taking dogs to a dog park.

•Dogs have three states of emotional reactions: "fight, flight, and avoidance." You should always have control over their reactions and make sure your dog is submissive to your wishes. A submissive dog is not nervous or tense, but rather in a deep state of relaxation and appears to be "happy-go-lucky."

•Never bring a dog in heat to a park.

•If a confrontation occurs, remain calm and confident. If you become afraid of what just happened, the dog's fear only becomes stronger.

•Choose which dogs you want your dog to play with. Guide your dogs to positive situations.

•Generally stay away from unfenced leash-free zones. Fences at least give some level of relaxation.

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